If you like whiskey and dive bars, this is your new home.
Detroit hosts a number of different color palettes across its ever-changing landscape, but even still the combination of lime green and rose-tinted red is unique, especially for a Hamtramck dive bar open since before Prohibition. The aptly-named Painted Lady Lounge is the most recent in a long string of storied dive bars to inhabit the Victorian building nestled into one of Hamtramck’s signature residential streets.
Though it is relatively common to find a handful of dive bars in any given city that can trace their roots back prior to Prohibition, few of them grow up to be punk rock institutions. Such is the case for the structure that today holds the Painted Lady Lounge, home to an unnamed speakeasy before stints as Sam’s Café, the Columbia Bar and Lili’s 21. It is the Lili’s 21 portion of the Detroit dive bar’s heritage that still stirs up memories among locals attracted to a scene unlike anything else in the city at that time.
Maria Lidia “Lili” Karwowski opened Lili’s 21 in 1974 and presided over the business until her passing in 1999. Thanks to a son part of the punk band The Mutants, Lili’s 21 quickly became a hub for punk shows in Detroit, attracting acts like The Clash, Iggy Pop, Wayne Kramer and others. A large stage would be moved into place before shows, blocking the front door. This blockade forced visitors to march single file through a snug alley toward the side door of the building (the next door building has since been knocked down).
With that kind of entrance, it’s easy to envision the cramped, hot, beer-soaked roots that transferred to new ownership in 2002 when Lili’s family ultimately decided to sell the bar. Renamed and repainted, things have been cleaned up a bit compared to its Lili’s 21 roots, but make no mistake that this is a Detroit dive bar in the best kind of way. Framed photos from its past life as Lili’s 21 can be found in spots along the Painted Lady Lounge walls.
An even more intriguing nod to the structure’s past, a hidden staircase behind a bookcase in the front of the room harkens back to the bar’s Prohibition speakeasy era. The small room and remnants of a basement bar are sometimes used for special events. Live music still cycles through a small stage in the corner of the bar’s main area (thankfully the front door is no longer blocked by a portable stage during shows). Painted Lady Lounge does get Lili’s 21-style crowded before and after Detroit City FC games thanks to the bar’s proximity to the stadium and relative lack of options in the surrounding area.
Outside, classic dive bar-style opaque glass blocks surround two small windows on either side of the bar’s front door. Pink neon that matches the trim of the bar’s exterior reads “Cocktail” and “Lounge,” one in each window. Inside, the space is a bit minimalist by dive bar standards, black & white tile underneath orange walls spread across a pair of rooms.
The main bar is obviously a vintage piece, down to the old-style handle coolers that still hold Painted Lady Lounge’s beer selection. PBR can be found both on-tap and in the form of a vintage lamp above the beer taps. An arcade game, pinball machines, pool table and vintage jukebox round out the bar’s amenities, all of it capped by a classic stamped tin roof.
Hidden under the history and dive bar vibe inside Painted Lady Lounge is one of the more expansive selections of whiskey in all of southeast Michigan. The bar’s web site maintains a list of the many options available, some of them quite rare. Whether whiskey pairs with donuts is unclear, but each year, Painted Lady Lounge celebrates the Polish tradition of Paczki Day held on Fat Tuesday. The Detroit dive bar puts a unique spin on the festivities, creating Buffalo Trace and Fireball versions of the traditional paczki donut served on that day.