Review: Royal Oak’s Ye Olde Saloon celebrates more than 40 years

A five-star dive bar

Jan 18, 2017 at 1:00 am

We eat and drink at a lot of places, for a lot of different reasons. Every place fills a niche; answers a particular question of our lives. There are dive bars, and there are second homes. There are places you go to drink with your friends, and there are places you go to drink because your friends run the place. There are places you go to be part of the crowd, and there are places where you can be comfortably alone in a crowded room.

Ye Olde Saloon is a widely held favorite for all these reasons and more. It's a hangout for locals and transplants; for sad reflection on, or celebrations of, the passage of time; it's a casual date spot for young couples; a place to take a lunch meeting on a Tuesday; and a perfect stop on your motorcycle tour. There's even pinball.

Any bar worth its flat-top — Ye Olde's is a 3-footer — should serve a good burger. Ye Olde has always done a great job, using fresh ground beef bought from Eastern Market, and taking deliveries frequently. (The benefits of not having much refrigerator or freezer space.) Take your pick of several special burgers, or you can order it how you like from a somewhat overwhelming list of toppings. On Sundays, the job of ordering is made easier, as the bartender will hand you a checklist order form for your burger, available for a lower price — and therefore twice as tasty. We always prefer raw onions, pickles, and mustard, but your mileage may vary.

If a burger is not your thing, and you're not in the mood for the brisket sandwich (raw onions, dill pickles, Swiss cheese, horseradish, and pub sauces; delicious and highly recommended), maybe you'd like to try the Philly. It's a house favorite, on the menu as long as we've been drinking here and probably before then too. Classic and simple, there's something deeply satisfying about shaved meat and cheese. Or, go old-school and order Ye Olde's "loaded hot dog," which might as well be called a modified coney: brisket chili, crispy onions, yellow mustard.

At a dive bar, you might expect that most of the food comes out of the deep fryer — and there are a few fried things, including the bacon on a stick, but it's not the majority of the menu. In fact, a lot of Ye Olde's offerings are made in-house, which is a big part of why they're so good. On the other hand, there's absolutely nothing wrong with the basket of fried goodness that is the Scotch egg, served with tots. If you can't satisfy your hunger with that, we can't help you.

The beer selection at Ye Olde is not your generic dive bar selection. Sure, there's your choice of macro lagers, whether they've won blue ribbons or were brewed in Detroit, but there are also a lot of craft beers — bottled and on tap — ranging from the hoppiest to the maltiest, from Michigan and beyond. It's a satisfying selection for almost any beer drinker, with something to meet every desire. There are ciders and hard sodas too, and a few other odd drinks to accommodate the ever-changing Royal Oak bar crowd. Don't come expecting high-end mixology. It's still a dive bar, even if it's the five-star dive bar.

Last year, Ye Olde Saloon turned 40. A single bar cannot survive with one identity alone, and over the years that we've been drinking at Ye Olde, its clientele has changed — but the constant has been the quality of service. It's a "kiss my grits" sort of establishment, embodied by a dedicated cadre of consistently friendly but curmudgeonly employees. We've watched barbacks learn to cook and bartend, to balance the wild crowds of a Saturday night or defuse conflict at the bar; we've seen young bartenders become home-grown managers.

Perhaps the most poignant exemplar of Ye Olde's atmosphere was the late, much-beloved bartender Kady. Tall and thin with long dark hair, she was a dear friend to her regulars, and a stone-faced, authoritative presence behind the bar. She was the sort who was able to quiet the crowd with a quick shout, and the entire barroom loved her for it — even if they'd faced her wrath once upon a time. She's part of the tragic list of loved ones lost in 2016, and after her passing, Ye Olde held a benefit night. It was one of the most amazing and powerful experiences we've ever had, standing in a room unified only by love and sorrow, and a desire to live well to carry on her memory. We embraced acquaintances, shed tears, and promised to keep in touch better and take better care of ourselves and our friends.

We drink where we drink, and eat where we eat because of the emotional — and perhaps spiritual — power that food has in the human consciousness. When it comes to finding the comforts of home in a barroom, you can't do much better than Ye Olde Saloon.