An Honest joint

Three reasons (not the only ones) to go to Honest ? John’s Bar and No Grill:

1) Owner John Thompson is likely to be there, and, as he puts it, "Everybody wants to watch a fool."

2) You’ll be contributing indirectly — and directly, if Thompson ropes you in — to charity programs that could use your cash.

3) Cheap eats and drinks, including local microbrews.

A lot of people know the facts: Thompson grew up in the Cass Corridor, raised by a hooker mother who died of an overdose when he was 14. "This is me coming home," he says, by buying "one of those bad, bad Cass Corridor bars" from a guy now serving time for murder and smack trafficking. (Thompson plans to display in the bar’s men’s room the faxes back and forth between himself and the prison.)

After carting out 15 Dumpster-loads of debris, building a fence and adding a new roof, Thompson says his new location, open since Oct. 13, is "like the suburbs. Coming from Jefferson and Field [across from Belle Isle, where he operated the first Honest ? John’s for 12 years], it was like culture shock. It was five-and-a-half weeks before I laid my hands on anybody."

That incident came about when a gentleman dropped his pants. "Twelve years of not backing down from guns and knives and gangs of kids, and the first person to get thrown out of here is a middle-aged white guy," Thompson marvels.

Important changes at the new location: beer prices have risen from $2 to $2.75. Food is served (although "No Grill" remains in the bar’s title). There’s fenced, megawatt parking in back.

But important things have stayed the same: a revolting drink named HAA ("he’s an asshole") after a former customer. A bargain jukebox ("it’s like Detroit — 10 percent Caucasian") at seven plays for a buck ("I should fuck people on the food, the booze and the music?"). Regulars who couldn’t stay away. And myriad opportunities to give time or money to buy toys and food for poor folks.

Though it’s bar-dark, the new place feels aggressively clean and family-friendly (despite the neon "Wear Your Fricken Seat Belt" over the door).

The menu is short: burgers, chicken sandwich, fries, soup, chili. A couple salads will be added soon, and after New Year’s "a coney island breakfast but done right."

The burgers are veggie, turkey or beef, at $4-$4.50. The price stays the same whether or not you add cheese, tomato, lettuce or onion. How does he keep his prices low? "I’m not greedy," Thompson says, mentioning some $8 burgers in the neighborhood. "If a burger costs you more than a dollar to make you’re an idiot."

I liked all three. The beef is probably the most standard; the turkey is very juicy, and good with Swiss; the veggie is spicy. (But it shouldn’t be served open-faced, because it’s a mistake to look at a veggieburger.) Fries are the thin McDonald’s-style, which is to say excellent.

The liquid foods are less successful, and hardly liquid. The soups are the kind you’re hoping for if you’re a soup-kitchen customer: thick enough to stand your spoon in. I tried mushroom-barley, pretty bland; broccoli-rice, with little broccoli taste; and pumpkin-chicken, the best, with lots of chicken and spice, pumpkin color but not pumpkin flavor.

The meat and vegetarian chilis aren’t too hot (that is, spicy) and only have one flavor going on apiece. Thompson plans to rotate through a lot of soups, but my advice would be to practice on one till the cooks get it right. Note, though, that a bowl of soup is $2 and chili $3. If Thompson’s philosophy is to Robin Hood the rich to fund his charity programs, he’s still a bit unclear on the concept.

About those giveaways: Thompson has raised more than $750,000 in the last 12 years. This month he’ll spend $60,000 at Toys "R" Us. Sometimes you get to act silly — like collecting pledges from friends eager to see you plunge into the Detroit River in December, dressed in a rubber chicken suit. Or you can cook a turkey for Valentine’s Day — Corridor residents are overgifted at Thanksgiving, Thompson says.

You can give wrapped gifts, or deliver food or toys, or send a tax-deductible donation to Honest John’s Shakedown Society, 488 Selden, Detroit, MI 48201 (receipts sent by mail). After December 8 he’ll need help wrapping 7,000 toys. Call to find out more.

Open from lunchtime till 2 a.m. every day (don’t get Thompson started on bars that close at midnight). Beginning January 1, breakfast will be served 6-11 a.m. weekdays and 7 a.m.-2 p.m. weekends — including veggie and turkey sausages. Come summer, there’s outdoor seating, with a view that reminds Honest John of home.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].

About The Author

Jane Slaughter

Jane Slaughter is a former editor of Labor Notes and co-author of Secrets of a Successful Organizer. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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