A (untimely?) ode to Detroit’s Union Street
In early February, it was reported that the owners of the building housing the longstanding Union Street restaurant and saloon—as well as the bulletproof-lazy-susan-using Midtown Liquors—would be “rehabilitated” into a possible grocery store.
After being closed temporarily since last March for the pandemic, Union Street only just recently reopened on March 6 with more limited hours of operation. As reported in the local media, the rehabilitation plans call for the “preserving [of] some of the building’s historic architectural elements [emphasis added],” a perfunctory statement which—in this writer’s opinion—does not generate an overabundance of optimism in the eventual product.
In my experience, if you aren’t executing full-on historic preservation of the building, saying you will preserve “architectural elements” is just a sop to try and preemptively placate the preservation community who might conceivably object (But hey! Enjoy your re-purposed lintels!).
Although I no longer live in the Detroit area, when I arrived in the city in 1993 from Washington D.C., Union Street was–for me–like stepping into a welcoming saloon fresh off the grimy streets of a seemingly post-apocalyptic early 90’s Detroit. The only thing missing was a honky-tonk piano playing ragtime (and, sometimes, that was going on as well).
You were almost immediately enveloped in the welcoming glow of the orange-red neon, the art deco interior, and the boisterous bistro crowd in the bar area and restaurant. It was one part frontier saloon, and one part fin de siecle dystopian salon. The world just opened up. The cold, mean streets of the windy Woodward expanse were left behind. Loud conversations, sloshing drinks, and flickering neon evaporated into the coved, curved ceiling.
It was a time when Detroit was, to use the well-worn cliche, much more “gritty,” but also very very real.
It was also the place where all of my long-lasting Detroit friendships were forged—over tables of cocktails and culinary crucibles of dragon eggs—friendships that exist to this very day, like “one or two degrees of Union Street,” at most. You would grab drinks and hop from table to table, as more people would come in off the street from concerts and art openings, pushing more tables together as the party grew.
In my salad days as a muckraking gossip columnist, I ended up writing about the place a lot. I mean, it was just hard not to. Besides, I had to (wink wink) write up my friends, and–as we have already established, supra—my friends were all hanging out here to begin with.
The 1990’s on this particular block–Majestic, Finney’s/Blue Moon and Union Street, were one of the more thriving hubs of Detroit’s alternative music and arts scene, particularly when the C-Pop gallery, after bopping around Royal Oak and the David Whitney Building downtown, deigned to join in.
Radiate out a few circles from that core and you hit the after-hours spots like Garfield’s and Red Door, not to mention Stewart’s, Gold Dollar, Willis Gallery, various after-hours parties in galleries, and the like. Union Street was the epicenter from which everything emanated, and it was the salon at the center to which everyone returned. You would pre-game there before a concert at the Majestic or Magic Stick, and possibly post-game there as well. The same goes for art openings at C-Pop (that is to say, the pre-and post-game three-step).
It was the site of that most honored of holiday traditions, the night-before-Thanksgiving bacchanal, where you could drunkenly preview the floats parked in the middle of Woodward (i.e. “The Drunken Triangle”), only to return the next morning to the very same spot to parade-watch with your hungover friends from the night before.
It was the place you went for “last call” after the other “last calls” were over. And you left out the back.
It was ground zero for my social life, to be sure. And while stories like this can be a predictable nostalgia shtick for the aging hipster set—endlessly waxing rhapsodic about the “good ole days”—it really has that distinctive whiff of (cliche alert) a “special moment in time.” Definitely not boring. The institutions on this particular block of Woodward had a (cliche alert again) “zeitgeist” that was really hard to replicate.
So another era is fading.
In its current iteration, Union Street has been at this location for 45 years, opening on St. Patrick’s Day of 1976. Prior to that, it had been a Wayne State hangout called “Mad Anthony’s,” and before that an Italian spot called “Arturo’s in the 1940s.
The old Blue Moon is now a coffee shop. Union Street will become a Target or a
Trader Joe’s or some similarly antiseptic offering. Make way for the latest version of “New Detroit,” shinier and newer and more soul-less than the last “New Detroit.” I don’t mean to piss on progress like the crusty curmudgeon that I truly am, but aren’t there some nearby vacant lots where you could put a grocery store, or are they all still used for the all-important surface parking? Don’t answer that. I know there are.
