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I Found Detroit: It’s Hiding Inside Miller’s Bar

Miller's Bar

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Okay, so it wasn’t me that found Detroit, it was a bunch of loopy French people who took a break from picking mushrooms. And it wasn’t Detroit, it was an otherwise blankish Detroit suburb that took the national stage only because Henry Ford decided to be born there. So it was more like Dearborn I discovered—that funky Westside satellite which didn’t allow black people past the front gate until 1978, the same year that the Mormons did—and is now sweating the fifty billion Muslims who followed.

Other than that, the headline stands: I found Detroit.

Yes, indeedy: Miller’s Bar on Michigan Avenue and South Birch, on outskirts of Dearborn with a bit on Inkster tossed in for panache—you can’t get any more down home cozy than this.

Or more Detroit.

Faux Pas Extraordinaire

The dumbest thing I’ve done so far in 2012? Walked into a joint called Miller’s and ordered a Bud. I was thinking, what?… ¿Quién sabe?

What I do sabe is that on a Saturday afternoon at 2 PM the place was sardine-packed, and I was lucky to snag the last open stool at the antique Brunswick bar, which is the venue from which I asked the barkeep for the hitherto-mentioned unmentionable. At his earnest urging, I settled for a draft High Life, and proceeded to eavesdrop on the guy sitting next to me—a sixty-something gentleman evidencing great gravitas (as the politicos say); he began to pepper the bartender with questions like, “How much Chambord did you use in that last drink? What else went in it? What did you charge for it? That should be at least five bucks…”

As a result, I struck up a conversation, imagining that the guy was a semi-tanked geriatric yapaholic, asking him if he’d been in the bar trade, and it turned out that it was the bar’s owner, dead nuts sober—Mark Miller was simply keeping tabs on his margins.

Excellent: I proceeded to get a history of the place, which is known as having the best bar burger in Michigan, and nationwide, according to GQ Magazine, Number 8. Seriously.

And in fact, the Miller’s Bar blog contains a map showing an outrageous global influence. Apparently, accordingly to the red dots (not on their foreheads, dumb ass), people are willing to drive to Dearborn from as far away as India to eat Miller burgers, and let me tell you, if you can get someone whose religion forbids them from eating hamburgers to rave about your hamburger, you’re doing something right.

Seventy Years of Schlepping Beef to the Barbarians

Under the hegemony of the original burgermeister—Mark’s Uncle George—Miller’s Bar first opened its doors in 1941, it might have used the slogan ‘Where Everyone Knows Your Race.’ That same year, and for the next thirty-six years, the most outspoken segregationist north of the Mason/Dixon Line sat in City Hall, sponsoring thinly-veiled campaigns like ‘Keep Dearborn Clean’ and fighting low-income-housing referendums with less-than-thinly-disguised campaigns, including one where cards were passed out that read ‘Keep The Negroes Out Of Dearborn.’

Not much gray space there, is there?

You know how many times he was re-elected? Fifteen. And when he finally left office in 1978, relinquishing his dictatorial rein on a city of 100,000, you know how many black people lived there?

Twenty.

That Was Then, This Is Now

The Miller gang never rolled like that; Mark is a gregarious Vietnam vet and his bar has long-catered to the multiracial work force of the Ford Motor Company. In fact, he’s originally from nearby Inkster, a city which is currently 73% African American.

“It’s never been anything close to an issue here. Ever. Look around, we’re into everyone, no matter a background.”

Along with brother Dennis, Mark has been running the bar for eleven years—far less time than some of his employees have worked there. The sons took over when their father Russ passed away in 2000, although it’s accurate to suggest that both had been fixtures in the unadorned, unassuming, tablecloth-and-plate-free watering hole since they were knee high to a crème de menthe and crème de cacao over ice.

I’ll Gladly Pay You Tuesday…

Among the old-school Miller traditions is the menu-free, ‘no check’ policy. Yes, Virginia, everything is done on the honor system. Which means, if you want to run a tab, you’ve got to run it in your head and your math skills be damned, then rattle it off to the cashier on the way out. Why this is easier than a server scrawling it on a scrap of paper is not for me to judge, but from what I witnessed, even gigantic parties seemed to be making a real effort to be honest and accurate, erring, if at all, on the side of the establishment: “I think I had three, but maybe it was four. Put me down for four...” *

It’s the sort of moral code generally reserved for folks who share your DNA, but that’s Miller’s Bar’s unwritten mission statement, business plan, prospectus and One Commandment:

It’s a family affair, and you, my brothers and sisters, are family.

The afternoon I spend shooting the shit with Mark, no fewer than a dozen regulars—men and women of all races and ages—stopped by to say hey; Mark not only knew who they were, but where they worked, what they were did over weekends other than drink Millers at Miller’s and was eager to ask after their children and grandkids by name.

That’s what I mean about Miller’s Bar being the real Detroit.

Growing up on Eight Mile and Evergreen, these are the people I remember. These are the people who lived next door to us, who went to St. Gerard with us, whose kids I ran with, who built the cars, owned the bars and ran the city—and not into near-receivership like that colossal clod of contemptible corruption, Kwami Kilpatrick. Somewhere along the way, as a community, we collectively lost our ability to maintain (and demand) an ethical overview of reality—no matter how sad or desperate said reality might become.

And, in homage to such days, when you and I could drive through Detroit neighborhoods and not pray we didn’t throw a piston rod, I leave it to you to stop by Miller’s Bar for a burger and a balmy bath in bonhomie.

Just be prepared: The nostalgia may leave you, like it did me, a sadder man Budweiser.

* That would be four Millers, not four burgers, by the way. No way a sumo wrestler, a caber-tosser, a linebacker or Rosie MacDonald could down four of these babies—they are gigantic, succulent paradigms of predatory piggery from that Canaan of carniverosity where the closest you’ll come to a vegetable is a dill pickle. Lettuce and tomato? Try the Om Café.

Half a pound of ground-up cow on a steamed white bun served commando-style (wax paper) with fries or rings if you gotta. The meat is contracted from a local packer and ground on premise, and Mark’s secret—as he readily confesses—is that he has no secrets.

“Fresh meat, delivered and ground daily—the butcher starts at 4 AM—and zero seasonings.”

When James Beard and Julia Child roll over in their graves, I’ll make sure to be holding up a copy of GQ.

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