Anyone curious as to the definition of the term “grown and sexy” need only stroll their suede bucks over to Little Mary’s River Inn in Detroit’s Petosky-Otsego neighborhood. A glowing, sepia sign buzzing above the entrance of 7741 Grand River Avenue summons one’s curiosity as to the happenings within. As the only building on an otherwise vacant block, Little Mary’s seems to float in the darkness beckoning the weary traveler to come in out of the cold Detroit night. Cars fill the grass and gravel lots surrounding the joint and laughter and rhythm thundering within can be heard several blocks away.
Whoever walks through the door of Little Mary’s, whether they are 85 or 25, is looking for a drama-free good time. I am told that the building has been a bar for as long as anyone can remember. At one time, it housed two bars right next door to each other, Little Mary’s and Louie’s. The idea was that when you overstayed your welcome at Little Mary’s, you could take refuge at Louie’s, and vice-versa.
Little Mary’s is named after its original owner Mary Sailes, a prominent Motor City mover and shaker who operated the establishment with her husband Willie. Karen Smith has been managing Little Mary’s for the past eight years and says that the regulars think of their favorite bar as the “Black Cheers.”
Smith believes that making their customers feel at home has kept Little Mary’s a success. “Our people can go anywhere they want in the city, but they call Mary’s their true home. We have our official karaoke night on Tuesdays, with the big screen and all of that, but every night is ‘jukebox karaoke night.’ We know all of our regulars’ favorite songs, so if your song comes on the jukebox we just hand you a microphone and off you go.”
Every Friday night, catch live blues and soul provided by Cash McMcall and the Cash Money Band. Cash, a Motor City icon who came up with the Contours—known for their hit song “Do You Love Me”—is a masterful entertainer who flows through a rich catalog of funky dance floor standards and soulful originals. The irresistible thump of galactic bass inspires a strange phenomenon you won’t see in many modern social settings. Instead of lining the walls with faces buried in smartphones, people at Little Mary’s are actually on the dance floor. There’s a tangibly warm casual atmosphere that supersedes the velvet rope pretension and bottle service peacocking that goes along with so many nightlife venues. It feels more like a wild house party full of old friends.
The joyous abandon is facilitated by Little Mary’s selection of $2 shooters and $5 mixed drinks. Top sellers such as the strawberry daiquiri and tequila sunrise both bow down to the house favorite, a tangy neon party juice known as the Blue Motherf***er. With blue in your cup and blues in your ear, you start to understand why Little Mary’s regulars won’t go anywhere else.
With blue in your cup and blues in your ear, you start to understand why Little Mary’s regulars won’t go anywhere else.
Karen assures me that even Detroit’s youngest and wildest revelers understand that Little Mary’s is an establishment for grown-ups. “We do get younger people coming in, but they come here because they want that grown and sexy experience. When they get on the dancefloor they don’t start twerking; they impersonate the ballroom moves like the older customers.”
Little Mary’s hosts ballroom dancing classes that include everything from Chicago Steppin’ to the Latin Hustle. From time to time, they will host competitions where the rug cutters can show off their skills and win a trophy. For hungry dancers, the chef cooks up wings, fries, and burgers. Karen lets me know that the new Thursday Taco Night has really taken off, and that even the taco shells get their turn in the fryer. “When we do the tacos, our chef will throw them in the chicken grease for a minute so they are sizzling with that flavor.”
Karen says Detroit’s ups and downs have not affected Little Mary’s over the years. “I always see new bars open and close within a year. We have been here a long time and folks know what kind of experience you can have at Little Mary’s. This bar has deep roots in Detroit.”
The perfect culinary nightcap following an evening at Little Mary’s can be found up Woodward Avenue at Detroit’s oldest confectioner, Dutch Girl Donuts. Open 24 hours a day, this local treasure has been boxing up warm dough rings since 1947. Although they don’t make a bad variety of donut, the blueberry glazed is in a class unto itself. It may seem reckless to get a dozen of the same donut, but after a drunken few bites of crumbling glaze glory you realize it’s all part of life on the edge in the great Motor City.