While Detroit has now earned the notorious distinction of being the largest municipality ever to file bankruptcy in U.S. history, over the years its food, arts and cultural scene has been thriving. Business owners and community members have been hard at work trying to push for a rebirth of the Rust Belt town, and as a result has created a city filled with unique cultural and culinary treasures. Here are 10 great reasons to visit Detroit --and not to write it off:
1. Eastern Market
The largest historic public market in the U.S. is located just outside of downtown Detroit. While Eastern Market draws in crowds of over 45,000 every Saturday, there’s a lot more to this market than just the produce vendors and flower peddlers. Make sure you come to the market hungry, as it’s also home to Supino Pizzeria, a neo-Italian pizzeria that uses ingredients from local producers and has been featured on Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives”. “Mad Men's” Christina Hendricks (the sultry Joan Holloway), recently in town for a film shoot, also called it the best she has ever had. Next door to Supino is Russell Street Deli, a vegetarian and vegan-friendly breakfast and lunch spot where everything is made from scratch. Eastern Market is home to several locally-famous corned beef producers, and Russell Street is probably best known for its house-cooked Sy Ginsberg corned beef.
Lately Eastern Market's reach has gone beyond that of a local food hub. Art galleries, independent boutiques, maker spaces, and old-fashioned letterpress shops (two of them) have been springing up in the market over the last few years. Check out Inner State Gallery, which has been spearheading a public mural movement throughout Detroit and are currently focused on Eastern Market, their new home. Be sure to also check out the Red Bull House of Art, Signal-Return, Salt & Cedar, and Detroit Mercantile Co.
Detroit is big on its by-the-bootstraps innovation, and nowhere is that more evident than in Corktown—one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods. Without any kind of corporate investment, Corktown has managed to transform itself from an area people once merely drove through to get to the old Tigers Stadium to a destination unto itself. Slows BAR BQ has been an anchor business on Michigan Avenue, and co-owner Phil Cooley has received quite a bit of press for this game-changing barbecue and craft beer bar – which helped spur further development along the corridor, including pre-Prohibition-themed craft cocktail bar Sugar House and artisan hipster coffee joint Astro Coffee. But he’s won kudos also for his work in launching Ponyride, a collaborative workspace providing affordable office and studio space to socially-conscious entrepreneurs and artists who all have the good of the greater Detroit community in mind. While you're at Ponyride, get a pour-over from Anthology Coffee, a local roaster that uses exquisitely sourced beans and serves probably the best cup of coffee in Michigan.
Detroit is a sports town through and through. Comerica Park, the home of the Detroit Tigers since 2000, is an open-air ballpark located right smack-dab in the center of downtown, and has been praised by ESPN for its outstanding architecture, comfort, and amenities – not the least of which is the new craft beer stand, serving 26 Michigan-made beers (10 on draft and another 16 by the bottle). Next to Comerica Park is Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. The team might not be a big winner but the renewed emphasis on local products certainly is--check out the new Slows, Russell Street Deli, and Corridor Sausage stands.
The Detroit City Football Club, formed in 2012 (not to be confused with the Detroit City Futbol League, the co-ed amateur neighborhoods league), is a minor league soccer team that plays in the National Premier Soccer League's Midwest Great Lakes Conference. They finished their 2013 regular season undefeated; catch a game in May or June at Cass Technical High School for one of the most raucous, quintessential Detroit experiences you can hope to have.
Sports fans can also catch the Chevrolet Detroit Belle Isle Grand Prix on Detroit's Frederick Law Olmsted-designed urban island park, and the APBA Gold Cup races on the Detroit River. The organizers behind the enthusiastic X Games Detroit Bid (ESPN ultimately chose Austin to host the 2014-16 games) have also announced that they're "#notdoneyet," and will be organizing their own X Games-style event (in partnership with major corporate players).
Detroit's educational, medical, and cultural center is Midtown, where the city's top museums, universities, and world-renowned hospitals are located. While development has been in the works here for decades, major investment has been made in recent years and the efforts of Midtown Detroit, Inc., the nonprofit development organization, have been paying off in dividends – the housing market here is the hottest in the city, developers are making major investments, and even the recent opening of the brand-new Whole Foods Market drew major national attention.
Because of the density in Midtown, unmatched anywhere else in the city, there's a lot of ground to cover. Start with coffee and locally-made pastries at Great Lakes Coffee Roasting Company, aka "the Institute for Advanced Drinking," then stroll on over to see the Minoru Yamasaki reflecting pool on the Wayne State University campus. Also hit the Detroit Historical Museum, the Scarab Club, the Hellenic Museum of Michigan, and the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. Tour the late American artist Mike Kelley's final project the Mobile Homestead at the Museum of Contemporary Art. For the full cultural experience, attend a concert at the Max M. Fisher Music Center, home of Orchestra Hall and the renowned Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
5. Detroit Institute of Arts
Also located in Midtown but deserving its own spotlight, the Detroit Institute of Arts is the second largest municipally-owned museum in the country and has one of the biggest and most significant art collections in the U.S. While Detroit's bankruptcy filing has many concerned that the museum's assets will end up at auction, the likelihood of that is low at this point and there are certain pieces that cannot be sold, such as the Diego Rivera murals in Rivera Court. The sky-lit Kresge Court, which recently reopened as the Cultural Living Room after receiving a nearly $270,000 grant from ArtPlace is another gem that combines both traditional and modern design elements in a library-meets-café setting serving locally-sourced, seasonal bistro fare. The DIA's Inside|Out program is held late every summer and brings 80 reproductions of masterpieces from the DIA's collection to greater metro Detroit's streets and parks. Also check out Friday Night Live! every Friday, when the museum is open late and hosts workshops and accomplished musicians from all over the world, as well as the Detroit Film Theatre for all your esoteric indie and foreign film needs.
