But Red Hots doesn’t serve hard liquor, and it closes at 4 in the afternoon, so it’s really more of a Coney Island with a few beers on the menu than an actual bar.
Highland Park City Council President, Rodney Patrick said, “I believe the last bar that was in Highland Park was either the Pretzel Bowl or the Dew Drop.” He estimates those establishments closed 25-30 years ago. One of them has since been torn down.
It’s not that Highland Park has outlawed bars… the city has just gone through an economic rough patch. In the early 1990s, Highland Park lost money for about half of its annual budget when Chrysler moved its headquarters out of the city. Over the years, Highland Park has wrestled with government corruption, it’s racked up debts for street lights and water, and for nearly a decade there was a state-appointed emergency manager. Just this year, Highland Park regained local control of its schools.
Council President Patrick thinks the lack of bars and restaurants in the city might be due to a marketing issue.
“It’s no question that we as a city need to do a little bit better as far as the optics of Highland Park and as far as getting out there, promoting and inviting folks in,” he said.
But what about the folks who already live in the city?
“You just get tired of sitting around and saying ‘The city needs to do this… The city needs to do that,’ when actually, the citizens, we are the city,” said longtime resident, Lawrence Jwan Johnson, a crane operator at U.S. Steel.
‘So, if we don’t take action we’re just going to say ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda.’
In a building a few doors down from city hall, Johnson pushes a button to lift a garage door.
On one side there’s a fenced-in patio area. On the other, tables and booths atop a shiny red floor, a small dance area, and a pool table. The centerpiece of the space is a wrap-around bar with dangling lights made from liquor bottles.
“It was something I picked up on Pinterest,” Johnson said.
This is the Woodward Ave. Bar & Grille. And when it opens it will likely become the first bar in the city in decades.
Johnson describes the place as an upscale sports bar and club for an older crowd. In addition to beer, wine and cocktails, the menu will include hamburgers, salad, and lamb chops. The space has been inspected and approved by the city. Johnson is just waiting on a liquor license from the state.
Johnson bought the building in early 2017 after selling a couple of rental properties he owned. “Prior to me purchasing it, it was a church. The insides were all cinder block,” he said. Johnson did most of the work himself, he said, with skills he learned after a former employer paid for him to go to trade school.
“I worked at American Axle for 14 years. And then they decided to move their services from Detroit and Hamtramck further out into a foreign country so they allotted us to go to school. So my trade was carpentry and building construction.”
Johnson said part of the reason he is opening a bar is so he can eventually quit his day job. But he also wanted to do it for the city.
“In the city right now, we have nowhere where we can go sit down and, you know… ‘How did the day go? How did the week go?’ You have to travel outside the city lines to just have a little fun. I just wanted to basically have something that the city can be proud of.”
Highland Park Chamber of Commerce Chairman and CEO Rodger Penzabene Jr. said he thinks there are a lot of under-served, affluent people in the area.
“You have Palmer Woods, Detroit Golf Club, Sherwood Forest, Boston Edison, Arden Park, and coming on strong is the Palmer Park community. There are a lot of dollars already there that people just take somewhere else because there’s nothing in Highland Park, they just pass through it,” said Penzabene.
The Woodward Ave. Bar & Grille isn’t the only bar in the works for Highland Park. Another establishment under construction on Woodward Avenue has also been approved by the city. On the non-alcoholic beverage front, a place called Cakes & Shakes opened up just last month.
Carol Harlan, a co-owner at Red Hots, the Coney Island that serves beer, said things seem to be changing for the better in Highland Park, “From what I hear from our regulars that come in here that still live in the city, they do see that there is a positive attitude in Highland Park now, whereas back a few years ago it was just a lot of negativity that things aren’t happening and it’s the same old thing. That positivity is spreading,” said Harlan.
There are still a lot of vacant storefronts in the 2.97 square miles of Highland Park. But the first bar in decades? Surely that’s something to raise a glass to.