In any event, this is my attempt to offer up a well-deserved, albeit somewhat premature, epitaph. Go out and support the joint while you still can. And as the sign says, “Life is too short to drink cheap beer.”
Memories (thanks for them? Maybe not…):
Vincent Patricola, former DJ Shortround, current longtime Sunday brunch DJ at Union Street and publisher of Detroit Electronic Quarterly: I’ve been going to Union Street since about 1995. It was one of the bright spots in a bleak Detroit for sure. It was really the great neighborhood hang for Detroit creatives.
Art “Arturo” Lyzak, former Mutant and Barkeep-Offspring, currently living in Santa Monica, CA picking the pockets of European tourists at the pier: Union Street was always a Motor City real cool time…
Doctor Joe Ales, owner of OPTIK Birmingham, ophthalmologist-to-the-Stars: Walking into Union Street, it had a vibe of history that was unlike other establishments…
Carleton Gholz, former Executive Director of Detroit Sound Conservancy, current public historian now living in Philadelphia with his wife and cat. His favorite item on the menu at Union Street was the Manchego Steak Sandwich: And everyone was like, it just had that feeling of Cheers, and everyone knowing everybody. It was comfy.
Amy Yokin, groupie guru at Broadway In Detroit, former Orbiteer and sneaky gossip columnist: I’ve been celebrating Union Street since 1980, through good times and bad. It was always the preeminent meeting place after work as well as before and after downtown events.
Joe Ales: It had a fabulous atmosphere, fantastic menu and food, and usually jazz overhead.
Dan John Miller, formerly Goober of the Peas, current voiceover artiste extraordinaire/”Audie Award”-winning audiobook narrator: I never experienced anything really out of the ordinary…just was a welcoming comfortable feeling…general wonderfulness…an odd hipster glamour version of Cheers. Everybody pretty much DID know each others’ names…
Carleton Gholz: Sure, the Majestic was a great scene, and I loved the bar there, and the bartenders, but Union was my “home,” and places like there, and Twingo’s, and Steve’s…a handful of places that were easy, and comfortable, and multi-racial, friendly, easy-going, not high-pressure and it just meant a lot to be there.
Vincent Patricola: I will remember all of the pioneering spirits that I met and would run into.
I remember the signs on the wall… “Life is too short to drink cheap beer,” and the “No Sniveling” sign at the register.
Carleton Gholz: The vibe was great. The lighting was always great. The waitresses and waiters were always fantastic….
Joe Ales: The art deco ceiling in the dining area was my favorite.
Jerry “Vile” Peterson, former White Noise, Fun, and Orbit publisher, currently peddling The Dirty Show as well as a solo art show at Detroit Contemporary opening on June 19: The drunken year memories are fading…free drinks to a cheap alcoholic on a substance that gave him a bottomless liver is perhaps the reason I will not be missing Union Street.
Billy Hunter, former 2 South gallery impresario and capitol park pioneer/Majestic/Union Street habitue, current strategic staffing specialist and co-founder of Mosaic Productions LLC: I either can’t remember or it’s not really memorable…
Randy Sly, keyboardist for Bop Harvey, The Atomic Fireballs and The Verve Pipe, among others: What comes to mind is a mashup of memories that combine in my mind into one day…
Amy Yokin: Too many blurry memories to count, but all encompassed with the immense camaraderie that only a superb restaurant and watering hole can bring to a great city. Always a lively experience to hang at the gorgeous deco bar with coved lighting, or in the attached Michigan Room.
Jerry Peterson: The WORST memory was being yelled at in the back parking lot from the neighboring apartment building for “fucking like dogs.”
Rick Manore–former itinerant C-Pop Gallery panjandrum and former Pink Ford Probe driver, current documentary filmmaker, currently enjoying ex-pat life in the Czech Republic: Union Street memories….I really don’t have too many (that I can remember anyway).
Art Lyzak: My wife, Christine, and I had our engagement party and wedding reception in the Michigan Room at Union Street during the John Lopez [RIP]/Deborah McCauley years. It was our favorite bar.