6. Detroit RiverWalk
The Detroit RiverWalk is a public-access walkway along the Detroit Riverfront that will eventually extend five-and-a-half miles from the Ambassador Bridge (an international border crossing) to the MacArthur Bridge (the access point for Belle Isle). Efforts have been underway since 2003 and large portions of the RiverWalk have been completed, including Rivard Plaza with a carousel, concessions stand, and bike rental shop. Visitors can take advantage of the Dequindre Cut Greenway, which connects the RiverWalk to Eastern Market, and Milliken State Park and Harbor, Michigan's only urban state park which will have its own education and recreation center next spring. There’s also plenty to see just walking along the RiverWalk itself, including multiple water fountains and outdoor art sculptures. Chene Park, also located directly on Detroit's Riverfront, is a stunning venue for an outdoor concert.
7. Campus Martius and Dan Gilbert's efforts rebuilding downtown
Detroit has its fair share of eccentric billionaires, but Dan Gilbert, chairman and founder of Quicken Loans Inc., is the one making the most positive waves. His company, Rock Ventures, has been steadily buying up numerous downtown buildings, from parking garages to historic skyscrapers (now over 30 in total), and making large investments in mixed use development and quality of life improvements for the nearly 10,000 people employed by his portfolio of companies who live and work downtown. Though Rock Ventures doesn't actually own Campus Martius Park, the urban green space located in the proverbial and physical center of downtown (on Detroit's origin point), employees of the company have been able to take advantage the parks features, such as the majestic Woodward Fountain, the Campus Martius "beach" and bar. It also has outdoor concerts and film screenings, the weekday food vendors, and a monthly weekend market through the summer. During the winter, Campus Martius displays a 60-foot Christmas tree towering over an ice skating rink. Fountain Bistro, located next to the fountain in the park, boasts some of the best seats in all of Detroit.
8. Fine dining
Detroit has many excellent restaurants and bars worth exploring. On the edge of Corktown in an area playfully referred to as "Corktown Shores," you will find Green Dot Stables, a gourmet slider and craft beer bar started by a couple who moved back home from San Diego to open their own restaurant. The spot is popular both with downtown workers and the hipster elite for its inventive selection of sliders (which includes a weekly "mystery meat") and vegan options as well as a respectable selection of local craft beer.
The polar opposite experience from Green Dot is the London Chop House, Detroit's iconic dining institution that was recently reborn under new ownership. The restaurant is an old world Americana seafood and steakhouse that caters to the local business elite. With an upstairs cigar bar and a wine cellar that includes multiple vintages from the Big Five French producers, the London Chop House is not a place to go if you're pinching pennies, but the experience of such a grand piece of Detroit's history reborn is worth the splurge.
But the best place to visit in Detroit is Michael Symon's Roast, located on the ground floor of the historic Westin Book Cadillac, renovated in 2008. Roast nails the dining experience on every single count, from the plush but unfussy atmosphere to the upscale yet approachable menu and attentive but unstuffy service. For the full Roast experience, order the roasted marrow and crispy veal sweetbreads. They also have an excellent weekday happy hour menu available up at the bar.
The pop-up concept is nothing new and is certainly not unique to Detroit, but the folks here have really taken the idea and run with it. The city has exhibited a particular mindfulness towards utilizing the pop-up concept to reactivate vacant storefronts and even whole neighborhoods.
The Detroit Economic Growth Corporation's Revolve program has been targeting specific underdeveloped neighborhoods since late last summer, using pop-ups to attract attention to parts of the city that go largely overlooked. A successful run in West Village last year has led to several new permanent businesses that will open later this year, a coffee shop pop-up called Café con Leche del Este led to some renewed interested in Lafayette Park, and next their sights are set on the historic Avenue of Fashion next. Other neighborhood organizations have taken a cue from them, most recently the Jefferson East Business Association, which held a series of pop-ups in newly-renovated retail spaces on East Jefferson to attract the attention of potential tenants and customers.
Permanent pop-up success stories include Hugh, Detroit's first true pop-up concept that now has its own storefront in Midtown, and Always Brewing Detroit, a coffee shop in the lesser-known Grandmont Rosedale neighborhood that started as a pop-up and was so successful the owner decided to pop up for good.
Detroit pop-ups have run the gamut from food businesses to art galleries to yoga classes to retail. One of the most exciting pop-ups that can be caught around town is Bailout Productions, a cocktail pop-up spearheaded by Roast alumni that has been a growing a presence at local events as well as producing some of their own. A recent dinner held in an art gallery featured the cocktail talents of Bailout with the culinary stylings of Guns + Butter, a pop-up concept overseen by Jean-Georges alum Craig Lieckfelt, attracted the attention of Anthony Bourdain, who showed up for dinner on a recent Detroit visit to film an episode of his Travel Channel “Parts Unknown”.
10. The Cass Corridor Design District
The title isn't quite yet official but it should be: a de facto arts and design district has emerged over the last year at the Cass and Canfield intersection in Midtown. Anchored by the Auburn Building, a new mixed-use development that opened late last year, the "design district" features design-forward housewares and gift stores: Hugh (the masculine) and Nora (the feminine). It also has a new design studio for Patrick Thompson Design (the firm that designed the DIA's Cultural Living Room), and the recently-relocated Butcher's Daughter gallery --a men's and women's clothing boutique featuring all independent Detroit designers called Detroit Human. Don’t miss the newly-opened Shinola flagship store, a Detroit-based luxury outfit which launched in 2012 to produce exquisite American-made watches, bicycles, leather and paper goods. The store is part boutique, part gallery, part museum -- and all outstanding.