Our Top Secret Hideout: D'Mongo's Speakeasy
Mongo's tellin' another story. Sippin' dark liquor and coke poured over a few ice cubes. This one's about him jumping out of the window and getting shot in the left hand. He pulls his paw up and points to that fleshy part between the thumb and index finger. But he freezes right before he continues the story. He's looks up from his hand with a smile across his face.
"Naw, just kidding," he says, laughing, then slaps his middle-aged hands together and starts on another tale. This tall drink of water is a story teller… with a conscience it seems like.
They are all entertaining to say the least. No matter how outrageous his stories may seem, you love them. And you kind of keep coming back for more – asking about something else, hoping he has something else to say. Maybe he plays to his audience, maybe he's a ham, but that seems to be Larry Mongo. And he's taken that and put it right into his own little hangout. He's created an extension of himself for the public, and, like his stories, people keep coming back for more.
Café D'Mongo's Speakeasy is his joint. It's a little French looking café on Griswold, nestled on a street with Detroit's only synagogue and a strip club. It's on the last block of Griswold, before Clifford Street cuts it off and turns it into an alley.
If for some reason – other than the synagogue or the strip club – you found yourself on this bit of concrete road you'd probably never notice Mongo's creation smashed between a Jewish place of worship and an empty parking structure.
However, pass that same part of Griswold on a Friday night you'd definitely know it was there. Through its front windows, like a fish bowl, you'd see the place teeming with suburban Detroit transplants, billionaires (so he says), and a dozen handfuls of local rag-tags plucked from all over the city.
In fact, on Fridays, you don't even need to walk past the café to know it exists. See, Mongo likes to broadcast his acts playing inside of the bar to the street outside, via an outdoor speaker. So, a stroll in the vicinity will allow you to hear – richocheting off the strip club and landing right at your feet – the strumming of a traditional country/western gem or someone putting Outkast's "Hey Ya" to the twang of an acoustic guitar. That's Mongo for ya. It's just another way he can tell a story, even while he's in the back with his sous-chef Sleepy – a 79-year-old family friend – whippin' up some hand-me-down recipes like collard-greens, black-eyed peas, and potato salad for his patrons.
The walls are tacked with instruments and photos of musicians ranging from the great and troubled jazz-trumpeter Chet Baker to the deceased rapper Proof. The tables are placed with Xeroxed pictures of gangsters in little plastic frames. There are records spray-painted gold bolted to the counter top of the bar and wedged underneath the glass of the tables. A piano sits off to one side. Each chair looks like Napoleon used to own it. And in the corner, his most prized possession, a working Edison phonograph from 1910.
But Mongo doesn't keep the doors to his treasure chest wide open all the time. This mixture of neighborhood bar, novelty museum, and French café – which serves soul food – is only visible on Fridays.
"I get tired," Mongo says. "Seven days is too much." Though, on those Fridays, he emerges from the back, in between food orders, always wearing a bright red chef's hat and looking to mingle with his new gang of mostly 20-something white kids, shaking hands, and saying hi to just about everyone.
"People don't want to eat at Seldom Blues and pay $8 for a pint," says Sarah Kubik, a bartender at D'Mongo's. "People want to experience something real, a place like home, a place to relax. There is a lot of love put into (D'Mongo's) – and that includes the potato salad. This is a big town, but small, too. There is a lot of local roots here now, a lot of local support."
D'Mongo's, which is named after Mongo's wife, Diane – really isn't a speakeasy. It's all legit. But it has kind of been an unintentional secret. Mongo doesn't advertise. He doesn't promote. He doesn't flaunt. He just opens up on Fridays, everyone has a good time, and he closes.
And now, when that day rolls around, the place turns into a can of sardines – packed, not stinky. But how did this happen?
"Word of mouth," he says, smiling – always smiling. "A good word of mouth is the best advertising you can have. A friend tells a friend tells a friend. It's the gold standard, really."
The gold standard started bringing the kids out in droves – or at least semi-droves – around November of last year.
"Sarah is to blame," Mongo says, with a laugh. "Just kidding, Sarah is to thank."
He says she showed up one day during the summer, loved the place, and told him he had to stay open longer. At that time D'Mongo's was only open until 10:30, and his only customers were his friends. As the story goes, which Mongo loves to tell, he told Kubik, "If you want me to stay open longer, you make the drinks." She jumped behind the bar and a new era on Griswold began.
But there is a little history before that for Mongo's place on Griswold.
D'Mongo's started back in the late '80s. Mongo bought the old Sero's Restaurant in 1987 and turned it into a jazz club. He says it got pretty dangerous in the area, so much so that he closed it to the public in '93, keeping it open for private parties only. Then, around the early 2000s, he started to notice that the parking lot across the street was always full during downtown events. And, as 2005 rolled around, knowing that the Super Bowl was about to blow into town, he thought he'd try to capitalize on the hoards of people and this new found interest in Detroit. A week before he opened the doors for the football frenzy, a car drove through the windows of D'Mongo's and destroyed almost everything in the front of the Café.
"When the guy got out, he was so drunk he thought he was at home," Mongo says. "You gotta laugh at that."
The crash put the speakeasy on the backburner. But Mongo began to notice a change in Detroit that began with the parking lot and then moved throughout the city.
"I started seeing white women pushing babies in buggies and running through the streets," he says. "You know, ten years ago if you saw a white woman running you'd start screamin' 'SOMEONE'S GOT A GUN!' Then call the cops." He's out of his seat at this point, flailing his arms and pretending to dial the phone. "Safety factors started to change, I knew things were changing."
Last June, Mongo finally took the lock off the place and reopened it to the public. It took a while for the speakeasy to catch on, but it did. It caught on so much that Kubik is trying to convince Mongo to open up on Saturdays, too.
"She's talking about opening up at the end of April," he says. "I say the beginning of May, I like the sound of that better, sounds further away."
What might not be as far away as once thought is a blossoming, growing, vibrant Detroit. D'Mongo's and its crew may be a good sign of things to come. And Mongo sees something else – more than just a full parking lot for baseball games and white women pushing their babies down Griswold.
"The kids that are coming here would have got along perfect with the people from 300 years ago," he says. "Three-hundred years ago a bunch of people left Europe, came to Detroit when it was a wilderness. They could have easily went back to Europe but the stayed here. They made homes. These kids are the same people, they are urban pioneers. They are not gonna let go of Detroit."
He kills his watered down drink and places it in the sink.
"I'm rollin' with a different gang than I used to," he says. "And I couldn't be happier."photos:Mongo celebrating a birthday Yodeler extraordinaire, Jenny KnaggsA quaint interior offers a cozy atmosphere Winged-back chairs spot Cafe D'Mongo's dining roomThe drinks flow while patrons minglePhotographs by Marvin Shaouni
Marvin Shaouni is the managing photographer for Metromode & Model D.