There's nothing special about any particular diner. They all seem to have the same basic elements: counter, cheap food, smoke-stained walls and, inevitably, one gravelly voiced waitress who's been there way too long.
And Steak Hut, the little greasy spoon near the corner of Lafayette and Trumbull, doesn't seem to be any exception. That is, until owner and head cook Gus Kanakis shows you his collection of pictures, mounted on four large black boards in the back room.
The pictures show a restaurant brimming with the long-haired, tattooed and pierced patrons who come only on Sunday mornings. That's when Steak Hut, a weekday quick-stop breakfast joint for nearby workers, is transformed into the place for students, unemployed punks and aging hippies to nurse their hangovers to live folk, bluegrass and jug band music.
The menu says, and Kanakis insists, that Steak Hut is the city's oldest diner. Sure, why not? But the live music, and the scene that took shape around it, started just two years ago, Kanakis says, when patron Amanda Lynn (former fiddler for the Syreens) came by for breakfast and brought her violin along. Kanakis asked her to play a bit.
"So she whips it out and starts playing, and I said, 'Dang, that's good,'" he says. Lynn asked Kanakis if she could start playing inside the diner for tips. She started playing every Sunday, and it just picked up from there.
Lynn and banjo player Steve Christiansen formed the band $2 Breakfast, named after Steak Hut's breakfast special of two eggs, home fries and toast. The duo became a Sunday fixture, playing an eclectic mix of standards like "Waltzing Matilda" and "Stand By Me" using not only the fiddle and banjo, but a mandolin, a ukulele and washtub bass.
Then, last summer, Lynn and Christiansen moved out of town, she to Pittsburgh and he to Atlanta. So, Kanakis, who had grown accustomed to the crowds of twentysomethings ("I like the kids. They're good customers, not fussy at all," he says), asked Ellen Doster to start booking bands. Doster, a member of folk five-piece the Motor City Sidestrokers, themselves Steak Hut regulars, thinks of the shows as a sort of old-timey music showcase for restaurant patrons who may be unfamiliar with folk and bluegrass.
"This is a rock 'n' roll town," she says. "There really aren't a lot of places where string band music is heard and appreciated, and, interestingly enough, what we noticed was that a lot of rock scene folks and club owners and vendors hang out there on Sundays and have their breakfast."
This week, Steak Hut will host the four-piece Moonsqualler String Band. Founded by ubiquitous folkie Jere Stormer, it's a scaled-down version of the Don't Look Now Jug Band, which has been performing in the area since the '70s.
Steak Hut is located at 1551 W. Lafayette Ave., Detroit; open 7 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Sundays, with music 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Scheduled for the weeks to come are Moonsqualler (June 24), Ben Luttermosser (July 1), Dave Boutette (July 8), Luttermosser (July 8 and July 15), Jawbone (July 22), Moonsqualler (July 29), Marilyn and Tom (Aug. 5), Nick Schillace (Aug. 12), Motor City Sidestrokers (Aug. 19), Bone Orchard Revival (Aug. 26).
Charles Maldonado is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]