Photo Credit: Photo credit: Cottonbro Studio
Inside Detroit's Black-Owned Speakeasies
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s, close to 75% of the alcohol illegally supplied came from Detroit. Due to its proximity to Toledo, where alcohol initially remained legal, bootleggers were able to obtain liquor from Ohio. The Detroit River was also a major smuggling route through which alcohol was brought in from Canada and distributed around Detroit and other cities. With so much illicit alcohol flowing through the city, Detroit was full of speakeasies. Today, true to its heritage, Motor City is home to many of the prohibition-style secret bars, two of which are Black-owned.
According to Punch Drink, the first of the two Black-owned speakeasies initially opened its doors in 1985, though it was originally a nightclub. Entrepreneurship is something that runs through owner Larry Mongo’s blood. In fact, for him, running a speakeasy is a part of his family’s legacy. Back during the days of Prohibition, many of Mongo’s family members worked as booze runners for the most notorious gangs in the city. They operated low-end speakeasies known as “bling pigs” and ran the underground lottery system.
Mongo decided to create his own place Downtown after being barred from entering a white disco club one night. Throughout the 90s, the cafe hosted local performers, including rapper Eminem, before shutting down due to rising crime rates in the city.
In 2007, it reopened as Cafe D’Mongo’s and soon became a hotspot, known for its chill atmosphere, great food, and well-priced drinks. The establishment has been patronized by many celebrities, politicians, and the who’s who of Detroit.
The speakeasy’s drink menu has come a long way from its initial offerings consisting primarily of top-shelf cognacs, champagne, and a few different brands of beer. Its cocktail menu features a selection of unique, expertly-made drinks. The walls are decorated with photos of Mongo throughout the years alongside various Motown artists and other celebrities. On some nights, the speakeasy plays the sounds of soulful jazz music.
Now, Cafe D’Mongo’s is open only on the weekends. Thus, it can be somewhat difficult to get into. If you can secure your spot, however, you may be lucky enough to meet the owner himself. At 72 years of age, Mongo has decades worth of interesting stories to share. He has witnessed the city evolve through many phases and become what it is today.
The new kid on the block, Detroit’s latest Black-owned speakeasy, Willow, just opened this May. The luxe establishment offers a cozy and intimate atmosphere where cocktail culture reigns supreme.
Through its menu and ambiance, the establishment aims to pay homage to Detroit natives, Southern hospitality, and the Black experience. It can accommodate up to 50 guests, ensuring each patron is able to receive the attention they require.
To lead the bar, the owners enlisted Andre Sykes, who was a 2022 James Beard Outstanding Bar Program Semifinalist. According to Detroit Eater, the menu features drinks and flavors inspired by Sykes’ Afro-Caribbean culture. In addition to delicious craft cocktails, Willow offers various wines, spirits, and carefully curated charcuterie boards with and without meats.
Willow is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6 p.m. to midnight and Fridays and Saturdays from 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. To access the speakeasy, enter the alleyway behind SavannahBlue and look for the golden door with a willow tree on it. (Willow has the same owners as the chic contemporary soul food restaurant.) If space is available, the maître d’ will welcome you in. Groups of five or more require a reservation. Guests are encouraged to “speak easy” while inside and avoid cell phone usage of any kind.