Living it up in Old Detroit

From nickel meals to elaborate dinners, Detroit’s restaurants, taverns, roadhouses and saloons were the hangouts of their day

By Bill Loomis  / Special to The Detroit News

Before the famous Delmonico’s restaurant opened in New York City in 1845, there were no restaurants in the United States as we know them today. There were, however, “eating houses.” Detroit had its share, usually attached to saloons, where food was served, often to encourage more drinking.

This advertisement proclaimed a new enterprise in 1850:

Patrick Collins has opened a new Eating House on Griswold Street. Mr. Collins is a stirring man and of course will be successful. The arrangements are all “tip-top.”

Eating houses featured specialties like “all-you-can- eat” oysters or green turtle soup; they usually announced “a good accommodation for victuals” such as soup, potatoes, beef, ham and so forth. Nevertheless, complaints about the food were common. With the famous French chef and cooking instructor Professor Pierre Blott moving to New York City and becoming America’s first celebrity chef by 1865, Detroit newspaper editorials hoped that students of chef Blott could “relieve the country from the reproach of having but one gravy.”

The earliest restaurants appeared in the 1870s in Detroit, and by 1899 the city had 169. People had come to rely on restaurants for lunch, dinner and throughout the night as night shift workers, many living in lodging houses with no kitchen, began to depend on restaurants as their only source of cooked meals. (Prior to the 1870s, most single men lived in “boarding houses.” A boarding house provided room and food. Later, as salaries in Detroit and the United States overall tightened, single men usually were found in less respectable “lodging houses,” which were simply rooms.)

In 1918, a series of riots broke out in Detroit when William K. Prudden, the state coal director for Michigan, ordered restaurants and all “non-essential businesses” closed, in a plan to save coal fuel during a winter shortage. Thousands of hungry and angry night workers hit the streets, and the order was immediately rescinded.

 Restaurants and social class

Detroit restaurants were in many cases categorized by the social class of their customers. Aside from the “first-class” restaurants, there was no menu to choose from; you got what they served that day. On the low end was “a meal for a nickel.” Nickel meals were served down by the docks in the bars where the ruffians and machine shop labor might show up. For a nickel you got a bowl of soup and bread or pork and beans.

Dinner for a dime was advertised in front of restaurants, which many times displayed their offering that day with a sample platter set on a chair or table inside the door. It might include a long-braised cut of beef, sauerkraut and a piece of buttered johnny bread (corn bread). Next to this array was typically a platter of buttered potatoes. Other days the offerings might have been pot pie, corned beef and cabbage, or pork roast. Your beverage choices were coffee, tea or milk — soda pop did not exist yet. Dessert was pudding.

People ate at the bar or at small wooden tables while the food was brought by waitresses who in 1899 were called “restaurant girls.” A bit later they were called “waiting girls” which then became “waitresses.” They worked for salary, no tips; in better establishments, tipping was considered insulting. The waitress uniform began in 1915 in New York City and spread across the country. It started as a plain black dress, white apron and white cap.

A restaurant girl was interviewed in Philadelphia in 1896 and asked what she thought of her line of work.

“Oh, all we restaurant girls think there is nothing like it,” she said. “Of course the work is hard. You don’t get many chances to sit down. … The life is a bright one. … The life of restaurant girls has a change of faces. We see new faces and get new ideas for dresses and bonnets from the women patrons. Of course, the work never changes a jot, but the changing faces keeps us from getting in a rut and keeps us younger and gayer in feelings.”

Moving up the restaurant scale, a meal for 15 or 20 cents got you more choices. They offered two meats, such as corned beef and cabbage or a Detroit favorite, “city chicken,” which was actually cubed pork or veal shoulder skewered on sticks (something to vaguely resemble chicken drumsticks) and braised in sauce. Veal and pork were cheaper than chicken in those days. In addition, you could take tomato soup, beets, pickles and bread and butter. Along with pudding, they offered apple pie.

These restaurants advertised that they used the “card system”: “One can pick out just as much or as little as one wants.”