Amy Yokin: Art Lyzak and Christine Claussen’s wedding reception was like a who’s who of Detroit’s beyond hip art and music world, held post-White Stripes/Muldoon’s concert at the Masonic.
Tim Richards, former BC/BS worker bee/Club le Freak co-host, currently Downriver Celebrity Dog Walker to the Stars: I do remember Arturo’s wedding. Also Niagara’s art show in the Michigan Room. Peter Laba [RIP] was friends with the previous owner, who would let us take over the Michigan Room for parties. There was an upright piano in there, and lots of folks remember me playing “Come Sail Away,” The Doors, Carpenters etc. One year at a party there I gave Maria Galante [RIP] a long stem roses box filled with a dozen ears of corn, a joke that started at Nick Leo’s hunting cabin in Rose City and never really ended.
Art Lyzak: We loved everything about the joint – the room, the food, the drinks, the service, everything – and we’d hold court there a couple of times a week. Our most rip-roaring nights always included Stooge Ronnie Asheton[RIP], Niagara and [Niagara handler-consort and retired race car driver] the Colonel.
Amy Yokin: Pre-CPOP (across Woodward) in the mid-90s, Niagara would have full-blown “happenings” at Union Street that went with her art openings. Nearly naked Demolition Doll Rods presented by post-Boner’s/Orbit impresario Jerry Vile’s [alter ego] poet Vic Toledo, or beat poet Nick Torpedo with Bobby Beyond & the Uppers (a Bootsey X-tra) were on hand to lend the perfect ambiance to her events.
Tim Richards: I’ll never forget those Spanish Coffees, served in glass goblets, flamed cinnamon rim, and fresh-made whipped cream. Haven’t found a better one yet.
Vince Patricola: That rasta sauce and the wings will forever be my favorite.
Jerry Peterson: uh…Calamari a la Capers…and the overcooked Buffalo Burger…I’m pretty sure I have that menu memorized…
Carleton Gholz: And Union Street was one of the places that the late LaVell Williams–my dear friend [RIP]—and I went to all the time. I’m sure he had been going there for years before, so it wasn’t new to him, and we would bop between different spots for dinner after he got done working at the record store, or I got done teaching.
Christopher Ferris George–former vibrational healer/bio-hacker/shaman/musician, current solar roof/tax credit shaman: They’d let you lounge there, and the coffee had like that cinnamon in it, you know? It was so good. The Union Street coffee was not to be fucked with.
Carleton Gholz: The manchego steak sandwich was my go-to, feel-good sandwich. I also have memories of the, what was it? Fried fish…Walleye? I can’t quite recall, but it was great food, great people, and I think it was a place we went to before other things…it was a “launchpad” for a night or a weekend…it was a place to stay before going to a show, or big concert that night.
Jerry Peterson: …that, and the menu that was aged longer than the Cognac.
Tim Richards: Tina D’Angela and Meg White were always ordering catering from there too. I used to meet Tina there for lunch after Ginger bought the place.
Rick Manore: But really, I don’t have too many specific recollections – though I did like the Seafood Bisque, Dragon Eggs and the Street Burger.
Carleton Gholz: And Union was a place that we knew we’d get good food, late evening into the night, and in Detroit, as you may know, it was very difficult for many years to get good quality late-night food. Especially in downtown. It’s changed a lot now, but at that time, it wasn’t guaranteed at all, and so Lavell and I would meet there, sometimes with his roommate Trish, sometimes with other friends, sometimes just the two of us. We weren’t livin’ large…neither of us were making a particularly large amount of money. We had jobs. I was a teacher, at the time a high school history teacher, but I wasn’t, you know, making great bank. But it was affordable. The food was always better than the Majestic. Many nights at Union Street with LaVell, it will always be a close place. That’s where people would be before, and maybe even after…
Joe Ales: One of the more striking characteristics was that the crowd was very diverse, and everybody was just…well, cool. Forgive me for being pretentious, but it had a kind of zeitgeist.
