Extra! Extra! Detroit’s storied Anchor Bar is still great

Under new ownership, the longtime haunt for reporters is still serving downtown workers

Shrimp tacos and the Anchor Burger.
Shrimp tacos and the Anchor Burger. Tom Perkins

Anchor Bar

450 W. Fort, Detroit
Bar food $13-$18, beer $3-$6

Many an evening have I spent in the back room of the fabled Anchor Bar. Not the basement, notorious for a gambling ring raided by the FBI in an earlier location. Said previous owner Vaughan Derderian, “The tip-off might have been the existence of three phone booths in a smallish establishment.”

Founded in 1959, the Anchor was known as a haunt of journalists from the nearby Free Press and News, back when there were enough of them to fill more than a few barstools. During the Detroit newspapers strike/lockout of 1995-2001, strike headquarters were upstairs for a while, and Derderian offered “strikers’ specials” on the sandwiches. Barbara Ingalls from the Typographical Union remembers that when necessary strikers would run upstairs yelling “Scabs in the Anchor!” whereupon all present would descend to persuade the strikebreakers to leave.

The Anchor’s back room was always available to whoever would bring folks in to order beer and sandwiches. I ate there during all kinds of meetings of rabble-rousers: Labor for Bernie. Supporters of Ralph Nader, running for president. Reformers in the UAW, who sometimes got together after the Labor Day Parade. Just this July the Members United slate (“No Concessions, No Corruption, No Tiers”) crammed UAW convention delegates into the back room to hear why change was possible if members organized for it.

The bar was in the Derderian family for 59 years, but it went corporate in 2018, taken over by the Elia Group, “a diversified commercial real estate investment company” that also owns Parc and The Fountain in Detroit and 220 Merrill in Birmingham.

But the Anchor is still serving bar food to downtown workers from Rocket, Huntington Place, construction sites, banks, and courthouses, who enjoy a good long happy hour from 3 to 7 p.m. ($3 sliders, $8 for a pitcher of Miller High Life). They’re still eating burgers, nachos, totchos, cheesesteak, wings, fries, tuna melt, fish and chips — “bar tastes,” in the words of manager Stephanie Prechel. Chili, three salads, a chicken wrap, and a shrimp taco round out the menu. The ingredient that appears most often, on just about every plate, is house-made cheese whiz, which, unlike the commercial variety (“modified milk ingredients”), contains cheddar.

Many establishments have felt the need to elevate their bar food past these familiar horizons. In a sports bar I visited recently, Buffalo wings were served with gochujang, and you could ask for vegan cauliflower or acorn squash with pink peppercorns.

Not so at the Anchor, though you can indeed get Parmesan herb aioli on your truffle fries. It’s still mostly the basics, and an endearing section of the online menu is devoted to “Old Man’s Cans: Beer Flavored Beer” — Stroh’s, PBR, or Rolling Rock for $3.

The Anchor’s hamburger on brioche is tall, and if the accompanying tomato is pale, the bacon is everything bacon should be. The pastel liquid cheese whiz adds both creamy mouth-feel and a bit of tang.

When I remarked to my companion that his fish and chips didn’t have a lot of fish flavor, he assured me that was normal for fish and chips; it’s the crunchy crust that counts. Skinny fries, served in abundance, are of the limp variety; tartar sauce is sweet.

A tuna melt came on a tasty marble rye but my friend thought it was too soupy and salty, with the cheese flavor not detectable.

A chicken wrap, another companion said, was good “because it has a lot of ingredients”: avocado, bacon, ranch dressing, lettuce, tomato, cabbage, on a whole wheat tortilla. My favorite, what I’ll order when I go back, was shrimp tacos, though the promised mangos were none too prominent. The shrimp were crisp and the whole effect was one of beachside indulgence.

Readers, I want you to know that there is sauce that was first served at Sheetz gas stations that is so popular that people put recipes for it online so you can make it at home (in five minutes) from a list of prepared condiments such as ketchup. It’s Boom Boom sauce, which is sweet, not to be confused with Bang Bang sauce, which is not. The Anchor goes a step further by serving “Boom Bang” sauce on its shrimp tacos, and all I can say is that this was still my favorite dish.

Chili is served with scallions, sour cream, and more cheese whiz; it’s not spicy. Both nachos and totchos can be had with chili, sour cream and yes, cheese whiz. Caesar salad uses curly lettuce, lots of powdered Parmesan and a creamy dressing.

You probably didn’t come to the Anchor, which bills itself as “the same ole’ dive Anchor Bar has always been,” to experiment with exciting new brews. Most craft beers are familiar names from Michigan and all craft drafts cost $6; chalkboards show the seasonal rotation. My Moscow Mule was a little watery but appropriately gingery. Only two other named cocktails are offered, but you can ask the bartender for anything.

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About The Author

Jane Slaughter

When she's not reviewing restaurants, Jane Slaughter also writes about labor affairs, having co-founding the labor magazine Labor Notes. Her writing has also appeared in The Nation, The Progressive, Monthly Review, and In These Times.
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