Ever hear the joke about the Detroiter heading to Hamtramck for vacation? Although the punch line has to do with rarely getting a day off, it works because there is indeed an inherent exoticness to the pint-size city.
For starters, there’s the cuisine. A Las Vegas buffet has nothing on the around-the-world-swirl a diner can take along the streets of Hamtramck.
Reflecting its roots, Hamtramck is the place to go to experience Polish cuisine. Polish Village Café on Yemans east of Jos. Campau is tucked into a warm and cozy basement that transports you to a Krakovian rathskeller. Begin your meal with a draught of Polish beer — try the Okocim or Zywiec — and then dive into the fresh rye bread basket. Starters include creamy borscht (beet soup), tart dill pickle soup and creamy cucumbers doused in sour cream. For an entrée, try pierogies (dumplings stuffed with potato and/or cheese, meat, sauerkraut or even fruit), placki (potato pancakes), golabki (cabbage stuffed with meat and rice and topped with a rich tomato sauce—say gah-wump-key), city chicken (technically pork!), or the Friday perch dinner. Saturday nights feature jazz from pint-size maestro Jim Shaw and his trio. Other Polish restaurants worth checking out are Polonia (try the crepes) and Under the Eagle (featuring an innovative creamy mushroom sauce for its golabki).
If your tastes run a bit further east, don’t despair. Ghandi is one of a handful of Indian restaurants that have popped up in Hamtramck over the last decade as more immigrants from India began to call the city home. Ghandi stands out for its atmosphere, which is a bit more formal than other Indian options. The food is great and still affordable. Among several contenders for best Thai food in metro Detroit, Thai Bang Kok on Jos. Campau at Evaline ranks near or at the top of the list. The reasons for the raves include portion size, price, fresh ingredients and just good old-fashioned tastiness.
Although technically in Detroit, the original Buddy Pizzeria is just north of Hamtramck’s city limits on Conant at McNichols. Great atmosphere, awesome pizza. If you’ve only had Buddy’s at one of its suburban locations, you don’t know the half.
Finally, for those who like their food American, check out Three Star BarBQ on Jos. Campau north of Caniff, whose meaty ribs have been satisfying hard-core carnivores for years.
Art inside and out
Just like its food, Hamtramck’s cultural scene is varied and diverse. Start by taking a tour of Dennis Orlowski’s murals that paint the walls of Hamtramck with beauty and history. First stop: Pope Park on Jos. Campau at Belmont, where Orlowski’s mural commemorates Pope John Paul II’s legendary 1980 visit to town. Holbrook Café, on Holbrook at Gallagher, features a mural dedicated to Poland’s history, and the wall of People’s Services Community Center on Jos. Campau south of Holbrook features scenes illustrating Hamtramck’s history stretching back to the days of Native Americans.
A must-see is “Hamtramck Disneyland,” tucked away on the alley running behind Klinger north of Caniff. Folk artist and Ukranian immigrant Dmytro Szylak has created a truly spectacular sight in his backyard that practically exceeds the third dimension by harnessing the wind to create structural movement. Thrusting from the ground and roof like a playful relation to Los Angeles’ famed Watts Towers, Hamtramck Disneyland renders viewers utterly speechless.
Downtown doesn’t hold all the seats in Detroit’s theatre scene: Hamtown’s own plucky Planet Ant produces and stages original and classic plays, improv comedy, and even film festivals in a former coffeehouse storefront theater located on Caniff just east of I-75. At any given time, your evening’s entertainment might include Shakespeare served with a twist, a locally written noir caper, or a raucous troupe of stand-ups. The intimate space can hardly contain the talent within — let alone the delighted audience.
If you prefer your art on the walls, be sure to check out Pr1mary Space, a light-filled gallery located on Yemans just west of Jos. Campau. Displaying a new show almost once a month, Pr1mary Space specializes in illustrative art of the post-pop era.
Got some extra cash burning a hole in your wallet? Head to Jos. Campau, Hamtramck’s main shopping corridor, to put out the fire. Park your car in the free municipal lot at Jos. Campau and Holbrook and head north on foot. First stop: Henry the Hatter, a Metro Detroit institution. Whatever flavor your lid favors, Henry is sure to have your style and size. Just a few blocks north is the venerable Polish Art Center, which sells beautifully crated Polish ceramics, carved wooden plates and amber jewelry.