Kevin Jackunas, former vintage clothing purveyor, current online vintage clothing purveyor and Santa Claus-stand-in: I met the most beautiful woman that I have ever met in my life at Union Street. It was Halloween I think. I was there, across the street at the Majestic with my buddy. We ran across the street to Union Street to see what was up. I caught the eyes with this beauty and have not stopped seeing her [in my head] since. I invented the courage to speak to her and forgot all about my buddy. She was sexy, maybe dressed up as Barbarella or something, her friend was dressed up as Medusa, with all these rubber snakes in her hair. There was a snappily dressed character [Coston: that was me] that inserted his presence at the bar and distracted our flirt. We have all become life-long friends, I hope I am telling the story right. The funniest thing that I remember after leaving is my buddy saying “why do you get the Barbarella chick and I get the girl with snakes in her hair”
Stacy Lauwers, former Barbarella-esque local clothing designer, currently bi-coastal stylist and vintage Trans Am aficionado: That same night…I remember Kevin rolling around in the back parking lot fighting with Tyrone [RIP?], the guy with the hook for a hand, and also flipping out and blaming me for lothario Lenny Pop of Hot Foot Puddin’ Pie hitting on me in the bathroom…
Carleton Gholz: I wish I remembered everybody’s name. There was one woman employee who–I don’t even know where she is now…I should probably figure out who it was. I had a devastating crush on her, and she was very kind to me, but of course it was never going to be…well, anything. But she was just very kind, and very lovely.
Ferris George: So yeah, I was the daytime bartender at Stewart’s [ed. note, where Hopcat’s is now], and I was working on “I Am The Elephant You Are The Mouse,” and we were getting ready to shoot the final leg of it, and we had already done Sri Lanka and all of that stuff, and I was gone for like a year. It was a shitty movie that nobody ever saw…[Coston: “wait..wait… what was it called…?”]. “I Am The Elephant You Are The Mouse…” [laughter], anyway I was flying out for Mexico City the next day. And I’m sitting there, I got this script in front of me, and I’m trying to learn like 30 pages of dialogue. I walked in Union Street and it was like 4:00 in the afternoon, and it was like 10:30 by the time I read the thing, and I only had like ten bucks to my name.
Vince Patricola: I’ll remember the treacherous runs across Woodward Avenue, often with people I just met. To the Majestic across the street and back. All the great laughter.
Billy Hunter: I do recall once leaving Union Street to go back to Majestic, and I had a big oil can of Foster’s, crossing…like, the 10 lanes of traffic. So I held the can down along my leg, you know. Like you would normally do when crossing the Drunken Triangle. And a cop parked outside Stewart’s, like…waaaaay up the street, claimed he saw me with the beer and gave me the ticket. It was bullshit. Did not stand up….
Randy Sly: …you picked me up in a station wagon for the Media Day opening of Comerica Park…then we went to Union Street, Majestic and Blue Moon, the usual “drunken triangle.”
Ferris George: So I think I drank like ten cups of coffee.
Rick Manore: My most vivid memory is being there when Niagara “held court.” Usually after an opening (hers or one she had attended) so most of those memories were mostly a lot of drinking and a lot of people going into the bathroom every ten minutes…
Amy Yokin: I was deciding between two of Niagara’s paintings and finally decided on “RUN”, a stark black, egg-shell & red Lana Turneresque moll with a gun…but I didn’t have the cash at hand, so did not make the purchase that night. A few days later I received the Opening’s postcard by mail. Nigara’s distinctive script warned: “Dearest, I will kill you if you don’t buy that gorgeous painting. Niagara. PS GET EVEN.” It now warns any visitors to RUN as they enter my living room.
Ferris George: And I just got the worst vibe, like, I gotta get the fuck out of here. And I had ten bucks and I didn’t want to leave ten bucks for like a two dollar coffee [Author: but you had like ten], so I went up to the bartender, and there was like a table full of guys at one of those tables near the bar, just rampaging, doing shots, whatever. That was Tino Gross, singer from the Howling Diablos, and Johnny Evans from the Diablos, their best friend Glen, and uh, that keyboard player from the Black Crowes, Eddie Harsch [RIP]. So they’re all sitting at a table, and, like I said, I had like the worst vibe, so I went up to the bartender…and everyone kinda thought “Bartender Dave” was a dick, ya know? As it turned out tho, he saved my life.
