Sneaky historic Detroit icon with pre-Prohibition roots.
The awning might look a little fresh, but the building the awning is attached to houses not only Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill but also over a century of downtown Detroit history. While it is indeed true that a smooth-looking black and orange awning now adorns the weathered, brick dive bar, few other updates have been made to obscure what is one of the sneaky historic haunts on the south end of Detroit’s dense urban center.
Thanks to some high quality historical sleuthing by Wayne State University and others, some evidence exists that a tavern of some kind existed on the site now known as Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill as far back as 1840. A one-story brick building was erected on the site in 1869 before eventual expansion to a second story in 1897. The business was known as the Andrew Healy Saloon at that time and even then was known as a historic landmark as the building was at one point used as a stop along the Underground Railroad.
After a stint housing a cigar maker and barber during the early 1900s, Prohibition saw the building converted into Little Harry’s, a not so coincidental name change that happened to coincide with the building’s sale from ex-owner Louis Gianetti to Harry Weitzman. Weitzman’s history includes a number of potential ties to the Purple Gang, the group that controlled illicit alcohol trafficking through the city. That Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill (or Little Harry’s at the time) could be accessed by tunnel seems like a potentially relevant structural trait.
A Wayne University archeological dig in 2013 produced evidence that the site was indeed used as a speakeasy during prohibition, even going so far as to uncover a false room with no entrances or windows, another potentially useful amenity for concealing contraband goods. Today, the tunnel attached to Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill is bricked up, but part of the structure can still be seen within the building’s basement. Of course, given the bar’s history and potential ties to organized crime during Prohibition, it should come as no surprise that rumors exist of bodies buried underneath the basement’s concrete that may or may not be the source of spirits that are said to haunt the structure.
Today, Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill is one of the great dive bars in a part of Detroit that might otherwise be overlooked thanks to a just-off-downtown location. The snug space feels a bit like a wood-paneled tunnel lined with framed photos and mementos sourced from Detroit sports team mementos and the Detroit dive bar’s extensive history. String lights, sports jerseys, newspaper clippings and a relentless amount of wood paneling conspire to create a downright cozy, neighborhood vibe. A purple felt, Crown Royal-themed pool table anchors the interior footprint that includes a long bar and a handful of high top tables.
Owner Tommy Burelle took ownership of the space in the mid-2010s, quickly developing a reputation for one of the best burgers in the city. The menu consists of typical bar favorites, but online reviews and occasional “Best of Detroit” lists single out the burger options as the star of the Tommy’s Detroit Bar & Grill show. A free shuttle is operated by the bar that transports visitors to and from live events at most of the city’s sporting venues, including Detroit Lions, Detroit Tigers and Detroit Red Wings home games.