A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit Detroit as a guest of Dave Kwiatkowski of Detroit Optimist Society - a group of bars and restaurants including Sugar House and the just-opened Bad Luck Bar.
I had such a great time in town that I've probably forgotten most important details about where I went, but here's a quick run-down of some of them.
This seems to be home base of the whole operation, and much of Detroit's drinking scene. Though Sugar House is an everyone-must-be-seated cocktail bar, it's perhaps the most casual (and one of the most spacious) versions of that model I've seen. To me the place looks more like a Western Tavern with an old piano, wooden tables and chairs than a dark booth-laden speakeasy-themed bar, but I suppose it has elements of that too.
The cocktail list is a big batch of classics plus a frequently-changing seasonal menu that was a Chinese Zodiac calendar during my visit. Overwhelmingly it just felt like a place in which you could spend a lot of time- comfortable, creative, casual, and not over-themed in one way or another. Solid.
Bad Luck, which just opened at the end of 2016 with Yani Frye at the helm, is a Detroit take on a special occasion bar like ZZ's Clam Bar in NYC or London's Nightjar (read: fancy drinks at splurge pricing), and was inspired in-part by a Nightjar pop-up at Tales of the Cocktail a couple years ago.
Here, the bar is located down an alley and though they don't take traditional reservations, you can call on your way to see if they have seats and put you on the wait list (so you're not hanging out in an alley all night). There are about 30 seats at curvy booths in one square room, with a glowing bar counter holding 6 or so barstools.
Cocktails are over-the-top in glassware, preparation, and garnish, and most cost around $20 apiece, with some shared cocktails at higher prices, plus one that comes with an optional caviar garnish. Much fussed-about in the local media was the $80 "cocktail" which is not in any way a cocktail but a pour of black tot rum (if you want it to be a cocktail, they'll throw it into a Daiquiri). It turns out it wasn't such a crazy thing to put on the menu - they've sold several liters of the rum.
But back to the actual cocktails: they come in specialty glassware like a julep cup, skull mug, and mini milk bottle, and include ingredients like cereal-infused cream, cascara syrup, prosciutto-infused gin, and in one case ketchup. They're garnished with flavored smoke, lavender pop rocks, and dehydrated Campari. It's great stuff.
If Bad Luck is Detroit's Nightjar, then Standby is the city's Booker & Dax. The bar owns a centrifuge and all the other tools out of Dave Arnold's Liquid Intelligence to make "justinos," clarified juices, cocktails on tap, and all that other back-of-house molecular mixology.
Interestingly, this bar is not seated-only, and can apparently get super busy on weekends. My visit was on a quieter night and I was able to try a bunch of the cocktails and food, both of which were super.
The proprietors of this bar also run the seasonal bar The Skip, which wasn't open during my visit.
This "craft dive" subterranean fortress bar is well-loved for its industry nights, during which it seems one of the primary goals is for the bartenders to make weird shots with which to mess with you. I got out of it relatively unscathed.
Afterward we went upstairs for pub food and pinball at Checker Bar but that's nothing much to talk about.
This diner-bar mashup (from the same group as Sugar House and Bad Luck) is either a dive bar or a dive-themed bar; probably more the latter.
I ate their once for hangover-absorbing breakfast and once for a just-one-more-beer last call. Both times seemed appropriate.
I did make it to the super chic restaurant Katoi but didn't have any cocktails there. Unfortunately it suffered a large fire shortly after my visit so it is temporarily closed.
Wright & Company - Also from Detroit Optimist Society. I ate here but just had one quick cocktail. More of a big Downtown restaurant and first-date spot. The Peterboro is a Chinese restaurant also from this group but I didn't get to visit.