Polish Yacht Club

I didn’t remember how bad the graffiti was. Detroit, quite figuratively, is bombed out. As my car kicked up loose gravel on I-75, I passed tag after tag, meaningless names like “GASM” on forgotten hulks of industry and commerce. The patina of grime, the cracked cement, the scraggly trees. You forget. No other big city looks like Detroit. Not even Buffalo. Not even Cleveland.

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(Original photo by Jess.)

Only in Detroit can the murders of a half-dozen people in one day be met with a shrug. “That’s Detroit.”

Still, they’ll tell us Detroit is improving. There are urban cities all over the country where streetlights work, garbage is collected on time, and the rec centers and libraries are still open. But some people would rather live in Detroit, no matter what.

Why? Roots, I guess. You can machete the weeds, but the weeds just grow right back. And Detroit has strong roots.

Hell, I even found myself missing the decay of Detroit. After living in Midtown for a few months earlier this year, I’d grown to appreciate its grand ruins as a rare cultivar to be painstakingly treasured and preserved. I liked the lax attitude that had overtaken its streets as authority broke drown. If there’s one thing you can say about Detroiters, they aren’t uptight.

Hungry for some Detroit, I set the GPS for the thoroughly landlocked Polish Yacht Club, or Ivanhoe Cafe. It’s one of the underground restaurants in Detroit that had always escaped me. I thought about going, but then I never did. “Detroitblogger John” tipped me off to it existence in 2010 when he wrote an article about it called Little Bar on the Prairie. It ended, as always, with a quote of deep profundity, where someone he interviewed sums up the story with unintentional pithiness. Since that’s how John Carlisle – as his Detroit Free Press byline now reads – operates.

Carlisle’s stories about lost and forgotten spots in Detroit were, for many of us, fresh revelations. For decades, suburbanites and out-of-towners had treated the city like a forbidden zone. The new ballpark and football stadium downtown made us visit again, and writers like Carlisle eventually got us to venture out from downtown to the city’s many hidden gems. His story about an old school Polish restaurant on Joseph Campau, right in the heart of Detroit’s decimated Poletown, sparked my imagination. That it too looked like an abandoned building from the outside, the windows dark and the brick worn, added to its mysterious appeal.

It’s beyond me why I took so long to check out the Yacht Club. I knew I had to rectify my oversight, and stat. I’d already dined at its spiritual cousin, the Dakota Inn Rathskeller on Detroit’s west side, an over-the-top Bavarian countryside distillation of Detroit’s historic German culture. There, they did campy sing-alongs on the piano, served rouladen and schweinefleisch, and made the waitresses dress up in dirndls.

Dining at the Yacht Club was a lower key affair. Similarly to the Dakota Inn, an overly friendly guy watches over your car, acting something like an aggressive bellhop desperate for a tip but unwilling to demand one. But where the Dakota Inn has an oddly touristy feel, the Yacht Club reminds me of a neighborhood spot – even if there isn’t really a neighborhood anymore. People are reading newspapers, chatting casually at the bar. Friends are gathered around tables.

It’s like a long lost pop-up book with a moldy cover, but otherwise intact. It might not look like much at first, but open it up and Detroit of yesteryear magically reappears in three dimensions. Photos of “club” members hang from the wall, cheesy grins under captain’s hats. There’s a nude in the men’s bathroom. A man with what I can only describe as an 80’s mustache buses tables. The lights are dim, the walls pale.

See, there never were any yachts at the yacht club. Just grease and alcohol.

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A pop-up book for blue collar kids. And see, when you’re all grown up, you can wear suspenders, too.

I probably should’ve ordered the fish, the Yacht Club’s specialty, but I couldn’t resist the Brat Burger. That, for some reason, made the eyes of the waitress – a cheery blond with short hair – roll back into her head Exorcist-style. Maybe they’d ordered in too much fish for the week. I don’t know.

But damn if that burger wasn’t delicious, a fat greasy wad of thick bratwurst. Forget fish. Gimme burger.

The fries were even better. It was the way bar fries should taste, homemade and most likely sprinkled with real Detroit crack. My fiancée swore the fries had a hint of fish oil, probably done unintentionally, but I couldn’t have cared less. I vacuumed up my food in record time.

Molly’s pierogi were another story, complete garbage considering what you could buy at the Polish stores up about 2 miles in Hamtramck. It tasted like what you’d find in a grocery store freezer aisle. In fact, why they wouldn’t just order their pierogi from Srodek at that point and call it a day is a complete mystery. You’d almost suspect that they hate the people that order the all too stereotypical pierogi. The garnish, a drizzle of splattered green stuff, at least provided a nice contrast of color.

Our plates clean, the waitress asked if we wanted dessert, perhaps a delicious pie. ‘We’ve got lots of pies!’ she repeated with a fiendish grin. Perhaps they’d ordered too many pies, too? Or was it my hipster-come-lately look? Either way, my dad took the bait, though the waitress was too busy gritting her teeth at my protestations to hear him.

“So no pies, then?”

“Well, just the chocolate pie for my dad!”

Of course, Molly swears I read too much into her facial expressions. It’s true the waitress was always polite – vocally. You can determine for yourself if I’m the paranoid type. I’m inclined to say no.

Now, would I recommend the Yacht Club? Sure. The atmosphere can’t be beat. Stick to the fish and specials and you’ll leave happy.

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3 thoughts on “Polish Yacht Club

  1. Thanks! Yeah, I’ve been messing around with my style, trying to figure out the best way to frame my observations. I’ve noticed that a lot of popular modern books, and travel writing in particular, use variations on the informal first-person narrative. So I thought it was worth a try. It didn’t come naturally to me at first, but I’m slowly getting there.

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