It's 10 p.m. on a Friday night and the bar at Carl's Chop House is four deep, a feat that's worthy of notice all by itself. The group is neatly coiffed, snappily dressed, boisterous and just a little more touch-feely than your average group of twenty- to fortysomething guys.
It's the latest installment of the Detroit Guerrilla Queer Bar, a roaming party that exposes the gay crowd — which is way more Tim Gunn than The Birdcage — to new bars, and new bars to the gay crowd.
Here's how it works: Once a month, organizer Matt Stanton, 26, picks a location, posting a message to his Web site's mailing list and MySpace page the day before an event occurs. Venue owners aren't always told that the guerrillas are about to descend — Stanton sometimes gives proprietors a heads-up if it seems like the establishment won't have enough bartenders to accommodate the crowd.
The mystery, Stanton says, adds to the fun, but also stops bars from adding a door charge or jacking up the cost of a drink. Gatherings have numbered anywhere from 50 in the early days five years ago to 150-plus at the group's more recent events. About 75 guerrillas have come to the landmark steakhouse to soak up the ambience and bid farewell to an institution that may be in its last days.
But it's hard to see that on Friday. The bar area is packed, with the customers laughing and bartenders hopping, filling drink orders and collecting tips. The piano player is in full swing, making the trip from Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" to Matchbox Twenty and back again, with a brief stop at Billy Ocean's "Caribbean Queen."
Carl's ambience is so varnished-wood-and-carpet, it's kitsch. If you haven't been, it's worth a trip. Except for the addition of a dance floor in the main dining room, the place hasn't changed much since the days when Jimmy Hoffa would cut deals in the conference room upstairs.
But the once-venerable Detroit institution has been struggling of late. Years of battling a sinking economy, depopulation and the demise of the three-martini lunch have taken a toll, and owner Frank Passalacqua recently announced plans to apply for a topless license in an attempt to perk up the failing business, now located so close to the casinos.
Whether he'll get the permit remains to be seen. Such a request requires approval from Detroit's City Council, a body whose members haven't been uniformly pleased with the number of topless bars in the city. If the permit doesn't come through, Passalacqua, who's owned the joint for 18 years, says he'll have no choice but to close Carl's doors.
The concept of serving up delicious pieces of meat — steaks and naked women — isn't exactly subtle, but 72-year-old Passalacqua hopes it'll be enough to keep him in the game. He's no stranger to the topless business. About 30 years ago, he owned Edjo's, a strip joint at Woodward Avenue and Seven Mile Road.
Regardless of what ends up happening, the announcement of Carl's changeover or possible closure has gotten the restaurant a lot more press than it's had in recent years — and was enough to convince Stanton to bring in his troops.
"I'd never been there until I saw this news article about them wanting to get a topless permit," says Stanton, a well-dressed lad with an engaging grin. In recent months, he's held events at the Comet Bar, Slows Bar BQ and Coach Insignia, to name a few. A while ago at the Whitney, the guerrillas' third-floor party got so crowded the fire marshal told the restaurant hostess to turn people away at the door. Word traveled that the spillover was going to the nearby Majestic Café, and even that group got big. Stanton's more likely to select a bar that seems receptive to a diverse crowd than, say, a Downriver biker bar. The Town Pump's the only repeat on the list — that's where the guerrillas' first event was held.
Five years ago, Stanton, a Dearborn Heights native and current Detroit resident, had just moved back home from Denver, where he was a regular guerrilla queer bar-goer. "I took some initiative, designed a Web site, tried to get the word out and, five years later, here we are," he says.
Stanton, who's a Wayne State student, says the crowd has really exploded since he created a MySpace profile for the group last year.
"Through the Web site alone there are about 1,200 e-mail addresses we've collected over the past five years, but using MySpace, we've been able to collect an additional 500 people in just six months," he says. Guerrillas come from all over the metro area.
The guerrillas also have some high-minded ideals about promoting tolerance. The slogan is "Don't clone, colonize." Think about it as pushing tolerance with your pocketbook.
"We're showing these establishments that there is a whole other market of people out there that have money, that want to come," Stanton says. "They shouldn't just cater to your typical straight person."
"We're planting seeds," says a 42-year-old woman who identifies herself as Molly Motor, a tile setter, sous chef and regular guerrilla event-goer. "We need to plant seeds."
Ken Gahry, a 40-year-old physician's assistant from Oakland County, says he enjoys revisiting Carl's, a former haunt from his days at Wayne State University.
"Detroit guerrillas emphasize Detroit, not the suburbs. It gets people from the suburbs into Detroit, gets the east side and the west side," Gahry says. "It's good to take people out of their comfort zones."
"People go to the same 10 bars," says Gary, an attorney who doesn't want to give his last name or age. "I've been to bars I've never been to because of this."
And Tighe O'Meara, a 39-year-old metro area police officer, says it's nice to meet new people.
"And it's a boon to the establishment," says a 46-year-old landscaper, artist and curator who insists his name is Dave Blob. "It's a much bigger night than it would have been, especially at a place like Carl's."
That's a fact Passalacqua is all too aware of. He says he's happy to have had the business, sounding almost wistful.
"It was nice," he says, "to see the place full."[email protected]