Continue to walk north and pop into a dollar store or two for some
fun trinkets. However, your true destination lies just a couple of blocks south of Caniff at Record Graveyard, where good music fails to rest in peace. Literally any genre of music that you have never even heard of has a space in this overwhelming receptacle of sound.
Cross Jos. Campau and for the final stop on your treasure hunt. Just
a couple of blocks from Caniff is Detroit Threads, a truly unique
boutique that stocks everything from techno records to original local
tee-shirts, from vintage wear to comic books.
Watering holes, places that rock
If you thought a day in Hamtramck had a lot to offer, wait until it gets dark. Still-revered for once boasting more bars per capita than any other city in the U.S., the little-town-that-could still has a heck of a lot of places to wet your whistle. Locals and yokels mingle at the convivial Whiskey in the Jar, just across the street from Primary Space. Just around the corner is The Belmont, whose industrial design offers a sleek showcase for its monthly art exhibit. Girls shouldn’t miss Mademoiselle Mondays where manicures and martinis are de rigueur. Other nights, you may stumble upon punk aerobics, live rock ‘n’ roll, guest DJ’s, or just a good night at a great bar.
Another resident favorite is the New Dodge Lounge on Jos. Campau south of Holbrook. Festive and cheery, the Dodge often hosts bands and if not, there’s always a friendly game of pool a-waiting. The Painted Lady, one block over on Jacob St., is punk and proud of it. Every Tuesday at midnight, the Lady surprises her visitors with a free mystery band.
Art deco styling, jukebox sent from heaven, premium liquor and beer—you must have stumbled upon Small’s. A neighborhood watering hole and a live music venue rarely combine comfortably in one bar, but Small’s manages to make it work. If you manage to get a seat at the corner booth, you’ll feel like a rock star.
Drawing a crowd
Hamtramck’s festivals bring in big crowds year after year to experience the city’s coolness and culture.
The Tuesday before Ash Wednesday is also known as Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French, but here it’s Paczki Day. American Poles fatten up with a tasty pastry call the paczki (pronounced poonch-key). Crowds line the street to get into their favorite bakery for a dozen or more of the powdered-sugar coated doughy treats, filled with raspberry, custard, lemon or the traditional prune. Every Hamtramck bakery has their loyalists, but a good first place to enjoy the entire experience is New Palace Bakery on Jos. Campau near Evaline.
Next comes the annual music festival produced by the Metro Times. The Hamtramck Blowout features over 200 local bands at 20 Hamtramck venues over three nights. The Blowout is a great chance to catch up-coming performers and venture in new-to-you bars. Plus, no self-respecting music-lover would be caught dead at breakfast that weekend without a Blowout wristband.
Finally, the weekend-long Hamtramck Labor Day Festival is part-carnival, part music festival, and part bar hop. It’s an awesome way to close out the summer season on a high note each and every year.
For more information about Hamtramck visit the Model D
- Investing Guide
- Moving Guide
Directions to Hamtramck
From the East:
Follow I-94 west to Exit 217 toward Mt. Elliott Ave/E Grand Blvd. Turn slight left onto Edsel Ford Fwy East, and then turn right onto Mt. Elliott St. Stay straight to go onto Conant St and arrive in Hamtramck.
From the North:
Take I-75 south toward Detroit and take Exit 55 toward Caniff Ave/Holbrook Ave. Stay straight to go onto Dequindre St. and take the Dequindre St. exit on the left. Turn left onto Evaline Ave. and arrive in Hamtramck.
From the West:
Follow I-96 east to I-94 via Exit 190A toward Port Huron. Merge onto I-75 North/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 216A toward Flint. Take Exit 55 toward Holbrook Ave/Caniff Ave and continue straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn right onto Holbrook Ave. and arrive in Hamtramck.
From the South:
Take I-94 east toward Detroit and merge onto I-75 North/Chrysler Fwy via Exit 216A toward Flint. Continue to Exit 55 toward Holbrook Ave/Caniff Ave and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn right onto Holbrook Ave. and arrive in Hamtramck.
Take I-75 north toward Detroit. Continue to Exit 55 toward Holbrook Ave/Caniff Ave and stay straight to go onto Chrysler Dr. Turn right onto Holbrook Ave. and arrive in Hamtramck.
Thai Bang Kok Cafe
Planet Ant Theatre
Jeff of the Record Graveyard
New Palace Bakery
Tiny Steps at the Hamtramck Festival
All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger