Campau Tower has been serving up burgers on Joseph Campau Avenue for about as long as Hamtramck has been a Detroit suburb. In a world where yesterday’s haute cuisine is today’s savory Jell-O mold, that’s an incredible feat. Campau Tower has survived the neighborhood’s transition from a Polish enclave to a diverse mixing bowl of Poles, Yugoslavians, Bangladeshis, Arabs, African-Americans, and just about anyone else you could think of without skipping a beat.
Formerly a White Tower – an early White Castle competitor – the formula to Campau Tower’s long-term success is simple. 1. stay open 24 hours a day. 2. keep prices as low as possible. Here, a 25 cent rise in prices is still a big deal.
You’d think with Campau Tower’s history, it’d be a slider joint. But you’d be wrong. In a classic Hamtramck incongruity, it’s an American diner, serving up not just burgers, but coney dogs, select breakfast staples, and even fried pierogis (other examples of Hamtown incongruities include an Art Deco clinic now used as a mosque and an abstract street art mural on an old Polish Army Veteran’s Club).
The patties are of the frozen hockey puck variety, like you’d see at McDonald’s, the onions rehydrated and the cheese thoroughly American. Cooked on a greasy, flat grill, the burgers pick up flavors like Charlie Sheen picks up hookers. Now look, I’m not going to sit here and tell you that a Campau Tower burger is better than Motz’s or Telway, but it is better than McDonald’s. It’s satisfying in a gut-rotting, junky way. These are calories that count.
Of course, there’s another important reason to go to Campau Tower besides price and convenience: atmosphere. Any place this old is bound to have character. You know you’re in for a different kinda experience the second you lay eyes on the dingy porcelain enamel tiles outside, which were probably last power-washed in nineteen-ninety-never.
The help tends to lack expected social graces, too. Not that I’ve ever had a bad experience. It’s just very, very, very informal, like ordering food from a grumpy aunt or uncle. But then again, what do you expect from a restaurant that has an aqua and orange color scheme?
Walk in, and whether it’s 6 PM or 3 AM, you’re virtually guaranteed a colorful conversation or two with a diehard patron about political corruption or relationship woes. Hamtramck lifer Stanley Mierzwa was enough of a staple at Campau Tower that his obituary in the local rags last year read: “Frequent guest of Campau Tower Restaurant on Joseph Campau in Hamtramck.”
He lived until the ripe old age of 91. I guess he musta known something.