For a moment, when I turned onto Grand River Avenue from Woodward, I was slightly disoriented. On my right, a glass and metal structure stood 10 to 12 stories high where a giant hole dug for the Hudson’s Site had been. I looked up through the sunroof to get a better view. A horn honked behind me. It could have been any in a line of vehicles appearing in my rearview. Through the windshield the new Gucci facade smacked me right in the third eye. I pulled to the curb. If not for the valet, who opened my door and welcomed me to Shinola Hotel, I thought I may have come unstuck in time.
Not long ago this area was empty – no light, no stop signs, and if there were they would have gone unheeded. Apart from the virus, which certainly slowed the city’s renaissance – or, at least, our perception of it – Detroit has been changing. Since the 80s, many will remember the area for empty store lots and streets, with steam billowing from its sewers. While a certain sect, a series of legal and not so legal rooms providing cover for the city’s underground electronic and rave scenes. On this end of summer afternoon, however, with Detroit Month of Design in progress, the avenues and walks are full.
Bowing his head, a doorman leads me through the entrance of a three year old refurbished building. Shinola occupies a series of structures built in the first decades of the 1900s including, the Singer Building (1936), designed by Smith, Hinchman, and Grylls, and what is now the hotel by T.B. Rayl Company (1915); with architect Wirt C. Rowland designing the elaborate, red terra cotta tile that appears brilliantly restored on its exterior by Gachot Studios (NYC).
4pm | Check In
From the foyer, guests have the option to check-in at the reception desk, finished in mahogany, or to relax in the “Living Room”; a large sitting space with vaulted ceiling, arched windows, and a 20 foot Arabascato Grigio stone fireplace overlooking a vibrant collection of art and custom furnishings, curated by Gachot Studios and Library Street Collective (Detroit). A curved staircase on the far end of the room leads to an unmarked mezzanine with billiards table and additional mid-century inspired seating.
I’ve enjoyed the Living Room for coffee in the afternoon and drinks during cocktail hour – resulting once in a high stakes game of CLUE (after discovering the classic board beneath my second Martini) that ended, perhaps, not too surprisingly, with Miss Scarlet and a rope in the conservatory. But, on this evening, I was eager to get to my room.
After a pleasant encounter with the hosts, I’m shown to the elevator. Inside, I push the button assigned to my floor. Exiting, I’m surprised to encounter more art and furniture creating an elegant enclave (so often, boutique design ends in the lobby). Arched hallways, glorious woodwork, illuminated by period lamps and sconces, have also caught me off guard, until I realize I am actually a few floors above my destination. I move back inside the elevator, push my floor and wait – only to wind up where I began.
Doors open. I step out and look around.
Where am I?
It feels like the ground floor. I watch others board the lift, then follow. A man waves his key passed the buttons, then pushes his floor.
Oh, the key fob?
So, it’s like that, Shinola?
The Room + Amenities
Everything in this sophisticated apartment is in order. Simple, classic luxury, the Study Queen, as its called, offers plenty of space in three compartments for the boutique minded business traveler or couple seeking a romantic interlude.
Upon entry, one finds a foyer complete with closet (and plush robes), a lovely cabinet housing chest of drawers, with a stocked snack and mini bar that includes a discreet “Romance Kit”. On top of the cabinet, a Shinola receiver/speaker system, which includes bluetooth. As you may know, Shinola began in Detroit during the Great Recession, manufacturing watches, before moving into bikes, leather accessories and audio equipment; the hotel, an extension of its success.
Any number of artists work in this environment but I felt like something from Aphex Twin.
In the main room, bed and linens are warm and inviting, supported by two 8 foot windows – in my case, overlooking Woodward. A sleek flat screen mounts inconspicuously above a mid century sofa; a large canvas dominates the bedside wall. And, there are several control options for lighting including natural, soft, or indirect to set the mood.
Perhaps, the most impressive aspect is the bath – comprising twenty-five percent of the lodgings – with glass enclosed shower, vanity and sink, and private water closet all finished in striking, geometric tile and Gachot Studio wood. Again, there are several options for illumination; low to studio (presumably, for makeup). And, the soulful fragrances from Le Labo (Grasse – New York) are found in all the little bottles and bars of soap; with Santal 33 the aroma of the season.
The temptation would be to throw off your clothes, wrap yourself in a plushy, and luxuriate in this unexpectedly detailed room. And, who could blame you? But, a text came through notifying me that my lovely would soon arrive – I’ll be in the lobby, xo
On my out, I noticed a short, red suede flogger hanging from the door handle.
Apparently, God and the devil are in the details.
On the Shinola Campus
After a cocktail in the Living Room it was decided that we take a look at some of the shops in what the hotel refers to as Parker’s Alley; an area designed and curated by Shinola to celebrate Detroit’s entrepreneurial spirit.
