As the home of Motown, the driving heart of Northern Soul and the American epicenter of electronic music, Detroit’s creative scene is unparalleled. Forged in a setting of pioneering and innovation, its people are tough, unapologetic and open. Detroiters know that when the winters are bitter and the jobs are scarce, community is what matters most. They also know how to take a moment and celebrate the flawless sunny summer days when the music is blaring down Belle Isle and the bars are dishing out cool drinks.
Detroiters may bristle at being called “The Next Brooklyn”—or the next anything—but the city’s bar scene has undeniably blossomed in recent years. An influx of tech talent and investment, especially in the downtown area, has revitalized the restaurant industry. But the craft cocktail scene isn’t the only bar scene in town. A classic Last Word is as easy to find as a boilermaker at a dive bar or a neat pour of bourbon at the city’s famed jazz clubs.
For this installment of Punch’s “A Night at the Door,” we talked to the gatekeepers at three very different bars in Detroit. In Poletown, on the northeast side, Tommy Stephens holds court four nights a week at the Raven Lounge, Michigan’s oldest blues bar. The former educator took over stewardship of the club after decades working in the city’s schools. At the bar, he shepherds new talent and celebrates international superstars while he and his wife, Theresa, take turns at the door, keeping a close eye on who does—and doesn’t—merit admittance.
Downtown’s Belt Alley is bedecked with glittering lights, colorful murals and flocks of tourists posing for Instagram. Big Mike Jaiyesimi and his partner, Miso “Soup” Brown, are in charge of a couple dozen security guards for partner restaurants The Skip and Standby. The Skip is a tropical fantasy bar, featuring Mai Tais, frozen Irish Coffees and French 75s, while Standby serves as its upscale foil with a full bar and restaurant.
We end our journey at The Painted Lady, a pre-Prohibition, hot pink and mint green Victorian-turned-punk club, which has one of the best whiskey selections in southeast Michigan and is guarded by Andrea Bonaventura, the bar’s manager and bouncer. All three shared their stories of late nights, strange guests and the real Detroit.
Workplaces: The Raven Lounge
What is your role at the Raven Lounge?
I am everything. I’m the owner of the Raven Lounge and Restaurant. Typically I greet my customers. But these are hard times, pandemic times, so as a result, I have to work! Anything that needs doing, I help.
How long have you been at the Raven Lounge?
Have you been in Detroit all your life?
No, I’m from Florida.
What brought you up here?
Money. I was hired in 1968 as a teacher for Detroit Public Schools. I came because, at that time, they were the highest paid teachers in the nation. I taught kids who could not learn well. I stayed there for 27 years and retired as the director of the entire special ed department.
So, to relax after teaching for 30 years or so, you bought a bar?
I came to the Raven Lounge in 1968. This was a place where police officers, teachers, social workers, automobile company employees were hanging out. I met the owner, Sam Watts, and his wife and fell in love with the Raven, and drink 90 percent of my alcohol here. I’m not a drinker; I drink wine. A couple glasses. In fact, if you ever see an owner of a bar who is drunk at that bar, he won’t have it long.
What’s a typical night like at the Raven Lounge?
The Raven gets better as the night goes on. The first show starts around 9 o’clock, and it’s a good show. Second show comes in, and other musicians who have played elsewhere, they take the mic, and that makes it even better. And then around 1, 1:15 the last show comes in.
The last show is just delicious, delicious Creole blues. It is just fantastic… right until the light comes on, which is 10 minutes to 2, and we sing the song “Take Your Drunken Ass Home.” Everybody leaves laughing and happy. That’s what it’s about. You work hard, you deserve a good time. That is the whole night at the Raven.
What’s the hardest part of working the door?
All money ain’t good money. We have people we occasionally turn away at the door. If you’re going to come to the door cursing, nope. You’ve come to the wrong place. Thank you, but no. I keep my place that way by having a multiethnic, multigenerational, multiracial place by design.
The hardest thing I have is saying to certain people, “You drink too much. You’ve had too many drinks tonight. I’m cutting you off.” There are some bar owners who would push more drinks. We don’t do that in the Raven. We don’t want you throwing up in the bathroom, we want you enjoying yourself.
At the end of your night, what’s your drink of choice?
It depends. If I have a good night, my barmaid knows to give me a drink. White wine, riesling, German riesling. If I have lost money and I’ve had a bad night, she knows to cut the lights so we can get the hell out of here, ’cuz boss man is mad he lost money.
