Axe Throwing, Baklava, & Bath Houses — The Perfect Day In Detroit


When I was attending Portland State University in the late aughts, one of my fellow students took advantage of Detroit’s depressed housing market and purchased a rundown house, whose former glory was largely obscured by filth and shredded carpet. But, even with its busted windows and grimy walls, it was magnificent. My friend’s Facebook album dedicated to renovation was pure #goals, and I watched videos of her cleaning and sanding with avid jealousy.

She was living the dream (if, like me, you dream of home ownership) in Detroit. Unfortunately, because she was a student, she just couldn’t keep up with taxes and payments. The beautiful house was snatched away before it regained the stature it held in its prime.

Back then, I’d never been to Detroit, but I wanted to be there. I wanted to be part of the energy and the comeback. The awesome bars. The cool music venues. Luckily, I didn’t have to buy real estate to make that happen and neither do you. Even a single day in the city can be enough to charge your adventure batteries and give you a taste of both “the city that was” — back when that house was a brand new foundation for a family living in Motor City boomtimes — and the city that is — the one where that house is a refurbished foundation for a fresh life in a resurgent metropolis.

What follows is a breakdown for a full (seriously full) day in Detroit Rock City. Everything is pretty close to the center, to minimize struggles with public transportation and Uber. Take a look and be inspired to plan your own day of exploring!

9 am: Ashe Supply Co. Café & Roasterie

Starting the day at nine feels a little like rushing to a job and that’s no good, so let’s ease into things at Ashe Supply Co. The café focuses on third wave brewing approaches, like siphon coffee, pourovers, and Chemex. But, they also do the classic espresso drinks that people have come to expect. They’ve only been open for a few years, but they’re quite popular in downtown and are super busy even on Sunday.

You’ll see why, when your drink cools and you can finally get a full mouthful without searing any delicate skin. If you aren’t a slave to your regular order, get a delicious café con miel (coffee with honey). They are a blend of rich, full-bodied coffee brightened by cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and honey and sweet, frothy milk. Pastries will tempt you because they are all from local bakeries and eating local is important (plus they look delish). But, brunch is the next stop, so stick with the coffee.

11 am: Bobcat Bonnie’s

Full disclosure: we think brunch is the best meal ever — if you don’t get the combo of sweet and savory, you’re the basic, not us — and Detroit does not disappoint. Bobcat Bonnie’s owner, Matt Buskard, dreamed of opening his own restaurant, and he saw his chance when the Corktown staple O’Blivion’s went up for sale. The inside of the joint is clean and modern, but there are nods everywhere to the age of the 150-year-old building. The restaurant’s website notes the warm-colored brick that enhances the space was taken from Eloise, a Wayne County insane asylum of some repute, and a sign in the game room was salvaged from Tigers Stadium.

You may want to order avocado toast with goat cheese spread, basil, tomatoes, and dill (what? people like avocado toast), but I instead opt for Captain Crunch French toast made with house apple bread and served with syrup, butter, and a side of house potatoes. Bomb.

Wash it down with a stroke of genius: a DIY Bloody Mary. The server brings you a tall ass glass filled with ice and a lot of vodka and lets you play with mixes and garnishes. Life. Changing.

1 pm: The Schvitz

After a meal like that, you need a walk. You maybe don’t need to go sweat in a bathhouse but screw it. The Schvitz dates back to a time when hot running water wasn’t the norm for a lot of people. So, when folks in the 30s wanted to unwind and relax with some hot water and steam, they hit this OG health club. Early on, it was frequented by the city’s Prohibition-era mobsters. The 70s brought about couple’s night for steamy swinging. And, now, it’s the only historic bathhouse left in the city. It is a damn delight.

For $25.00, you are given three towels and a locker. Once you get undressed and showered, it’s all steam room, exfoliation, and being beaten with really hot, soapy oak leaves woven together (if you opt to pay $1.00 for a bar of soap and the oak leaves when you come in). It’s called a plaetza and it clears toxins from your pores. Once you are done being beaten, jump into a cold pool and feel your entire body burn. Getting out of the water is hard. It takes ages to regain control of your body fully, but it is so worth it.

4 pm: Astoria Pastry Shop

Fight the urge to nap and, instead, wander around Greektown for a little bit. Home to Greek immigrants through most of the 20th century, Greektown is known for its casino, restaurants, and bars. It gets wild. But don’t go to crazy — you’re simply there to wander from window to window looking at people having a good time.

