Tucked into a quiet street in downtown Detroit, a tiny nightclub with an outsize personality pumps out jazz and soul on select weekend nights. Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy hosts politicians, celebrities, rappers, power brokers, scene kids and not a few underworld characters. Presiding over all of the genial chaos is Larry Mongo.
Mongo’s roots in Detroit go back over a hundred years, to an ancestor fleeing murder charges in North Carolina who set up shop as a smuggler and gambler. For decades, the Mongo family ran booze for the notorious Purple Gang during Prohibition and ran “the numbers”—an underground lottery system popular in Detroit—for kingpin Eddie Wingate. Two of Larry Mongo’s brothers succumbed to street life, running heroin for Young Boys Incorporated, a drug-trafficking gang that dominated Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s. Another brother became a power broker in the Democratic party, managing political campaigns and later becoming an author and radio host.
From his upbringing in a small town next to a predominantly Jewish neighborhood just north of the city, Mongo scrapped his way up through the system, fighting for Black housing justice and becoming the target of a House Un-American Activities Committee investigation. Larry and his wife, Dianne, owned a chain of hair salons in Detroit in the 1970s and ’80s, but Larry’s outrage at being denied entry to a nightclub prompted him, in a fit of pique, to start his own. In 1985, he purchased an ailing Greek restaurant and converted it into Café Joseph, named after a gay friend who had experienced similar discrimination; the club eventually morphed into Café D’Mongo’s. (The “D” pays tribute to Dianne’s contributions to the bar.)
Since its initial opening, Café D’Mongo’s has weathered some of Detroit’s most difficult years, but has remained a beacon of hospitality for regulars and newcomers. For a time in the 1990s, the venue was dubbed Wax Fruit Rhythm Café; there, Larry’s son Jerome booked young performers like Eminem and Proof. Shortly after, following an uptick in crime in downtown Detroit, Mongo shuttered the club for a dozen years. He reopened the doors in 2007 when the city’s nightlife started returning.
The crowded, cozy interior is cluttered with artifacts from Detroit’s past, musical instruments and photos of Mongo with celebrities like Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Gosling and a myriad of Motown greats. Since Café D’Mongo’s is only open on weekends, it can be tough to gain entry. Once inside, though, guests are treated to Mongo’s wealth of stories and warm hospitality, along with some of the best people-watching in town. The drinks are solid, too, with an eclectic cocktail list created by the ingenious bar team Mongo has assembled over the years.
For months, if not years, Mongo has been announcing his imminent retirement, but he’s still here. At 72, he has stories to spare about the old days of Detroit, during the dark ’80s all the way to the recent influx of tourists and office workers.
In 1985, Larry Mongo purchased an ailing Greek restaurant and converted it into what would become Café D’Mongo’s.
How did your youth shape your work in Detroit?
I grew up in a small little Black town called Royal Oak Township. To the west of me was the city of Oak Park, which was basically a Jewish city. We had a lot of people who were Holocaust survivors there. Their life helped shape my views about a lot of things and on the mere fact that we, as Black people, weren’t the only people that had a rough history.
I saw this immense suffering and it was always a question of, how did they overcome it? Or even if they never overcame, that they knew how to compartmentalize this pain and continue to strive. I use that as my blueprint for life.
How did Café D’Mongo get its start?
What shaped Larry Mongo as a young man was that I came from a family of entrepreneurs, even though it was illegal. Back in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, my family as a whole always operated blind pigs. And we ran the numbers. If you look up a man, Eddie Wingate, then you know who we worked for in Detroit. Remember, Detroit was one of the richest cities in the world once, and in the ’50s and ’60s, a lot of Black people got a lot of wealth out of that.
How did Café D’Mongo get its start?
Back in 1985, there was a brand-new disco club that opened downtown. As I waited in line, I saw these white attendance guards come out, and go up to white people and take them out of line, [then] take them in. I saw these three drug dealers that I knew pull up… They say, “Mongo man, come on here. They’re not letting Black people in, but you come with us.”
No. I told my guests, I said, “Come on. Let’s go.” As we were going back, I saw the sign in the window of a Greek restaurant that said “for sale.” I made a call the next day to see how much it would cost and bought it right there.
That’s what I learned from the Jewish people: They won’t fight for you to accept their money. They’re just going to open up their own place and be your competitor.
The crowded, cozy interior is cluttered with artifacts from Detroit’s past, musical instruments and photos of Mongo with celebrities and a myriad of Motown greats.
So there were two separate “lives” for D’Mongo’s, right? Because you were open for a while, then you closed, and now you’re open again?
The first time [we were] open, I was making unbelievable money. I was patronized by all the top politician[s], Black celebrities in the world. And all the Black gangsters. I kept the gangsters in check. Everybody knew when he came in, there was certain behaviors, certain standards, and money was great.
And then around the early ’90s, a couple of store owners got murdered right down the street. I knew then I couldn’t leave just a bartender and a cook, a skeleton crew–I knew I couldn’t leave them anymore. I knew it’s too dangerous to do that. So I set the place down and mothballed it up until 2007.
What made you decide to reopen?
A lot of it was in the young white kids, the creatives. I call them “pollinators.” It was mainly gay white women who were living in these lofts by themselves. With the drug dealers, it’s almost like they had a peace treaty. The drug dealers told the users, “Do not bother those white kids.”
I told my wife, “Dianne, don’t worry, these little white kids, they get bored quick, this creative class. I’m just going to do it for the summer for them. Don’t even worry; it’s Fridays only.”
I used to make them close at 10. One day I came back at 10, and the girl said, “We’re not closing. You don’t know, everybody’s coming out at 10. We’re not old.” She said, “Just sit here, let me get on my phone now.” Next thing I know that place is packed, and I’m keeping the place open until 4, 5, 6 in the morning.
Your wife has been a huge part of Café D’Mongo’s success. How long have you and Dianne been working together?
She keeps my schedule, and she’s kept my schedule for me since we were babies. We were born together, basically. We’ve been together 72 years.
She stopped me from doing 10 in the Midwest pen, trust me. Let’s just say—the lifestyle I could have been in and probably would have gone in with my brothers, I would have been very lucky if I were to get out of [it] alive. It cost them their lives. I’m one person that marriage saved his life.
Mongo serves an eclectic menu of cocktails created by the bar team he's assembled over the years.
What kind of drinks do you like to serve?
If you’d have come in the old days, it was Cognac, all Cognac. I think I served maybe three beers. I had Dom Pérignon Champagne, the top of the line. Everything had to be top shelf. When I reopened, I had no idea of what people like to drink. So all that was put together by Sarah Kubik, Christine Passerini, my present manager, and Courtney Henriette, who was my main partner in building that club in the early days. The beer delivery guy, Dave, built the beer menu.
Café D’Mongo’s is known for the Detroit Brown. How did that happen?
It was made by accident. Courtney didn’t even drink. A man came in that wanted some drink, and Courtney mixed something up. And he said, “This is not what I asked for, but I like it. What’s in it?” She said, “I put bitters, Vernors and Crown Royal.” He drank two or three more. When people came in, we always wrote a special on a piece of paper. Courtney said, “Larry, what do I call it?” Well, I said, “it’s brown. Call it Detroit Brown.”
You’ve been hinting—or threatening, I should say—to retire for years now. Is that likely to happen?
It’s not likely! The truth is, at 72 years old, I’m on the deck of the Titanic. The ship is on its way down. Now all I’m trying to do is get me a clarinet, get in the band, and be the last one to go down… playing music, happy and content, doing what I want to do. Just give me a band chair and I’ll lay back with a Cognac.