Flourishing in the heart of Detroit’s Historic Cass Corridor, Willis Show Bar lives as a revival of the mid-century jazz mecca that was housed in its very walls for decades, dishing out live music and cabaret acts, astounding craft cocktails and the essence of an era deemed somewhat forgotten.
OUR ARTICLEBY: Dakota Nate Contributing writer
What do you picture when you think of the 1940’s? Although not many of you were even thought of yet, perhaps the mental picture of couples swing-dancing to big band in a crowded hall of elegant smoke is upon you. With the exuberant squeal of the brass section and the hypnotizing, thump, thump, thump of an upright bass. Imagine the barstool you’re grooving atop in this given moment, front-row-center to the entertainment of the evening. Sounds intoxicating, right? And you haven’t even sipped your cocktail yet…
It’s 1949 in Hitsville USA, also known as Detroit — and if you need a place to unwind with your honey after eight-plus hours on the daily grind, you’re getting cleaned up and heading straight over to Willis and Third to soak up some booze and tunes in the best of company. Leading in the “Show Bar” era, the jazz club that once had Motor City snapping its fingers and tapping its feet held strong until the downfall of the area caused it to fizzle out in the late 1970s. Sitting vacant until 2018, as a revival of its energetic roots, Willis Show Bar finally breathes again with the same fundamentals that made it a legend in the first place.
And we’re not talking Fonzie cool, we’re talking Motown cool. The kind of cool that has a rhythm of its own
With 28 bar stools situated under the original Art Moderne-style ceiling (if only the walls could talk) and an unusually rousing layout that makes every seat in the room feel like VIP admission, Willis Show Bar hones in on its musical roots with the stage situated directly behind the bar top, with mixologists shaking and stirring up a bit of liquid excitement just feet from stage right and stage left. With entertainment nightly, featuring acts including jazz bands such as The Daylites, burlesque acts, and dj’s for a more era-appropriate switch, you would think that this sort of revolving door of entertainment would come only with a reservation made weeks in advance — this is where Detroit’s cool ease comes into play.
As seemingly fancy as Willis Show Bar is, there is an air of comfortable inclusion or dare we say it, coolness. And we’re not talking Fonzie cool, we’re talking Motown cool. The kind of cool that has a rhythm of its own. In sync with every beat not missed by the team that snatched up Willis Show Bar and took it back to Detroit, the beverage selection steals the show. With a few understated classics in tow along with specialty libations that immediately catch your eye, such as their Late Night Flight, which is bolstered up by aquavit (a favorite Scandinavian spirit flavored mostly by caraway seeds), maraschino, creme de violet, rose water, sea salt, and lime acid. They also feature a killer Hot Toddy made with single malt Scotch, which means you have no excuse not to hit the bar for a few hours, even if you’re feeling a little under the weather. Yes, whisky can cure the common cold. With that being said, an additional array of top-shelf spirits, beers, wines, and classic punch bowls can be enjoyed by your party, big or small. Also if you’re feeling a little hangry or just a little light on the nose from your potent concoction of choice, classic bar snacks like peanut butter-filled pretzels and mixed nuts can aid in soaking up enough of the potable poison in your belly for you to groove on for a few more songs.
Sometimes as folks in a demanding lifestyle — whether it be your work that occupies you, your finances, your family — we forget just how much we deserve to go out and have a good time. To those of you residing in The Arsenal of Democracy or visiting any time soon (yes, that’s another of Detroit’s nicknames, if you didn’t know) put Willis Show Bar at the top of your list, and maybe check it off twice while you’re around. Everyone loves a regular.
The lively Art Deco lounge features burlesque and cabaret alongside a top notch drink menu
Originally opened in 1949, it was a hotspot jazz club that closed its doors in 1978, thus reborn as Willis
A true staple of Detroit hospitality
Perhaps the best Gold Rush in town, order it up and start a tab—you’ll be having another