Ultimately, this is all a subterfuge to disguise a trip to the Astoria Pastry Shop for baklava. Your stomach will hardly be grumbling with low-level hunger, but after being rhythmically whipped with nature, you deserve something sweet. Your will may falter when faced with cases of cookies, cakes, tarts, cinnamon rolls, candy, and cheesecakes. Ultimately, stick to your sugary convictions and grub on the best damn baklava you’ve ever eaten. Between the honey coffee and the French toast and the baklava, you may be teetering on the verge of a serious sugar crash. If that’s the case, save the baklava and eat it the next day.

6 pm: Detroit Institute of Arts

It’s always nice to get your culture on, and you could not do better in Detroit than the Detroit Institute of Arts, which boasts one of the most significant collections in the United States. The DIA has over 100 galleries and covers 658 thousand square feet. Their collection is legit considered one of the top six museums in the nation, and it includes Ancient Egyptian pieces, as well as European classics and contemporary masters. The American paintings collection alone is has been ranked third in the United States by DIA officials. You will see masters.

Check the museum’s website and pick a few must-sees that pique your interest before rolling up to avoid later finding out you missed something you would have really enjoyed. If you need a recommendation, we say the General Motors Center for African American Art is transcendent. It was one of the first curatorial departments completely devoted to African American art in a major museum. You will discover work from people who are known nationwide, as well as those who have only made a name locally. There is a huge spectrum of approaches and styles, but they all explore important issues like identity, political and social consciousness, race, and economics. The walk will help with all the eating you’ll be doing, and the art will make sure you are feeding your soul as well as your face.

8 pm : Sweetwater

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Legit wings. #detroit

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For more than thirty years, Sweetwater Tavern has been serving customers their authentic, homemade food, and they have developed a reputation for having the best wings outside of Buffalo, NY. Seriously. Classic cooking meets bar food and creates one of the best bites of your life. The owner, Jeff Cain, draws from both northern and southern cooking to kill it on Detroit cuisine. The chicken wings show up every morning from the Eastern Market and are then marinated 24 hours before being dredged in a secret blend of herbs and spices, prepared, and served. The claim is that their flavor is so unique that you will be coming back to Detroit just so you can get more.

As a warning, if you don’t eat meat, prepare to eat mozzarella sticks and salad. If you aren’t down with that, deviate from the plan and hit up Detroit Vegan Soul or PJ’s Lager House. Detroit has dope meat-free offerings, so don’t feel obligated to get some lame sides at a meaty place. Go get yours.

10 pm: Detroit Axe

Axe throwing venues are getting more common, but they’re still relatively hard to come by. We say, if you are near one, you owe it to your inner lumberjack to grab a beer and an axe and get to flinging one of them at a target. Detroit Axe is the first wholly dedicated axe throwing venue in the city, and at 3,000-square-feet, it is a sizable offering to the choppy gods. There are 12 lanes set up for throwing and dartboards, pinball, bumper pool, shuffleboard, and arcade games as well so there is no way you won’t have fun. Seriously. You get to throw an axe. Repeatedly.

If this is a trip of a spontaneous nature, you can do a walk-in, but it’s first come, first served, and that can really cramp your style when you need to hurl sharp objects on a timeline. It’s better to schedule a spot ahead of time. First of all, you avoid the wait. But, secondly, you get 2.5 hours in your lane rather than the single hour allotted to walk-ins. Either way, you get a dedicated axe master (such a good job title) to train you and keep everything safe. Speaking of safety, be sure you are wearing closed toe shoes, or they won’t let you participate.

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Midnight: Cliff Bell’s

You wanna close out your day with some quintessential Detroit? Then, it’s got to include a stop at Cliff Bell’s, a jazz club that dates back to John Clifford Bell, an entrepreneur and all-around character, who broke into club ownership with a variety of speakeasies during prohibition. Some credit him with introducing the stool to the tavern bar, which is both dubious and a weird thing to make up. The signature Cliff Bell’s was erected in 1935 and it was swank, with brass and mahogany fittings and air conditioning and refrigeration. The club sat sad and empty between 1985 and late 2005 when renovations were taken up and the current owners committed to resurrecting the beauty.

A variety of stellar musicians play at Cliff Bell’s but we highly suggest making plans to attend on a night when the club hosts a Wayne State University Student Jam Session. The WSU director of jazz studies hosts and students take the stage to blow audiences away. You get to see the up and comers in the industry honing their craft and developing as artists. They are all good performers, but you just might see someone on the path to becoming a bona fide star. Or, cross your fingers for a burlesque night.