Stepping it up further, for 25 cents you had a substantial choice. The following was the bill of fare for a quarter at one Detroit restaurant in 1899:

Broiled trout with egg sauce

Roast short ribs of beef. Brown potatoes.

Broiled English mutton chops. Baked potatoes.

Stewed Spring Lamb Petit pois.

These were served with desserts, coffee, tea, cider, beer or ale.

 Fine dining establishments

For 50 cents, you could dine in the finest restaurants in Detroit. It might be the Hotel Cadillac Café, the toast of Detroit in 1892. It was very progressive, serving both accompanied and unaccompanied women. You were attended by a waiter wearing a formal dress coat. Dress coats were at times the source for labor disputes for waiters and restaurant management, as the uniform was expensive to maintain in the mandated spotless condition, especially during the winter “off season” after the holidays, when dining traffic slowed and management would cut salaries.

The dinner menu would take a normal patron two hours to get through. It typically began with consommé, then fish, beef, turkey, duck, wild game and shrimp, all with sherbet served between meals. And of course, patrons had many choices of desserts.

In these high-end restaurants, little was subtle or restrained; the dining room appeared plated with gold, bejeweled with crystal or swathed in purple velvet. The Hotel Cadillac Café centerpiece for a reception held for Miss Valerie Etheridge Moran and E. Leydon Ford held in 1904 was an eye-popping example, as reported in the Detroit Free Press:

“The table, twenty eight feet long and six feet wide, was set in the center with a mammoth electrical fountain spraying water from four founts; the basin was ten feet long and three feet wide and was inlaid with red, white and blue electric lights and sprayed water also from its four sides into the center. The lights caught the water and flashed it in many delicate hues, while goldfish in keeping with the colors glided here and there among the varicolored lights in the basin. Around the edges were seashore stones and otherwise the table was a solid mass of costly flowers.”

 Ethnic restaurants

As early as the 1860s, advertisements appeared in Detroit newspapers for Italian, French, Greek, Venetian, German and Polish restaurants. However, the most popular were Chinese restaurants. The first Detroit Chinese restaurant, So Ho Tip, seemed to serve only two dishes in 1900: Bird’s Nest Soup and Chop Suey. Another restaurant, the Oriental Café, featured exotic décor described in this review:

“The ceilings are painted to represent the blue sky. … Looking up one sees the blue sky and the clouds. In the night the light is furnished from above, but to carry out the illusion the moon and stars shine out in splendor, and some of the electric lights are held in place by birds.”

Detroit boasted of having 12 Chinese restaurants in the early 20th century. Dining at them was an escape from mundane life, with all the ethnic clichés firmly exploited. One restaurant on Larned Street was busted in 1906 for housing an opium den in the basement, where the newspapers reported white women “hit the pipe” in “dark, smutty rooms.”

This 1912 bill of fare, advertised for the Oriental Café, included the following for $1.75:

Mandarin Cocktail

Soup: Bird’s nest Sub Gum

Relishes: Chinese Chow Chow

Fish: Fish Rolled with Walnuts


Spring Wings Peking Style

Sauté of Duck’s Liver with Pickled Egg Noble Fashion

Roast: Emperor Pan Roast Jumbo Squab



Coffee or Tea


Taverns and inns

Although the term “tavern” was used loosely, it typically meant a restaurant-bar with rooms for overnight travelers outside the city, located on the major roads.

There were Ruff’s place, Buckin’s Tavern, Sheldon’s Tavern and Marsten’s, to name a few. They served travelers, drovers and their crews, teamsters, local farmers, sometimes soldiers and families emigrating to the American West.

A long-time favorite on Grand River Avenue was the Weston Inn, better known later as the Botsford Inn. In 1836, Orrin and Allen Weston built a large family home/inn named the Weston House alongside what would become the Grand River Turnpike. Another of the most beloved by pioneering families was the Old Ten Eyck Tavern in Dearborn, founded in 1826. It was located on the Chicago Road (Michigan Avenue) 9 miles from the city.

