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DETROIT – Its colorful history includes tales of Jimmy Hoffa playing cards in the back room and, long before that, a brothel being run out of the upstairs. But today, it’s all about the food. In fact, “It’s about the food” is a motto of sorts for Don Bailey, owner of the new Butcher’s Inn in Eastern Market, and he’s written it at the top of the chalkboard that lists the daily lunch special to ensure he never forgets his mandate.
Dating back to 1883, Butcher’s Inn, located at 1489 Winder St., in the heart of the Market, is believed to have been built by Dominique Riopelle, Jr., a member of one of the most well known families of French settlers to inhabit the city. Farmers would stay overnight before market day and, eventually, the Inn attracted a different sort of clientele when it became a full-out bordello. The downstairs portion of the place operated as a saloon from at least the turn of century and remained in operation – even through prohibition – until its doors were shuddered in 2001.
Bailey worked in restaurant management for a few years before boldly deciding the time had come to hang his own shingle.
“I felt that I had learned enough and that I could move on and open my own restaurant and have things come out the way I wanted to,” Bailey recalled.
So with that decision made, the search was on.
“I looked at several properties and decided that purchasing the building was an important factor as opposed to leasing the place,” said Bailey. “I had looked at Twingo’s and a few places downriver and downtown. But they were all leases and it didn’t make sense to do that. Then I came to the Market one day and there was a for sale sign and I called the same day. I was pretty excited because I loved the Market and the Butcher’s Inn was always a fun place. It lends itself to what I want to do, which is something nicer than bar food but not exactly fine dining.”
Having been closed for five years, getting Butcher’s ready for business took tremendous work. It took a year to put in all new plumbing and electrical and to completely gut and redo the kitchen and bathrooms. Plus, there was a tremendous amount of cleaning to be done, which included hauling two freezers full of rotting corned beef out of the basement.
Reopened last fall, with their liquor license in hand in January, the new Butcher’s Inn has retained much of the place’s old charm. “Rustic” and “full of character” are descriptors that frequently come to mind as you look around. There’s a brass rail that runs along the bar and saloon style globe lights hanging from the ceiling. The walls are covered with old photos and Detroit-related ads, along with aging tin signs advertising Detroit-made products such as Vernor’s ginger ale and Sander’s ice cream. There are also banners from such as exotic destinations as Frankenmuth and Beulah, Mich. Most of this memorabilia is a holdover, left hanging for half a decade and waiting, as it were, for a history buff like Bailey to come along. Today, he continues to look for old Detroit photos to add to the collection and in particular is hoping to add some images of the various Butcher’s Inn incarnations from over the years.
But memorabilia aside, Bailey’s energies are really focused on the food. The old Butcher’s was known for their Grand Marnier French toast, which remains on the menu.
“We took the old menu and pulled a couple of items off it and the rest of it we came up with ourselves,” said Bailey. “I do the soup and the chili, and the rest I leave to someone else.”
The daily lunch special goes for only $4.95 and there are dinner specials on Thursday nights. As the dinner crowds start to increase, Bailey hopes to add a couple of specials for each evening.
“My interest is putting out a nice food product at a good price,” Bailey continued, adding that he buys everything he can from the Market. “I focus on having everything fresh. The only frozen things we have are fries and the chicken tenders.”
On Friday nights, Butcher’s has been featuring a bluegrass band, and Bailey is looking into starting a blues night, too. Monday night is gay night, though Bailey admits it hasn’t really taken off yet. Butcher’s can seat just under 100, with that number pretty evenly split between the two floors. Upstairs there’s an art gallery, which adds new ambiance to an old space. The current show features artist Taurus Burns, while BTL columnist Charles Alexander is scheduled to present next month.
Another date to mark is May 3, when social revolutionary John Sinclair, for whom there’s a sandwich named on the menu, will pass by to commemorate the 35th anniversary of his book “Guitar Army.”
Bailey, for his part, celebrates his own anniversary next week when he and his partner Tom Taggart commemorate being together for 25 years.
“Hopefully, I’ll get time off to celebrate,” he said.