Haute cuisine grabs headlines, but it's also the myriad small workaday eateries that help to make a city breathe with gastronomic life. One of these little gems is Jacoby's German Biergarten, a narrow downtown building on Brush Street and one of the oldest continuously named establishments in Detroit.
It all began in the late 1800s when a young Albert Jacoby left his native Luxembourg to settle in Detroit. After a stint tending bar at the Pontchartrain Hotel, Jacoby hooked up with a German woman who knew her way around the kitchen. They married and, in 1904, started serving the neighborhood beer and Old World vittles.
Over the ensuing century, Jacoby's has changed with the environs. At one point, the menu switched to Irish and Jacoby's provided whiskey and corned beef to the city's powerbrokers. Generations of the Jacoby family were raised to manage the place. In 1989, fire broke out. Since then new owners have come and gone and the Jacoby family no longer runs the joint. Regardless, with its thoughtful beer list and German dishes made with the old family recipes, today Jacoby's is a modern version of its old self.
But for all its history and quality food, Jacoby's is still very much a bar. The small space is plentifully trimmed with dark-stained wood and Detroit ghosts. The ceilings are tin. Between the long bar and a few wood tables are a couple large counters just right for community mirth-making. Cigarette smoke can be heavy at times but no worse than any other business of this type. Televisions hang from the corners. A modern jukebox sits next to the bar. You can download pretty much anything in the jukebox, so there is a real chance you'll find yourself battling quarters with someone (who might have had a few) singing along to tired pop-rock tunes.
If you're one of those that plan to have a few, there are plenty of drinks to choose from. The beer list is the main attraction. There are more than a dozen tap handles pouring many of the German standards. If you can't find anything on draft, browse the cooler holding scores of bottles. There's also a full bar and a few bottles of wine.
Use that beer to wash down a plate of sausage, cheese and crackers for a start. On an unseasonably chilly evening order a bowl of Jacoby's famous German sausage soup. It's a simple and utterly satisfying mixture of sausages and vegetables in a tomato-based broth. Other appetizers include fried calamari in a lemon beurre blanc and chicken wings, not exactly typical German fare. The food menu is a balanced mix of German meat-and-potatoes-style dishes and American pub grub.
Take the sandwich choices, for instance. Other than the knackwurst on a hoagie bun, the list is full of burgers and various deli and chicken handhelds. The fried perch tucked inside a Kaiser Roll is fantastic. The perch is fresh, sweet and flaky without being obnoxiously breaded and all the more satisfying for having the river where it might have once traveled mere blocks behind you. Vegetarians are well-represented here with choices of garden burger, stuffed portobello and avocado sandwiches. Couple it with a bowl of Guinness stout-based French onion soup and you've got a hearty, meatless meal.
If it's meat you're after, you definitely want to dig your fork into a Jacoby's entrée. The breaded pork medallions (schnitzel) are ideally prepared, sautéed crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. The jaegerschnitzel comes with rich, gratifying mushroom gravy. The kassler rippchen consists of smoked pork chops on a bed of mild and tasty house-made sauerkraut. Or try the beef medallion rolled with bacon, onions, celery and carrots covered in mushroom gravy all on top of tender German egg noodles (späetzle). Another meat dish that's fun to pronounce is the "Koenigsberger Klopps," or meatballs.
Many of the German plates come matched with a pair of outstanding potato pancakes. If not, spend an extra three bucks and order them as a side. Slathered with sour cream and applesauce, they are very much worth it. The sweet and tart red cabbage also deserves a mention. Finishing off the entrée menu is a perch dinner, lemon caper chicken and a pound of rib-eye steak. For slightly lighter fare there are four dinner salads to choose from. The menu truly has something for everyone.
It's unlikely that everyone is going to love Jacoby's as a dining spot. Some might never even order a bite as they spend a Friday or Saturday night upstairs at 313.jac where the local music scene is very much alive. But if you go expecting good food and good beer in a historic though sometimes raucous atmosphere, you're sure to leave content.
Todd Abrams dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].