By Brian Spencer
It used to be that when I told someone I’m originally from Detroit — with Detroit, as is often the case, actually being code for “the white Detroit suburbs” — I was usually answered with polite indifference. A comment about the Lions or Tigers if they follow sports, maybe something about Ann Arbor, or sometimes “isn’t Detroit connected to Canada?”
Most people just don’t have much to say about Detroit. I understand: Tell me you’re from Dallas or Tucson or Phoenix and I’ll be similarly stumped as to how to keep the conversation going.
The very public bankruptcy filing last year changed all that; now there’s something to talk about. Now it’s “Are they still bankrupt?” and “What are they going to do about it?” and “Isn’t Detroit connected to Canada?” Of course, the not-so-big secret to anyone even remotely close to the city — and that’s what I am, remotely close, as I visit just once or twice a year and get most of my updates from friends and family — is that the formal bankruptcy is in many ways meaningless.
The city of Detroit has been financially fucked for a long, long time, and in all likelihood that will be the case for a long, long time; it may very well be perma-fucked. Bankruptcy, indeed, is little more than a talking point footnote to the city’s well-ingrained plight.
In terms of plausibility, sorting out the city’s vast, horrifically dilapidated residential areas, greatly reducing crime and poverty, and luring scores of “Detroiters” back to Detroit — not just for concerts and sporting events, but to actually live there — ranks right up there with the Catholic church confirming a lesbian as its next pope. Starting over is unfortunately not as easy as moving the city five miles down the road.
In a town like this, however, modest reclamation projects can have a big ripple effect, as is the case with Slows Bar-B-Q.
Located across the street from Michigan Central Station, which is now the long-legged sex symbol of Detroit’s so-called ruin porn, Slows was opened in 2005 by a group led by native Detroiter Phillip Cooley, a one-time fashion model depicted in this excellent New York Times profile as something of an entrepreneurial superhero without the costume disguise. Just a few blocks from where Tiger Stadium once stood, this area, known as Corktown, had like so many in Detroit been left to rot, but Slows can be credited for putting it back on the map and spurring a small revival.
Success has been both immediate and sustainted. As noted in the NYT piece, the restaurant turned a tidy $1.8 million in sales for its first year of operation, and takeout spin-off Slows to Go now has an outlet on Cass Avenue and three stands at Ford Field. More concrete evidence that Slows is a major hit are the nightly crowds: On our way there, my dad warned that he’d made three attempts, but left each time having been scared off by the two-hour wait. This is apparently quite common, but fortunately my family squeezed in just before the rush on my recent visit.
The appeal is obvious, from the stripped-down, Brooklyn-style aesthetic — exposed brick, polished wood, bearded bartenders — to a fantastic selection of 56 craft beers on tap dominated by esteemed Michigan microbreweries like Jolly Pumpkin, Founders, and Right Brain. On the obviously barbecue-heavy food menu, everything from sandwiches like the triple threat pork (a mound of applewood bacon, pulled pork, and ham) and old man (catfish blackened or fried in corn tempura, served with creole remoulade), to St. Louis-style ribs, Texas-style beef brisket, and a long list of succulent sides like waffle fries, sweet potato mash, and baked mac ‘n’ cheese.
We ate and drank well, and the tab was more than reasonable — another key appeal for a populace that generally doesn’t throw money around willy-nilly.
Yes, Detroit is bankrupt, and yes, Detroit is arguably perma-fucked, but so what? There remain plenty of reasons to head downtown, and with any luck more well-deserved success stories like that of Slows Bar-B-Q will create even more of them. With gargantuan reclamation projects like this, sometimes progress can be measured by the corner. Restaurants and bars don’t save desperate cities, but they can certainly help.
And yes, Detroit is connected to Canada.
Slows Bar-B-Q is located at 2138 Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit. 313-962-9828. Kitchen is open from 11am to 10pm on Monday, 11pm Tuesday to Thursday, 12am on Friday and Saturday, and 10pm on Sunday; bar open until 2am daily.