Tucked away in New Center down Baltimore Street is a bar formerly known as Tandem Bar, a “GM employee hangout” until the company moved their headquarters in the 1990s. For nearly 15 years the space has been known as Northern Lights Lounge — “Detroit’s most diverse bar.”
According to co-owner Michael Solaka, the diversity tagline is the house recipe.
“I come from an urban planning and an economic development background, so I’ve always looked at this bar and tried to fashion [it] as kind of a cultural bastion and meeting place that could also sell things to make money,” Solaka said. “So, I think we’ve achieved it… the diversity is part of our hallmark. It’s certainly not an accident.”
On one side of the room there is a dance floor between the stage and a softly lit dining room filled with leather button-tufted booths and long tables. On the other side is a colorfully lit and decorated bar beside a small lounge of orange square chairs surrounded by matching dimly lit orange lights, wood paneled walls, and a shuffleboard table. Essentially, it’s a time travel portal to a 1970s basement.
With a background in butchering, Solaka cuts the steaks and fish, cooks the corned beef, and even makes the hummus in the kitchen. Patrons can also enjoy live music six nights a week while they please their palates with original dishes. Depending on the night, you may catch anything from Motown legend Dennis Coffey jazzing it up to a local electronic DJ breaking it down.
On Tuesday nights, former Funk Brother and recent rhythm and blues Hall of Fame inductee Coffey, 76, and his R&B band fill the house with funk, blues, and jazz tunes from every facet of his long-listed and historic discography.
Coffey has his work down to a systematic process. He very quietly checks in with the band, sets up his gear, pours his own cup of coffee and sips it while sitting with friends. As the set takes off, Coffey’s weathered Gibson guitar screams while he stands planted in one place. The band behind him is modest, filling in flair from time to time—but mostly letting Coffey rip his muddy Motown licks.
Drummer Julian VanSlyke and bassist Ken Pesick consistently hold down the rhythm, while Phil Whitfield’s organ compliments Coffey’s conversation with the audience. Between songs, Coffey shares nostalgic nuggets of backstory, like, “We’ll do a song I recorded back in the day with The Temptations,” or he’ll share a memory of songwriting with Stevie Wonder.
Although Coffey is a seasoned veteran at his craft, he continues to progress through his weekly visits to Northern Lights.
“By playing every week, once a week, it’s a gig, but it’s also almost like a workshop for me because I get better all the time so I experiment and try new things within reason,” Coffey said.
For him, music is more than just chords and melodies.
“Playing, to me, is a communication,” Coffey added. “You’re communicating with the audience so I think it’s important for an artist to do as much of that as they can.”
Coffey has been playing Northern Lights consistently for eight years now. He and Solaka met through the Comerica TasteFest, later known as CityFest, which was a more residential precursor to Arts Beats & Eats for New Center. The two stayed friends after the festival fizzled.
Solaka credits the festival as he and his partner William Steele’s image building, planning and marketing tool for New Center. He considers Northern Lights a diorama of the festival.
“During that experience we learned how to make sure that we had the proper blend of folks who lived here or have been hanging out here forever and the folks who we were trying to get to take a look at it because we always felt that mixed incomes, mixed race, mixed identities — that’s what makes an urban center great,” Solaka said. “It can’t just be one thing.”
Bar manager Ryan Werner has been tending at Northern Lights for nearly two years and compares the daily environment to Cheers.
“One of the things I love the most about this bar is how eclectic the clientele really is. Everybody’s different out here,” Werner said. “Everybody comes from a different place, but everyone finds this bar to be relaxing in some way. The beautiful patio that we put in two years ago, it’s hard to be mad out here with the ivy on the walls and the perfect lighting and the beautiful trees.”
The aforementioned patio is a big draw for most regulars.
The outdoor patio at Northern Lights is a sunny and dog friendly sanctuary for many to unwind from the workday and share laughs with familiar faces while they wait for traffic on the Lodge to die down.
The staff and the patio are what keep Melinda Johnson coming back two to three days a week.
“The customer service with Sam [in the kitchen] and Ryan [behind the bar] is just amazing,” Johnson said.
Every time an employee walks out to the patio from the kitchen or bar inside, frequent customers like Melinda are shouting out their names and exchanging fist-bumps, kisses, and laughs.
“How I’ve met people coming here quite a few times, you just see a face that’s familiar, I just automatically reach out to people because quite a few people I see every time I come,” Johnson added. “I don’t like not speaking to people, and that might be how it works for everyone else.”
I wonder: What did they do to “make sure” that they had the “proper blend of folks”? I would ask Solaka that question.