Better Half Grilled Cheese Co. offers, through a nifty carry-out window, a variety of artisanal cheese sandwiches. Admittedly, we considered making a meal of grilled cheese but continued along the walk just to see our options. Stretching one city block, the Alley features refurbished brick and tile, with strings of overhead lighting, bistro tables, and holds a few secrets; including, one of the famed Shinola city clocks and a quiet doorway leading to the hotel’s speakeasy inspired bar (and, no, I won’t reveal it’s location).
We passed Mister Dips that, without further investigation, struck us as an ice cream shop. We strolled passed Madcap Coffee (making note of a possible morning rendezvous). And, then stepped inside The Brakeman – an American Beer Hall – which, for the moment, stood empty (but, quite polished). Here, guests buy tokens to exchange for cocktails and large parties rent tap tables to serve themselves a by the hour stream of carefully selected drafts. Apparently, tipplers can also order fried chicken and sides from Penny Red’s in the adjacent building (connected by a not so secret opening). The Hall seems bookmarked for suburbanites with a high level of interest in collegiate sport. Not where we were at the moment. So, we pressed on, our sojourn ending in a shared Twist at Huddle! Soft Serve – a little family owned frozen custard stand tucked modestly in the location formerly held by Chickpea in the D.
7pm | Dinner at San Morello
Although, we had plans to eat elsewhere our time on Shinola’s campus was such that we decided to try Andrew Cardellini’s San Morello restaurant. That, and the fact the sun was setting an amber hue over its patio, conspired to create a certain romance often associated with being on vacation. In fact, we were beginning to feel a bit like tourists in our own town.
For those traveling, an evening at San Morello is not a bad idea. The bar and dining room are lively. The menu, designed by a James Beard Award Winning chef, features southern Italian and Sicilian dishes. Seated on the patio, we had an enjoyable conversation over Wood-Fired Pizza and Autumn Agnolotti (with truffles and sweet corn).
I overheard a woman speaking fluent Italian – transporting me to Rome – before moving to English, for the server, so she could, ironically better communicate her order from the Italian menu. Moments later, a vehicle – powered by a group of peddling women – rounded the corner at Woodward and Grand River; Super Freak by Rick James blasting from its speakers. The ladies were laughing and singing and drinking and, if I didn’t know better, encouraged by their guide to give all of us on the patio what was either a collective “Toast” or “The Finger”.
al fresco Detroit style.
Our server returned with the check. Once known for throwing raves just a block north of our location, I’ll refer to him now as, Billy. We spoke of the city as if past, present, and future existed all at once.
“We love the hotel and the restaurant,” I concluded. “But, I feel like if we were in any other city, this might be the most touristy part of town?”
Billy watched while epiphany washed over my face.
“Yeah, you’re that guy,” he said.
9pm | Three Bars in the Neighborhood
SPKRBOX serves hot/cold coffee drinks and cocktails, supported by a steady mix of electronic music. It bursts with a proper blend of Old and New Detroit. Formerly, Urban Bean Co., this hip, little joint, encased in glass, with espresso and pop orange detailing, was one of the first to arrive during the resurgence of Capitol Park. While we didn’t visit on this night we were pleased to see it filled. Take note of the graphic paint job on the adjacent parking structure by Detroit artist, Michelle Tanguay – known for her mural work and that tumultuous, fine art piece hanging over the bar at Wright & Company.
We did stop at Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy, however, for Detroit Browns (Crown Royal, bitters, Vernor’s Ginger Ale) and the greatest house band in the city. Unfortunately, we didn’t see owner and friend-to-the-city, Larry Mongo, who has been taking a bit of a Final Farewell Tour on Facebook this past year. But that didn’t stop us from having a fabulous time. It’s hard to imagine a bar that represents Detroit more than D’Mongo’s. The speakeasy has a history that dates back to the 80s when it was Wax Fruit Rhythm Café. Reopened under the current moniker in 2007, Larry and staff have created one of the Must See Bars in the nation. Simple as that. Great food, drink, interior design, with a spontaneous atmosphere. Photographed with the best of them – Mayor Coleman Young, Ryan Gosling, Quentin Tarantino and, of course, his wife, Diane – our own Jeanette Frost (whom Larry initially confused for Julianne Moore) has been photographed with the legend and, of course, would make anyone’s Wall of Fame.
On the block and a half walk from D’Mongo’s to our Hotel we wrestled with the common question that hits us all before calling it a night: Should we have one more? And, as Queens Bar is literally steps away from Shinola, we decided the appropriate answer was, No. Not that there is anything wrong with Queens – there isn’t – but we had other plans for the duration. Had we visited this neighborhood bar on the corner of E. Grand River and that interesting section where Farmer and Library Streets connect, I would have said that it now has the distinction of offering great views of the Gucci facade. That, and its menu consisting of several specialty sandwiches and sides, give Queens a certain, je ne sais quoi.
