Monday 31st July, 2017
Day 1 in Detroit and it’s not off to a good start if the stone-faced reception I received from ‘Payless’ Peggy car hire is anything to go by. You get so used to Americans being super-friendly and attentive and then take doubly bad if they’re not. "Is this a ‘Detroit thing?" I pondered as I bid Peggy farewell. She didn't respond! Detroit was once known as one of the toughest cities in the USA so maybe Peggy’s surliness comes with the territory. My little ‘Payless’ Hyundai drove quite well all the same and I was downtown in a matter of minutes.
Phase 2 was to don the swimmers, grab the laptop and sit by the pool. Aha! The MGM Grand doesn’t have a pool, not an outside one at any rate. All this sunshine going to waste - not good for a Vit-D depleted Scotsman. I hit the Tap Room instead. “Table for a party of one?” the waitress asked. It's not going to be much of a party!
The casino next door was buzzing with a thousand one-armed, bandits waiting to soak the vacuous souls that wandered, zombie-like amidst this timeless, hermetically-sealed hell-hole. You can perhaps tell, I’m not a fan of casinos. I felt like crossing the security checkpoint and freeing these poor people, bringing them back into the sunlight. “It’s only lunchtime folks! Go forth and have a game of golf!”
In the Tap Room, the Senior Open, held at Royal Porthcawl was showing on one of the giant screens. I love even looking at links golf courses! You can feel that solid ground beneath your feet and the satisfying thump of irons nipping the ball into action. The MGM Grand wasn’t for me but I was only here for two nights in which time, I’d suss this place out and recommend you better Detroit options - if there are any!
Slows Bar B Q
In the evening, I grabbed an Uber and headed downtown. Slows Bar B Q is located on Michigan Avenue, one of Detroit’s main thoroughfares. The hardest thing there was finding the door to get in. The inmates must have been chuckling at the disconcerted newbie pulling on a door that had long been sealed up. But once through the less obvious but functional main door, it was clearly the place to be.
Slows' service isn't fast but that's probably because they’re so busy. The waitress brought me one of their 32 different craft beers on tap, a flowery IPA. I'm not much of a craft beer person but for you, dear reader, I shall try everything. They were playing some pretty flower-powered music too, Jimi Hendrix and the Grateful Dead.
My plate eventually came and it looked a mess! Seriously! No marks out of 10 for presentation. I’d gone for the ‘Big Three’ combination, Beef Brisket, pulled pork and glazed chicken breast at $18.00 with bowls of beans and coleslaw on the side. The meat wasn’t all that hot either but by God, it was good! Wow! This stuff is TASTY! You also think there’s not that much on the plate but let me tell you, this is a feast. You'll struggle to finish it. Slows is basic Midwestern fare but it's mighty good and now I can now see why it is so popular.
Outside again, this part of the Detroit - Cork Town and Michigan Avenue is peppered with vacant lots apart from the odd stand-alone retro brick shell that’s been taken over by some ardent entrepreneurs. They’re mostly food joints oddly spaced out, like eager saplings growing through the old concrete of Michigan Avenue in the evening heat.
Across the road was such a building with a jaunty sign declaring ‘The Two James Spirits’, its wide doors open to the highway and easy to drift in to There were a few souls seated around a white tiled, circular bar. Antoine, the barman introduced himself and got on the chat. “This is the first licensed distillery in Detroit since Prohibition,” he told me as he arrayed a set of coupe cocktail glasses before me. “Take it easy,” I almost said but he anticipated. “Just a taste of each!” and set about pouring slightly more than ‘just a taste’ into each glass. Who was I to resist?
The Two James was established by a couple of pals, funnily enough named James, who set about distilling and blending their own hooch, turning Michigan corn and British barley into their respective distillations, aging it in different barrels and coming up with some interesting, eclectic blends. I started with ‘Catcher’s Rye Whiskey’ aged for two years in charred oak and a mere 98.8 Proof. Whoof! We were off to a flying start…
“Is this city safe?” I asked on Antoine, in the back of my mind aware that I’d just arrived in a town with a menacing reputation. “It depends on where you go. There are still things that go on but I've never had any problems. Two years ago, we didn’t have streetlights around here. But it's changing fast. The amount of growth in the past 3 years has been crazy. I’ve never seen a city develop like this and that's what I'm glad to be a part of it.” He poured me my next sample, an Old Cockney Gin redolent of juniper and this time only 82 Proof. “Speak to Steve, he’s local. He’s opening a hotel downtown called the Siren in the old Wurlitzer building.”
Steve Maun is a developer of hotels and residential buildings of character and a native Detroiter, now a New Yorker but back in town to lend his effort. “When I was a kid Detroit was so beautiful,” he told me. “Michigan Avenue was the highway to Chicago.” Steve was an enthusiast, extremely well informed about design, architecture and the history of the town and over another few ‘samples’ we discussed the backstory to Detroit's renaissance.
Steve concluded, "Detroit is an up-and-commer... young creatives moving in and lots of edgy urbanism. It is indeed a place worth considering. I hope you have an exciting first look."
On all those happy notes, I poured myself into an Uber and back to the MGM.