| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter Vimeo RSS Feed

Features

In praise of the chill bar

Ron Gurdjian has tended bar at Tom's Tavern since "the late 70s"

Is the chill bar a dying breed? 
 
It's been endangered in trendier burroughs for a while now, but I thought it'd be safe forever in Detroit. But news broke this week that St. Cece's in Corktown is closing its doors next month, and it makes me wonder if the chill bar is at risk in some broader, more fundamental way. Is the (genuinely exciting!) emergence of a bonafide restaurant "scene" in the city changing the way we gather, drink, and hang out?
 
I hope not. St. Cece's was a quintessentially chill bar. It had a fireplace and a patio. It hosted great pop-ups and served great food, but you never felt weird taking up a table just to drink. Meeting up with some friends from out of town that you haven't seen in a few years? Getting together with some coworkers for a happy hour quasi-meeting? Need a place to sit and have a bloody while your partner does some record shopping across the street at Hello? Summer night and a patio just sounds right? Gathering a big group for a low-key birthday, farewell, or congrats party? Cece's was always a good option. Because it was pretty chill.
 
What makes a chill bar? Let's set some ground rules. At a chill bar:
 
You can (almost) always get a seat.
 
You can reliably have a conversation without shouting. The bar rarely hosts programs that make it hard to hear, such as karaoke nights, shows, trivia, or networking events. A chill bar does not have an internet jukebox or a loud TV. (Some may consider any bar with a TV less than chill, but I have had lots of pretty chill nights at bars where the TV is muted. Sometimes casually watching a game or an old movie with the sound off is a chill thing to do!)
 
You can read a book, or otherwise be by yourself, in a chill bar. Strangers at a chill bar will not give you side-eye or hassle you with bothersome questions if you choose to read or sit quietly by your lonesome. (This can be tougher if you're a woman, of course, but the best chill bars are welcoming environments for people of all gender identities, races, and creeds.)
 
A chill bar is not necessarily a dive bar, though dive bars can be chill. Neighborhood bars are often chill bars, unless it's the kind of neighborhood bar where you won't feel quite at home if you're not from the neighborhood, or if it's a chatty neighborhood bar, where folks want to know your whole story and your politics (or want you to know their whole story and their politics, which is worse).
 
Chill bars should be bars before they are restaurants, though I don't think we can be too strict about this rule locally, lest we rule out a bunch of otherwise pretty chill bars (The Bronx, Honest Johns, Mudgie's, and Woodbridge Pub among them). But restaurants, especially on the weekends, are rarely chill places to be if you're not there to eat. It's hard to chill with a book and a beer when everyone around you is eating.
 
But there's something more essential about a chill bar: it's confident in what it offers you. It does not try too hard to win your favor, impress you with gimmicks or gastronomic tricks, be the most beautiful new spot on the block. Sure, you want a nice whiskey selection and a few craft beers to choose from (served from clean taps, please). Decent cocktails and some popcorn or mixed nuts? Even better. But a bar that is what it is, and lets you come as you are, is a special and vital place—a place you can go to get out of your damn house and out of your shell, into the world, into a conversation, into a good book and a glass of wine. A non-threatening, unpretentious, loose, warm, simple, and relaxingly-lit place.
 
This world needs all kinds of bars: date night bars, exceptional cocktail bars, sports bars, tiki bars, karaoke bars, live music bars, really loud and rowdy bars, restaurants with good happy hours (not the same as a chill bar, though a happy hour can be chill!), trendy bars where it's hard to get a table but worth the wait. But we need chill bars, too—and we need more than we have now. (Are there more chill bars out there than I realize? Do I not get out enough? "Maybe they're in neighborhoods where I don't go," as Jonathan Richman sings in "Parties in the U.S.A.," a lament about the decline of the house party.)
 
Here's hoping that their decline is only temporary—that the resurgence of the no-frills neighborhood spot is the next big thing in the bar scene. Until then, here are a few of the chillest bars we can think of. 
 
Chill bars of Detroit: a non-authoritative list, in no particular order

Northern Lights Lounge
 
Yeah, this bar has live music almost every night, but it's so chill before 9 pm. Meet a friend for a quiet conversation and stay for the jazz (or Motown legend Dennis Coffey). You will probably still be able to hear your companion.
 
Motor City Wine
 
What could be more chill than grabbing a bottle of wine from the bar and sharing it with friends? (Don't worry if you don't know too much about wine—they'll be chill about it.) MCW does host frequent live jazz music and DJs, but it's rarely obtrusive, and the patio is chill as hell, even when it's crowded. And it has a firepit.
 
Bumbo's
 
Good cocktails starting at $6, a small pop-up menu on Wednesdays, and that's pretty much all there is to it—in other words, it's a consistently chill time. (Plus there's a bar dog.) It's only a couple of years old but feels like an old standby. Aspiring chill bars, take a page from the Bumbo's playbook.
 
Harbor House
 
A rare chill bar in the heart of downtown Detroit and a relaxed place to be even on game days. Occasional live jazz and blues music but nothing too crazy—not since they stopped hosting INSANE karaoke nights on the weekends, anyway.
 
Mudgie's
 
A restaurant first, but the restaurant's recent expansion granted the city a great and chill place to have a glass of good wine or a good cocktail served by good people. Recommended: ordering an entire jar of pickles to share with your friends.
 
Kresge Court
 
Is this cheating? The recently redesigned Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts is not really a bar. It is, however, a cozy and aesthetically pleasing place to have a glass of wine on a Friday night, when the DIA is open until 10 pm.  
 
Abick's
 
One of the city's oldest bars—it's been in the same family for over a hundred years—is also the prototype of a chill neighborhood bar, with twinkly lights, a big oafy bar dog, and a welcoming family-like atmosphere for both visitors and neighborhood regulars. Hot tip: Abick's also has a cigar room in what used to be a barbershop. Your call whether cigars are a chill experience or not.
 
[Want to read more about Detroit's classic bars? Check out this article that tries to determine what is Detroit's oldest bar, or this one on Detroit's longest serving bartenders, and another about Abick's itself.]

Craft Work
 
A classy joint that's also chill for dining as well as drinking; the bar is separate from the restaurant, which is a plus. A caveat: the happy hour is famously great, but it can also get crowded, so the bar might be at its chillest later in the evening.
 
The Bronx Bar
 
It can get loud late at night, and the jukebox selections can be jarring, but 80% of the time, the Bronx is a reliable neighborhood spot with no fuss and great burgers. In the daytime they sometimes play classical music, which is extra chill.
 
Tom's Tavern
 
When there is live music in this one-room shanty bar, you will not be able to get anything close to a seat. When there is not live music, it may not be open. Or you may literally be the only person in the bar, and Ron might serve you some whiskey in a wine glass and make you a Spanish tortilla. Tom's Tavern is a roll of the dice, but on an off night, there are few more chill places to be.
 
Temple Bar
 
This divey bar with Art Deco details is pretty chill when it's not hosting Haute to Death. And I guess things could change with this bar's chillness during the 2017-2018 hockey season. We'll keep an eye on things, but you might want to enjoy the chill vibes here while you still can. 

Did we forget your favorite chill bar? Let us know which ones we've overlooked so we can meet more friends for chill drinks this winter. 
 

Read more articles by Amy Elliott Bragg.

Amy Elliott Bragg is director of content for Model D's parent company, Issue Media Group. She blogs about pre-automotive history in metro Detroit at The Night Train. Follow her on Twitter @thenighttrain.
Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts