Michigan’s largest and most populous city, Detroit has turned into an emblem of American urbanism. It’s long been celebrated as the heart of the automobile industry and the birthplace of Motown Records — and it’s studied in our coming issue as the epicenter of the Modernist experiment — but it has also become a symbol of unbridled gentrification. Still, in the last decade, Detroit has added a new designation to this list of many: tourist destination. This is somewhat of a complicated development for a city with very real struggles, but its appeal to outsiders is also well-earned. Its rich history and character can be readily appreciated at its renowned museums or one of its newer hotels and shops, or by chowing down on a plate of Coney dogs, a local delicacy.
Trumbull & Porter
The 144-room Trumbull & Porter hotel opened two years ago, but the space has a history of lodging travelers: It was inaugurated as a Holiday Inn in 1966, attracting family road-trippers, and then became the locally owned Corktown Inn for a two-decade span. Trumbull & Porter’s revamped interior doubles as a showroom for Michigan’s furniture industry, with Thompson Millwork-designed beds and closets, couches by Grand Rapids Chair Company and a fleet of desk chairs and side tables from the Zeeland-based Herman Miller (across the state). But the property’s exterior is equally noteworthy, thanks to a calendar of film screenings, concerts and yoga, all hosted in the hotel’s courtyard.
The Siren Hotel
The 14-story Wurlitzer building has been an unmissable part of Detroit’s skyline since the mid-1920s; it housed, for decades, a musical instrument company before emptying out in the ’80s and then falling into disrepair. But the five-months-old Siren Hotel has breathed new life into the Renaissance Revivalist exemplar, restoring its travertine floors, the plaster detailing on its ceilings and its terra-cotta signs. The word “hotel” is actually a bit of a misnomer, since the Siren itself has all of the makings of a destination: 106 guest rooms, ranging in size from bunked twin beds to a duplex penthouse, a lobby coffee bar serving Michigan-roasted beans, a pair of restaurants (Albena, helmed by the James Beard Award nominee Garrett Lipar, and the still-in-progress Karl’s, by the chef Kate Williams), a cocktail lounge, a florist, a karaoke bar, a two-chair barbershop, the Siren’s own retail space and a rooftop, to be completed next year, that looks into the Comerica Park baseball stadium and onto Canada, just across the Detroit River. One can truly see the whole city without leaving the building.
Detroit Foundation Hotel
The idea of repurposing extant Detroit buildings extends even to the city’s former fire department headquarters downtown, now the 100-room Detroit Foundation Hotel. The structure’s original arched entrances, tiled first-floor walls and marble flooring are offset by warm lighting, plush velvet sofas and a slew of locally made snacks. The Foundation Hotel also has its own restaurant, the Apparatus Room, led by the two-Michelin-starred chef Thomas Lents, along with an intimate chef’s table. But of particular note is the hotel’s street-adjacent studio and its giant windows. It regularly hosts artists, like the area muralist Tony RoKo, and podcasters, like Hillary Sawchuk, who records episodes of her popular show “A Drink With” in the space.
Before there was Detroit-style square pizza in New York City, there was Detroit-style square pizza at Buddy’s on the corner of Conant and Six Mile Road. According to Southeastern Michigan lore, the restaurant opened as a tavern in the 1930s and added Sicilian pies to its menu in 1946 to boost business during World War II. It certainly worked; since then, Buddy’s has opened nearly a dozen more locations in the neighboring suburbs (including, most recently, one in the college town of Ann Arbor) and introduced gluten-free fare, as well as burgers for the pizza-averse. No matter the entree, each Buddy’s meal should begin with a bowl of vegetable-heavy stewlike minestrone soup topped with Parmesan cheese. You can’t find any copycat recipes in Manhattan — yet.
American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island
An archetypal Detroit establishment, the Coney Island restaurant is known for its beef hot dogs topped with beanless chili, chopped onion and mustard — served spilling out of a steamed bun — called Coney dogs. The dish, best navigated by fork and knife (and without ketchup), is said to have arrived in the Motor City at the turn of 20th century by way of Greek and Macedonian émigrés. It found a proper home at American Coney Island, which was opened around 1920 by Gust Keros. His brother Bill opened Lafayette right next door, in 1936, either because of a family feud or simply as a result of coming to the United States slightly later than Gust, depending on whom you ask. (A more dramatic retelling claims that Bill erected a wall in the middle of the original restaurant.) Detroiters are generally allegiant to one or the other; fortunately, for curious and hungry tourists, it’s easy to visit both during the same lunch stop.
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Larry Mongo opened his eponymous downtown bar and restaurant in 2007, but the space has had a number of past lives — most famously, as Cafe Joseph in the late ’80s, then as the Wax Fruit Rhythm Café nightclub, run by Mongo’s son Jerome in the early ’90s. (Mongo himself took an indirect route to speakeasy ownership, running a chain of hair salons as a young man.) Still, Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy has the distinct vibe and assorted wall hangings of a storied dive. Patrons stop in on Thursday, Friday or Saturday evenings for a mixed drink made with “pop” (namely Faygo Rock ’n’ Rye) and whatever’s on the menu — sometimes grilled cheese, sometimes Peking duck.
In 2016, the Lebanese restaurant Al Ameer received an America’s Classic award from the James Beard Foundation (honorees must have been open for a decade and be locally owned), the first of its kind in the Michigan food scene. But a more literal measurement of the establishment’s reputation could be the number of pitas made each day by its co-founders Khalil Ammar and Zaki Hashem and their kitchens: approximately 4,000, at each of Al Ameer’s two locations. Both are situated outside of Detroit’s city limits (in Dearborn, home to one of the largest Middle Eastern populations outside of the Middle East, and the neighboring Dearborn Heights), but it’s well worth the short car ride to fill up on falafel, perfectly spiced shawarma, hummus and stuffed grape leaves.
Lady of the House
Raised in the suburb of Northville, the chef Kate Williams told the Times’s Pete Wells that she “fell in love” with Detroit after returning home because of a death in the family; Williams then “decided this is the only place I want to have a restaurant.” She opened Lady of the House last fall and it quickly became a regular on best new restaurant lists, even earning a James Beard Award nomination for the same superlative. If one could ascribe a theme to the menu — which includes ham terrine, carrot soup, Williams’s take on spaghetti and meatballs (tobiko is among the ingredients) and potato doughnuts — it would be “charmingly hyper-local”; the makings of Lady of the House’s salads travel only several blocks from an urban farm to Williams’s plates (and some of the restaurant’s china originally belonged to her grandmother).
John K. King Used and Rare Books
A bibliophile’s paradise, John King’s four-story bookstore (occupying, since 1983, a former glove factory just off the Lodge Freeway) contains more than one million titles across 900 categories. Last year, in a novella-length interview for the Detroit Bookfest, King named just a few of his finds. Among them: a leaf from the Gutenberg Bible (dating back to 1455); first editions of the Federalist Papers, “The Great Gatsby,” “Through the Looking Glass” and “On the Road”; personal photographs of Mark Twain and a set of original drawings by Salvador Dalí; and a copy of “Pablo Escobar Gaviria en Caricaturas 1983-91,” the drug kingpin’s self-published book of political cartoons. As remarkable as the titles is the low-technology shopping experience — browsers make their way through the stacks with copies of a handwritten map, asking questions of employees wielding old-school walkie-talkies.
A list of Motown attractions wouldn’t be complete without a music store, and vinyl collectors come from around the world specifically to flip through the display crates at Peoples Records. The owner, Brad Hales, started to amass albums as a boy and opened the store’s first iteration about 15 years ago in Detroit’s Cass Corridor; he had to rebuild elsewhere after a fire that claimed most of his catalog. But these days, Peoples is thriving, with two different locations full of soul, R & B, jazz, funk and rock 45s (no tapes and no CDs), spanning the 1920s to the 1980s. And to further satisfy fans of music history, Hales’s Gratiot Avenue outpost also houses the so-called Michigan Audio Heritage Society Museum, featuring an assortment of old and mostly Detroit-related photographs, posters and other artifacts.
The design curator, agent and Detroit-native Isabelle Weiss established Next:Space in 2014 as a way for local furniture designers to show and sell their pieces. She now represents a dozen makers, including the textile artist Paula Schubatis; Nina Cho, known for her small sculptural objects and distinctive mirrors; and Brian DuBois, whose wooden tables and shelving put a contemporary spin on the material. The Next:Space roster is currently moving into a new storefront in Ferndale (slightly north of Detroit) to open at the end of September, along with the debut, and wholly hallucinatory, furniture collection from the Pontiac-based experimental art and design duo Zuckerhosen. In the meantime, though, Weiss can still be found downtown. She helped organize “Shape: Defining Furniture in Michigan’s Design Legacy,” an exhibition at Shinola’s flagship as part of the first-ever Detroit Month of Design.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
In 1965, Dr. Charles H. Wright founded the International Afro-American Museum inside of a house he owned on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard; one early exhibition focused on the inventor Elijah McCoy, another put on display African masks from Nigeria and Ghana. More than half a century later, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History — now a 120,000-square-foot facility on East Warren Avenue — owns 35,000-plus artifacts and archival materials, as well as the Blanche Coggin Underground Railroad Collection and Harriet Tubman Museum Collection, among others. Its unparalleled permanent exhibition, “And Still We Rise: Our Journey Through African American History and Culture,” spans 20 galleries, taking visitors from the dawn of mankind in Africa to the election of Barack Obama, and deftly situates Detroit’s role in the black experience. Most recently, the Wright Museum hosted the public viewing for the late Aretha Franklin. The institution is currently preparing a homage to the Queen of Soul titled “Think,” set to open later in the month.
Mary Chase Perry Stratton officially founded her ceramics practice in 1903 at the American zenith of the Arts and Crafts movement; she renamed it Pewabic the following year, although it wasn’t until 1909 that she developed the iridescent glaze now synonymous with her pieces. Today, her East Jefferson pottery studio (designated a National Historic Landmark nearly three decades ago) offers tours and workshops, hosts rotating exhibitions and has, of course, its own store. Pewabic installations can be seen in the wild throughout Southeastern Michigan — at the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, on the Cranbrook School campus and as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts’ collection — and outside of the Motor City, at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, the Nebraska State Capitol and the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
A Pewabic ceramic-tile installation at Comerica Park. CreditPhoto: Jason Keen
MOCAD is an often-mentioned art-world acronym, but the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit hasn’t been around for too long. It opened in the fall of 2006 (in a former car dealership) and made a name for itself from the get-go, its inaugural exhibition marking the first time that black artists like Kara Walker, Nari Ward and Mark Bradford showed in the city. Since then, the space’s programming has made it an automatic stop for tourists and locals alike; in 2013, the museum added to its roster of attractions Mike Kelley’s “Mobile Homestead,” a to-scale replica of the artist’s childhood home in the Detroit suburb of Westland, an artwork itself and also an event space. This fall, MOCAD will honor another native son, Tyree Guyton, with a retrospective of his long-running Heidelberg Project — the outdoor, block-long and much-talked-and-written-about installation that, in many ways, was the museum’s forebearer.
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation and Greenfield Village
The Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation contains the car industry’s greatest hits, from the 1896 Ford Quadricycle Runabout (the first car he built) and the famed 1919 Ford Model T Sedan to boxy ’80s minivans and more recent hybrids; also on display are the limousine in which President John F. Kennedy was killed and the bus in which Rosa Parks remained seated and made history. But the museum isn’t limited to vehicular artifacts, with rooms devoted to early telephones, centuries-old timepieces and a prototype of the architect R. Buckminster Fuller’s aluminum Dymaxion House. The adjoining Greenfield Village is even more immersive: One can step into the Wright brothers’ actual home and cycle shop (both buildings acquired by Ford), a replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park lab (where he invented the lightbulb) and the Sir John Bennett Sweet Shop — the undisputed highlight of every elementary school field trip.