Running a tavern was long hours of hard work. The Wayside Inn, located closer to Detroit, served primarily hog, sheep and cattle drovers. A drover was a team of men and their shepherd dogs paid to move 40 or 50 animals on the hoof down the big roads to the city markets or slaughterhouses. In the evening the drovers would arrive at a tavern, where their livestock had to be penned, watered and fed, while the drover team ate dinner and went to bed. Teams kept arriving until 11 p.m. or midnight.

They were a rough clientele. This Detroit Free Press interview was with a retired tavern keep in the 1840s:

“In the house it was worse than in the barns. The drovers and their boys would be awful hungry, and the way they would hide victuals was a whole show. The tables were occupied from early morning to late at night. … All my girls could do was bring more, more all the time. … And it was just as bad with the cooks. The stoves were hot all the time. … By 3 o’clock (a.m.), those drovers who got in early the night before and were abed by 9 o’clock, would be up, stamping around the house, shouting for their breakfast and pounding on the bar for me to come down and give them their bitters. I couldn’t stand it now.”

The taverns went out of business with the arrival of train travel.

 Roadhouses and saloons

Roadhouses were located on the outskirts of Detroit in Highland Park, Hamtramck, Royal Oak or Pontiac with such names as La Belle Inn off Woodward, Marquette’s and Crooked Acres at Seven Mile and Woodward. They were outside the city to keep out of the eye of the police, since they were often the source of crime and trouble up through the 1920s.

Anyone could drink at a roadhouse, and they frequently served hard liquor to boys as young as 12. Some had illegal slot machines, hosted “cocking mains” (cock fights) and frightened local farm families with brawls, robbery and gunfights. They flouted the no-alcohol-on-Sundays law and were called by one Hamtramck sheriff “a menace to the peaceable citizens of the village.”

In the city, Detroit had between 500 and 600 saloons in the 1850s to 1860s. By 1915, that number had risen to 1,700. The proportion was described as one saloon for every 50 families. While the wealthy had their clubs and the hotels, the working man had his saloon (where women were not permitted).

They were also a reflection of the society of the times. From the 1850s to the turn of the century, a significant percentage of American cities were made up of bachelor men, as part of the industrialization and geographic expansion westward. Some of the young men came from Detroit families, while others arrived from all parts of the country and overseas.

In an excellent book by John Schneider, “Detroit and the Problem of Order, 1830-1880: A Geography of Crime, Riot, and Policing,” he refers to this issue as a “bachelor transient sub-culture.” Their numbers surged at the end of the Civil War, and the bachelors and their activities began to frighten the established society whose businesses and homes were adjacent to those areas where young men hung out and looked for ways to entertain themselves. Saloons were one activity; billiards, which were introduced in the 1850s, was another, and brothels were a third source of entertainment.

The Detroit Daily of 1871 described a saloon as a hangout:

 “Young men comes in and sets around the table talking for an hour yet, and drink only one glass apiece. They don’t seem to want much beer, but they got no other place to go. …”

The saloons and brothels that catered to this group were mostly located along the Detroit River, with a great many in a dangerous slum east of Woodward called “the Potomac.” Just north of Jefferson was another smaller hangout called “the Heights.” These areas were adjacent to wealthy homes and split “Piety Hill,” the wealthy church-lined street which was east Jefferson Avenue. During these decades following the Civil War, the public’s attitude toward these men shifted; as much as they were admired during the Civil War, years after the war they were now feared and referred to as “floaters” or “rootless drifters” who were simply lazy and refused to look for work.

After the Civil War, some men who returned to the city were thought to have psychological disturbances and violent outbursts from their traumatic experiences on the battlefields. There was no police protection until 1868, when the city formed a police department. Detroiters were protected by only ineffectual sheriffs and “ward constables.” Private armed guards were hired for retail shops and businesses. During the 1860s, fear of mugging, burglary and rape was constant, and the saloons were viewed as the source.

A large portion of the saloons were owned by brewers, such as Stroh Brewing. The big breweries would fund a new owner by paying for the saloon, furnishing it and stocking it with liquor. In return, the new owner was expected to sell only the brewer’s brand of beer. But the new owners seldom stayed true, and when a cheaper beer was offered, they switched.

