Stop into any venerable bar in the city and you’re likely to encounter a heated debate over which bar truly is the oldest in Detroit. I set out to answer this question, armed with a Stroh’s and a notebook and a complete disregard for low basement ceilings and cobwebs. Along the way, I met some fantastic bar tenders and owners and patrons. I also discovered that determining a definitive answer is a losing proposition, for a myriad of reasons. So, rather than presenting a chronological list of bars and dates and factoids, let’s examine the questions themselves: how do we, in fact, determine how “old” a bar really is?
First question: How does one define a bar?
This may seems obvious, but we enter murky territory almost immediately. For example, several ancient restaurants happen to have a bar in them now. Roma Café in Eastern Market has been serving patrons since around 1888, but by most definitions, Roma Café is a restaurant rather than a bar. Throw the Cadieux Café into the mix, too. And what about a private club? The Detroit Athletic Club was founded in 1887, and its members have most definitely been drinking prodigious amounts since then, but the club has changed locations, moving to its current space in 1915. So then, what do we do with a private bar, or, for that matter, a bar that has moved around town?
Next question: If a bar happens to be in the oldest building, does that make it the oldest bar?
Tommy’s Detroit Bar is housed in a brick building dating back to at least the 1860s. It comes replete with ghost stories, Purple Gang history, and its very own tunnel under Fort Street. The Firebird Tavern occupies an early-1880s saloon, but has morphed into several non-liquor-related businesses over the years before resettling as a bar. Nemo’s sits in one of Corktown’s older buildings, but has only been a bar since 1965. And the Stonehouse Bar, located near the State Fair Grounds, originated as a farmhouse in the 1860s.
By these criteria, any of these bars would predate Nancy Whiskey (1902), Jacoby’s (1904) or the Two Way Inn (1876). But untangling actual verifiable dates of operation from the legend and lore proves tricky, if not nearly impossible. We simply can’t find a specific date for when many of these places started handing out booze. We’d have to go further down the rabbit hole and define what we mean by “serving” alcohol: For free? Legally? Licensed? And here’s where it starts to get really tricky…
Because: What about that liquor license, anyway?
First off, tracking down century-old liquor licenses is a losing battle, involving state commissions, dusty documents, and utter frustration. There are several reasons for this. One is that the state liquor commission only tracks currently active liquor licenses for 10 years; all licenses past or present are only searchable dating back to 1935. After that it’s pretty much a crapshoot.
Plus, there’s the little matter of Prohibition, or more accurately Prohibitions. National Prohibition lasted from 1920-1933, so really the oldest continuous license one could find would only date to 1933. Of course, everyone knows that plenty of bars ran a booming business despite (or because of) Prohibition, whether or not we can prove it. You’d have to be a pretty lousy speakeasy if there were all sorts of records lying around, right?
Even before national Prohibition, though, Michigan had its own attempts at curtailing Detroiters’ hard-drinking ways. Over and over again, going back as early as 1846, state lawmakers banned the sale of liquor licenses. Eventually they gave up on us and repealed the state constitution’s Article of Prohibition in 1875. This means that, for all intents and purposes, we can only trace saloon operations to that date. Except that we can’t. Because the state only keeps active records for ten years, remember? So we really have to look at bars that we know have been continuously operating as bars.
And so: What do we mean by “continuously operating”?
It’s time for some more qualifiers. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say we mean that a business has been serving alcohol in exchange for money in the same building for an uninterrupted length of time. Now the qualifiers: what happens if a fire or renovation closes the doors? How long can we allow for these contingencies before the continuity is broken? A month? A year? Several years? What if we can’t absolutely prove that a bar served booze during Prohibition, but we have enough apocryphal evidence to believe it? And do we give special recognition to a bar that’s been in the same family through its entire existence, like Andrews on the Corner (1918) or Abick’s Bar (1907)? What about those institutions that have suffered the ravages of time and blight, like the holdouts Ye Olde Tap Room (1915), Temple Bar (1927) and Tom’s Tavern (1928)? Barring sentimental purposes, probably not, yet it feels wrong not to mention these stalwarts.
Really, it all boils down to sentiment. We don’t love these historic bars because of arbitrary dates or rules; we love them because they evoke another era and bring us back to our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ days. My advice? Find an old bar—an old, physical, mahogany or walnut bar pitted and stained with generations’ worth of bar chatter and gossip. Rest your feet on the worn out foot rail and imagine how many other Detroiters have done the same. Then order a beer and forget the semantics.
Mickey Lyons is a Hamtramck-based writer and historian. Read more of her writings on Detroit's historic watering holes on her blog, Prohibition Detroit.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.