Symbol of a constant safe space no matter the neighborhood's fortunes.
In many ways, Detroit’s Bronx Bar reflects in a microcosm the redevelopment and reimagining of the city, a Detroit dive bar that has endured the transition of its neighborhood from the seedy Cass Corridor to the rebranded “Midtown Detroit.” Opened in 1937, it is fair to say that Bronx Bar has seen more than one twist in Detroit’s fortunes over those many decades, but its 2nd Avenue location is a front row seat to some of the city’s most visible changes.
The story of Cass Corridor is well documented, a district in the heart of Detroit long associated with drug use, the sex trade and less-than-desirable conditions primarily during the 1970s and 1980s. The climb out of that reputation was slow at times, but steady, culminating in a number of Detroit-based publications shifting to calling the area Midtown rather that Cass Corridor, particularly after the construction of the arena that today houses the Detroit Pistons.
Even during the area’s more dangerous days, Bronx Bar was a refuge, more than one story of those days referring to the Detroit dive bar as a safe spot if it could be arrived at safely. Ownership has bounced around a bit over the years, but George Jordan shepherded Bronx Bar through some of those tough years, first joining as a bartender in 1942 before eventually purchasing the space. The art deco-style neon sign seen above the front door today dates to that time period, thankfully preserved and maintained over the years. Windows were scarce back then, creating a number of pre-renovation stories that cite the dark, divey conditions within.
Ownership shifted to Paul Howard and partner Scott Lowell in 2001 and with that shift came a set of updates to the property, most visibly the wraparound front patio and adjoining garage-style doors that create a seamless indoor-outdoor footprint when the weather cooperates. The space within Bronx Bar today probably can’t be classified as a dive bar really thanks to a cleanup job and a host of small improvements that resulted in more a comfortable, neighborhood corner spot for a burger and a beer rather than a true dive bar.
The space is divided into two rooms, the main space dominated by the bar itself and a secondary area that houses overflow seating, a few original benches, the bar’s pool table and its renowned pair of jukeboxes that still use physical media and boast an extensive and diverse song collection. Up front, the curved formica bar feels like a diner counter turned bar, a fair statement given the small cook station set up in the corner behind the bar that works off of the prep room in a separated back area. Colored subway tile is prominent throughout the space, creating an upscale vibe inside without adding any dreaded pretention.
The star piece of décor within Bronx Bar is no doubt the illuminated painting of a very nude Jean Harlow behind the bar that has hung in its place for decades. Those unfamiliar with Harlow’s work will be forgiven as she passed away in 1937 at the age of 26, but the artwork itself is undeniable and feels like a nice homage to the past of the area and of this particular corner of the neighborhood. Other elements include a dolphin statue complete with an attached women’s bra and metal signs from defunct nearby businesses along the wall in the back room.
And to add to the appeal of Bronx Bar, the food offering here is strong, all made within eyesight of those who order any of the selections from the chalkboard menu above the bar. Traditionally, the burger has been the go-to selection here and while that is still largely the case, options expand past corner bar classics into sometimes more adventurous categories.
Other quirks exist here, like the sink that sits in the middle of the seating area in the main room or the stained-glass style lamps that hang down from the bar’s extremely tall ceiling. All of the pieces within Bronx Bar add up to a beautiful corner neighborhood bar, the perfect spot to grab some food and drink in comfortable surroundings with a dose of history underneath.