Scrolling through photos of the Dam Site Inn on Instagram, it becomes immediately apparent that a road trip is in order. The padded bar, the vintage Saarinen furniture — if there ever was an excuse to visit Pellston, Michigan, the time capsule that is the Dam Site Inn looks to be chief among them.
The Dam Site Inn is one of 11 bars and restaurants to be featured in Please Don’t Change a Thing
. An Instagram Guide put together by Patrick Thompson for Model D’s Explorer Series. As the spring weather blossoms and COVID-19 vaccinations become more and more readily available, Thompson’s guide acts as a catalyst for discovering and exploring some of the state’s most great bars and restaurants, from Detroit to northern Michigan and back again.
The bars and restaurants in Thompson’s guide find that sweet spot where design and hospitality converge and harmonize with each other. This should come as no surprise.
As principal of Patrick Thompson Design, Thompson and his Detroit-based design studio have become known for doing just that, designing the Kresge Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Hammer & Nail cocktail bar, Bowlero Lanes & Lounge, and many other notable area establishments.
We spoke with Patrick Thompson about the points where design and hospitality meet, exploring Detroit and northern Michigan, and his guide for the Model D Explorer Series, Please Don’t Change a Thing
: What are some of the first things you might notice when you walk into a place?
: I think the ambiance, which seems obvious, but you can get an idea of what your experience will be like. So lighting levels, white noise levels. Even the flow of space — those are the things that I notice. The story of intimacy. Is this where you're supposed to be out in the open? Or is this a spot where it's gonna be cozy and kind of hidden? I think when you walk into any of these spaces, I kind of know right away what type of experience I'm going to have, or I start to think about what kind of experience I want to have.
Like the Red Coat Tavern, right? You walk in right away, and the booths are high, the light fixtures dropped low, and you have the red light in there. It's super dark. You walk on that carpeting, and there's something about feeling that old cut pile carpet on your feet right away. It’s kind of reminiscent of a grandma's house or someplace you've been in your past. You move through it, and then there's the fireplace which is warm and cozy in the winter, and you want to sit down. So I just think that all of those architectural elements are so crucial to the experience. Some people might love it, and some people might not like it. But that space makes you want to drink a stout beer instead of a light beer.
: When you moved back to Detroit from Chicago, what are some of the first places that made an impression on you?
: The Old Miami is one. The Violent Femmes played at the Old Miami and all these other bands — because no matter what, I'm still that ‘90s skateboard kid that was obsessed with punk music and skate culture. Bronx Bar, of course. The Red Coat Tavern was one of the first spots that I came back to and was struck by. I left Detroit when I was 17 or 18 and then didn't come back and start exploring until I was in my late 20s.
New York Bagel is a very special spot in Ferndale. You know, it's funny, that spot is so unique in terms of the product and the process. It's the most backward. The fact that the person takes your order, makes your sandwich, and then
rings you out — it's inefficient. But it's New York Bagel. The bagel counter is up like 18 inches higher than it should be so that no one can see your face, and they have to come around. That stuff drives me crazy, but at the same time, it's kind of what makes it unique.
: The food’s great but New York Bagel isn’t the type of place that you’d think a designer would necessarily single out.
: Actually, they updated the interior and did a decent job, and they kept the classic yellow awning and worn signage on the side of the building, which is excellent. Those are the things that you don’t want to change.
We have a project coming up right now where we will be looking at a bakery on the east side over in Macomb County. It's one of those places that you have to be very sensitive to what you do to it. If you make it too cool or too nice or too anything, the people in the neighborhood that go there all the time might not want to go there anymore. So you have to start to understand, like, what do people love about it and not change it?
: How do you do that?
: I think it's about the interview process with ownership or staff or even people who go there. Sometimes we poke around and ask the regulars what they love about a place, what don't they love about it. But usually, a place that's been in business for a period of time knows what its clientele likes and doesn't like. A lot of it just happens in an informal way. I just ask a lot of questions: Who comes here? When do they come here? What time of day? What do most people order? How are most people dressed? Do they bring their kids? Those questions lead to what space is going to be.
Please Don’t Change a Thing
is full of spaces that probably didn't have an architecture team or had a lot of outside design input. But many of these owners had a certain intuition into what they wanted it to be and what they thought people would want it to be. And it's awesome when that is translated well.
: What’s next for Patrick Thompson Design?
: We're really excited about the Statler, which is a French brasserie that's opening up in downtown Detroit that's under construction right now. So that's an exciting one. We're refreshing the Elwood Bar and Grill right downtown, which is awesome. It's not going to be drastic or anything. The outside of that place is just perfect. It's just immaculate and perfect. It should never change. So we're kind of taking the interior back to what we think it would have been like back in the day.
: Is there anything about hospitality and design that is uniquely Detroit?
: I always say Detroiters call bullshit pretty quick. I think what makes things last is authenticity. And I believe that if someone comes in and tries to be a big player, in whatever it is they're doing, it's seen as inauthentic. I think that Detroiters catch on to that pretty quickly.
Authentic and being authentic has to be more than just putting, you know, local artists on the wall. There's a certain authenticity here that people can spot from a mile away, and then they grab on to it, and it generally leads to success.
I guess that's probably the overarching theme to all those places in Please Don't Change a Thing
. They're pretty authentic spaces that come from the person and the vision they had for the space.