After Midnight | Hotel Hide and Seek
Nette was enjoying a long, hot shower and the amenities previously mentioned when I remembered the short, red flogger on the handle of the door. She came out wrapped in a stunning black, floral kimono and thigh-high patent leather boots.
“Who’s that for?” she said.
Her eyebrow raised. “How bout’ I use it on you?”
A playful exchange ended in détente when it was decided that a game of Hotel Hide and Seek would determine who controlled the flogger. The rules were simple: 5 minutes to Hide, 10 Minutes to Seek, 2 out of 3 wins the contest.
We flipped a coin to see who hid first. Tails, me. Heads, Nette. Heads it was. We coordinated the timers on our phones. After 10 minutes we’d text our location to acknowledge the round was over. 3-2-1-go. Nette exited the room. I heard her stiletto heels clicking down the hall. And, then they were gone. After 5 minutes, I made my way to the elevator, pushed the button for the ground floor, exited, and wound my way through a labyrinth of hallways, filled with art and shadow, until I came to a downward staircase marked “Restrooms” – their direction identified by an arrow.
Nette stood on ultra clean, geometrically patterned, tile flooring; leaning over a porcelain sink, freshening her pouty lips in the mirror. She spoke in monotone.
“That was quick.”
“I figured you’d go the furthest distance in the shortest amount of time.”
“How’d you know I’d be in the Men’s Room?”
“The Women’s was obvious. And, you’re not obvious.”
Anthony 01. Nette 00.
We synchronised our timers and I exited the Men’s Room. Back up the winding stair, down a hall leading to the beautifully desolate portrait of an astronaut – That’s How It Felt To Walk On The Moon (1986) – by Alan Bean, acrylic on masonite 48×34″. I moved passed the mahogany reception desk, through the Foyer, which glowed in a high gloss, French Blue lacquer, and into The Living Room; stopping for a moment to appreciate Nick Cave’s Tondo (2010) – comprised of found beaded garments, wool and wood, 10 ft in diameter. It is said the artist was thinking of a dream state, “…where we imagine in the present how we exist and function in the world” while preparing for this piece. After losing myself in its depth a text came through.
Ready or not here I come.
I moved through an arch, down a hall, maybe up a stair (or, was it down?), until I walked quite by chance through an odd door that opened into an elegantly designed, softly lit, cocktail bar.
The maitre’d showed me to an intimate booth for two, where I ordered a Dirty Blue (gin, bergamot, fino sherry, olive brine, sweet gorgonzola olives), in wait for Nette’s text. Chimes rang quietly from my phone, signaling time had run its course.
Ally Ally Oxen Free, texted Nette.
“Excuse me,” I said to the server. “Where am I?”
“You’re in the evening bar, sir.”
“Thank you,” I said, and texted Nette my location.
… … …
Well played, she replied.
8am | Cannelle Detroit
Nette woke at 8am to Almond Croissant from Canelle Patisserie. I made the one block hike to Capitol Park while she slept surrounded by pillows and comforters. The aroma of fresh bread and pastry hit me as I crossed Woodward Avenue. It was a race to see if I could beat the sun to its door. Inside, I exchanged pleasantries with the morning crew and wondered if there was a finer patisserie (outside of France, of course), in a finer park, anywhere else in the world.
Back in the lobby, I poured two cups of dark roast from a gorgeous brass cistern, compliments of the hotel, and brought it all up to our room. We opened the curtains, leaving the sheers in place, and listened to the city rise. Police sirens began just after eight. Nette turned on Breathless and we stretched our morning as far as we were able, eating delicious pastry in bed.
Finally, we enjoyed one last, long hot shower before getting dressed and packing our gear.
11am | Check Out
We sipped more coffee in the Foyer while we waited for valet to pull up the car. The “Living Room” was humming with morning activity; business persons talking, last night’s bridesmaids (now in sweats) lounging on the sofas, children playing with their toys.
A woman, appearing to be the manager, entered the room holding a paper cup concerned the coffee may not be right.
“Does this taste burned?” she asked.
Sometimes, it’s good to be a tourist in your own town. Obtain a new perspective. Embrace a fleeting moment.
The text came notifying me that our car was out front. We threw our bags in the trunk, tipped the Valet, and did all those little things we do – seatbelts, music, windows, text messages – before embarking. Nette engaged her phone as if she were solving a problem.
“What’s the matter,” I asked.
“I don’t know, this is …” her fingers moved quickly. “Did you turn on our Location Share?”
I pulled away from the curb into an unusually busy flow.
“Would have been pretty hard to find you in the basement Men’s Room, if I hadn’t.”