 Drama and political hangouts

Saloons were the source of endless maudlin dramas of drunken husbands, deserted wives and broken families. In one court proceeding, the wife declared: “He was a shiftless man who didn’t care what happened as long as he could have his cigars and sit in saloons and play cards.”

They were frequently political hangouts, as well. The Detroit bar Sharp’s was known as “a sporting and political headquarters.” From 1908 to 1917, one notorious saloon was owned by Billy Boushaw in the first precinct of the first ward. Boushaw called himself “King of the precinct” and “foist of the foist.” His saloon and boarding house (actually a flophouse for sailors) were at 111 and 115 Atwater Street; he lived above the saloon. Boushaw helped down and out “floaters” and dock workers in the infamous river precinct and in return got their votes. It was said that he controlled the 1914 Detroit city election. A 1908 newspaper editorial voiced its opinion of Boushaw:

 “Probably the most startling thing that would catch the eye of the most casual observer is the condition of affairs in the first precinct of the first ward, where ex-convicts, thugs, thieves and booze grafters swarm the election booth and rule the day. … It is notable that no less than 27 votes were enrolled from Billy Boushaw’s tough lodging house and saloon. … For the most part it is a tough set that frequent the place — scum.”

 The Rajah of Swill Point

A whiskey distillery operated at the corner of First and Jefferson in the mid-19th century, where, along with producing barrels of whiskey, it discharged mountains of swill, the grain slurry from making whiskey. Dairy farmers from around the city would line up wagons to load swill for their cows and livestock. The distillery eventually closed, but the blocks surrounding it became known as “Swill Point,” and by the 1870s and 1880s it was one of four notorious slums in Detroit. Police were afraid to go into Swill Point, the Potomac, Kentucky or the Heights.

The streets of Swill Point were described in the newspapers as “badly illuminated at night by the lights of dozens of low saloons.” The saloons had colorful names like the Slaughter Pen or House of Lords. They were owned by characters such as the notorious Dan Hanrahan or Jem Cummerford, called the Rajhah of Swill Point, who always carried a revolver and tended to use it when drunk, which apparently was constantly.

 A jolly winter tour of the slums

In the 1880s, as the police began to gain some control on the crime and rioting, it became a fad in big American cities for young people of wealthy families to tour slums, jails, ethnic neighborhoods and generally dangerous places. Like New Yorkers and Bostonians, in Detroit small groups of couples from areas of the city such as Piety Hill would gather on a Saturday night in winter, hitch up sleighs and head down to Swill Point under a police escort. These were young married couples who a newspaper of the day described as “never been more than a stone’s throw from the major thoroughfares or promenades of the city.” They rode in a roomy sleigh pulled by four horses.

One such tour started at the Brush Street Electric Works where the superintendent of the facility gave them a tour and demonstrated how electric light bulbs were made. Then they entered Swill Point and looked into a saloon where a prostitute named Maud Doyle had not long ago committed suicide by poison in Jem Cummerford’s “grog shop.” Then they inspected the “bummer’s rest” or Woodbridge Street Police station, where Sgt. Noble led them to meet fifteen prisoners. One woman prisoner fell to her knees screaming and pleading for help to be let out, with zero effect.

The eager group then was led to the basement to visit the tramps’ lodging, but they did not stay long due to the suffocating furnace heat and nauseating stench. They continued their night at another police station in the Potomac and Heights slums where the women were encouraged to sit in a paddy wagon and toured more cells. Then the police escort called in the guitar and harmonica orchestra for an impromptu concert.

The “slummers” ended up in the German gathering spot Arbeiter Hall. This was the famous gathering hall for Germans in Detroit and through out the state of Michigan for many decades. The hall could get a bit combative politically with union, socialist, communist and even anarchist meetings, but this night there was a party of 300 dancers whooping it up with a big band playing German dance hall favorites. By now it was 1 a.m. and the group was famished. They had pretzels and fragrant Schweitzer Sandwiches (which were not popular due to the stinky German cheese), however, the novel hot Frankfurter sausages hit the spot and they danced for hours, ending up at home at 3 a.m.