Carleton Gholz: Later on, people DJ’d there. It was the last time I saw Mike Huckaby [RIP]. He was DJ-ing with Vince Patricola a year ago February, and Mike was playing seamless classics out of his bag, and Vince DJ’d there for many years. Others did as well. Vince’s residency really affirmed that place’s current status as the place to go for brunch.
Amy Yokin: Under the later leadership of Ginger Zauner-Barris (who had previously made the Garden Bowl Bar at the Majestic a destination), the tradition of great friends, great food and heavy pours continued. On Sundays, Ginger provided the largest and best bloody mary bar I’ve ever experienced
Vince Patricola: I had the pleasure of DJ-ing Sunday brunches at Union Street starting in 2015, many thanks to Jen Howe who recommended me to play, and of course Ginger, who hired me to spin records right up until Covid hit. It was a great time there…always.
Amy Yokin: Many years on Thanksgiving mornings, she opened the doors at 7am to her employees, their families & close friends for a grand, complimentary parade breakfast, the parade marching right outside the front doors.
Randy Sly: When we were walking from Blue Moon back to Union Street we noticed a toddler, sitting on the 4th floor of a window ledge in that apartment building looking over the bank parking lot there, legs dangling over the edge…
Ferris George: So I’m standing at the bar there, trying to pay…I see a guy to my right, in a track suit, with one leg pulled up over his knee, and he reaches down and he pulls out this really huge, like a revolver with a really long nose on it. I’m like “this can’t be for real…” And he’s literally running into the place…runs up to me, and he puts it in my mouth..all the way into the back of my mouth, and he tilts my head back…so the sight of the gun cuts the shit out of the roof of my mouth. He’s got it in his mouth, and he’s screaming “I’m going to kill this mutherfucker…this is a hold up…get your wallets out!!!” dah dah dah dah….and there was like a scuffle, you could hear people like scream and shriek, and it was Tino and Eddie and those guys diving for the floor,
Jerry Peterson: …that could have meant somebody dropped a quarter…
Ferris George: …and the guy turns the corner and yells like “BAMM!!!”
Randy Sly: We were trying not to panic the little kid, and a smattering of people had gathered while the fire department was called…and then out of nowhere a hand came out of the darkness and pulled him inside, and we all were like “wheeeew!” It was traumatic. Everyone needed a shot after that.
Vince Patricola: Members of the music community would always come to eat, drink, socialize, hear great music. Thank you so much Ginger for keeping the spirit of Union Street alive. Wolfpack for life.
Amy Yokin: Huge cheers to anyone who ever loved, lived, ate, drank and served at Union Street…and incredible chefs through the years: Oge, Eddie & Raven! I’m going to miss that beautiful place and their killer Dragon’s Eggs and Rasta Wings that cannot be topped on the Scovill Unit scale of heat!
Randy Sly: We ended up watching fireworks from the roof of a building on Gratiot near Eastern Market. Ferris was there and someone pulled a pistol and shot towards him [ed. note: different pistol incident, same Ferris]. He later showed me the bullet hole.
Ferris George: And I swear to God, I’m standing at the bar, and I don’t know what to do, so I duck down, and he turns right back around and points the gun at my head, and he’s coming at me, and Dave, the bartender, opens up the cash register, pulls out the cash drawer, and just gets between [the gunman] and me, climbs over the bar basically, hands the guy all the cash, like “over here over here,” cuz the guy like was aiming the gun at me again, and cocked it, and Dave like jumped over the guy and gave him the money. And the guy just sped out of there..took the drawer and ran. So that’s my Union Street story. I’m sure Tino probably has his version as well.
Carleton Gholz: It was also a place I could take my parents, honestly, where I didn’t feel like I was “selling them out.” They wanted to go probably to the steak house…my dad was a Joe Muer’s guy. But this was our Joe Muer’s. It was the hip downtown kids’ Joe Muer’s. Muer’s was too stuffy, but it wasn’t going to be for us. That was the “old Detroit,” the “old white Detroit” in particular, and I think this was a different view, a different way, and something I was definitely drawn to.