Workplaces: Standby and The Skip
What is your role?
My role is security manager for The Skip and Standby.
How long have you worked there?
I’ve been doing this for Skip and Standby since summer 2016.
What’s the crowd like in the Belt?
The crowd in the Belt is one of the most diverse in the city. When people come in from out of town, they have to see it—this alley in Detroit that’s been transformed and there’s bars and clubs. We’ll have out-of-towners, we’ll have people that come down because it’s not like a typical nightclub where you have to pay a cover to get in. You can come, drink, have fun and the music is really amazing. You can get a beer and a shot, or a frozen Irish Coffee or fancy cocktails.
Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
Almost every weekend. Over the course of a night, we’ll see anywhere from 600 to 1,000 people pass through both venues, and I may have to remove two people. Usually people have friends with them. If you can’t talk to them because they’re too inebriated, then you can also talk to their friends, like, “Hey, you might want to get your friend out of here.” That’s our way, as a security staff, to make sure that we’re more hospitality-forward, instead of just a big dude who puts people in headlocks and takes them out. We really try not to do that.
What are some of the craziest things you’ve seen working the door?
People get weird when they get told “no.” Especially during our Miracle event—we have the Sippin’ Santa cocktail event from the day after Thanksgiving until New Year’s. Those folks, they’ve driven down from wherever they live, [and] they don’t like being told “no,” so sometimes they’ll come in and refuse to leave. That’s pretty much the extent of it. The security presence helps things. On a weekend night, we will have anywhere from five to 15 people on security between all venues.
What makes you good at your job?
My height. No, if I’m going to say I’m good at my job, it’s because I am naturally charismatic. I like engaging people. When you approach, I’m not your typical mean bouncer. I try to give a more inviting approach to it. Talk to them. If they have to wait in line for Standby, [I’ll] talk to them about how their day is going.
What’s the biggest challenge of your job?
The biggest challenge by far is the patience aspect of it. You can have a day where your day or your week have really not been good at all, but you don’t want to project that onto anyone. I think everyone in the industry can relate to this: When you come in, or something could have happened 30 minutes before, or a couple coming into Standby could be just the worst, but because they rubbed me the wrong way, I’m not going to project that onto the next people that come in. Patience, patience, patience.
When you are done at work, what do you eat and drink to unwind?
When I’m done with my shift, I usually shoot the shit with my staff. My favorite post-shift drink is just a shot of tequila and a cider, a Oaxacan Old-Fashioned if I’m feeling fancy. I like to decompress with food and music. I’ll eat a Coney Dog and listen to some music. One night I might want to hear ’90s hip-hop. Because I’m of Nigerian descent, I love Afrobeats. Sometimes I’ll just listen to chill house. It’s always mellow.
Workplace: The Painted Lady
How long have you worked here?
How would you describe the crowd at The Painted Lady?
It’s a little bit of a mix. We got young kids in their early 20s all the way to old men and women. People from all walks of life. It’s definitely a bar for everyone.
Have you ever had to kick anyone out?
Oh yeah. So many times. It doesn’t really escalate that much. Usually you cut someone off, and say, “OK, it’s time to go.” Sometimes they don’t want to go. So sometimes you have to get their friends to rally around them, and say, “We’re going to make you go.”
If it’s a busy night and there’s a show, sometimes people will bring in their own alcohol because they think you’re stupid and you’re not going to see it. Then you catch them with a 40 in their hands, which we obviously don’t serve. So you have to kick them out, and then they try to come back in and you gotta do it again.
What’s the wildest thing that’s happened here?
People puke in the urinal and we have to clean it up a lot, which sucks. Not a lot of people fight in here, but I’ve seen a lot of fights outside. It’s hard to tell what’s crazy, it just feels like another day in my life. I had someone punch another customer for playing a song on the jukebox he didn’t like.
What song was that?
“Bridge Over Troubled Water.” The police had to come. I smoothed it all over. Since then, I’ve been trying to get it taken out of the jukebox, to not incite any more riots.
What makes you good at your job?
I think it’s mostly being able to talk to people. It takes a lot for me to get overwhelmed and to get a hot head. I’m very patient.
At the end of the day, what is your ritual?
I definitely have a couple beers. I do a couple shots of Fireball. Then I go home and take a shower to wash it all off. I absorb a lot of energy. So after a night at the bar I feel chaotic. Sometimes it’s jarring. So I have to chill out, have some drinks, take a shower and wash it all away. Then I go to bed.