Cafe D'Mongo
Credit: Christine Passerini

Cafe D'Mongo

There are lots of secret (or semi-secret, or not at all secret, but kept on the down low by those in the know) bars in Detroit, Michigan. There's the spot on the west side that looks like a shack, where the owner has to buzz you in, and the ceiling is low and slanted, and an old guy from the neighborhood might wander in and start playing the piano. Then there's the upscale African-American karaoke joint where the clientele comes so correct, you can close your eyes and not be sure if the singing you're hearing is live or coming out of the jukebox. Fortunate for all, our hands-down, favorite drinking spot in the city, the wonderful Cafe D'Mongo, is no longer a closely guarded state secret.

The dapper owner, Larry Mongo, comes from a well-connected Detroit family – both politically and criminally, depending on the family member in question, by his telling. (Of course, in Detroit, those career choices are not always mutually exclusive.) D'Mongo's had originally been a classy jazz club, but Mongo was forced to shut his doors in the eighties when the neighborhood got too rough. Instead of selling – which, given Detroit's real estate market, would've likely been impossible – he decided to mothball the place. Then, a few years ago, as young hipster kids began moving back into the city, Mongo decided to reopen his bar as a speakeasy.

He's only open one night a week (Fridays), and there's food (cooked by Larry himself) and live music and great bartenders, and the room remains wonderfully frozen in time, the sort of place where characters in an Elmore Leonard novel from the 1970s would've plotted a heist, the red booths and the curvaceous bar and the overall decor falling somewhere between a lost 'Superfly' set and a New Orleans bordello. Downside: The place gets crowded these days, so arrive early. Especially if you want to chat with Larry, one of the great repositories of local city lore. Some of his stories might even be true.

Mark Binelli's latest book, Detroit City Is the Place to Be, is out now.