The Art, Drink, and Food of the Belt

For anyone planning to visit Standby or The Skip, be prepared to spend an extra 15 minutes adoring the artistic splendor that envelops these thoughtfully crafted cocktail bars.

Tucked away in an alley in downtown Detroit, the visionaries behind Standby and The Skip wanted to create a getaway from the bustle of a busy work week and offer a retreat from mundane cocktail bars. As described by owners Joe Robinson, Anthony Curis and David Goldman, “a good bar is one that suddenly transports you, one where you can really take a load off.”

To say the least, Standby, The Skip, and their surrounding scenery do that and more.

The alley that houses both bars is known as the Belt – a culturally redefined backstreet in a former downtown garment district that is home to public art from local, national, and international artists.

Patrons should consider taking a walk through the full Belt alley just to experience the extraordinary scenery that surrounds these sister bars. And if you’re driving into the city, park in The Z, a 10-story parking garage that more accurately resembles a drive-in art gallery. On each level, the walls are covered with breathtaking, 130-foot-wide murals from 27 artists across the globe.

There’s so much to see and take in, one could easily get side-tracked while experiencing this artistic getaway en route to Standby or The Skip.

But that’s exactly the point. Remember, “a good bar is one that suddenly transports you,” so be prepared to get transported to a land of exquisite visual and delectable art.

 

Not your average Standby

Like the murals and installations that line The Belt, similar works of art are sure to catch your eye inside Standby – both the artwork lining the walls and the exceptional cocktails behind the bar.

From the moment you walk in the entrance – the distinct tin doors that were originally in the Cary Building’s elevator shaft – to the time you sit down and peruse the 50-plus cocktail creations, there’s an undeniable vibe in this haute-cuisine speakeasy that is both sexy and welcoming.

A 6-by-20-foot, black-and-white painting by LA-based artist Cleon Peterson fills an interior wall. More artwork with blue undertones to match the blue, tufted leather sofas are prominently displayed from California-based artist Kelsey Brookes and Brooklyn-based, mixed-media artist Caledonia “Callie” Curry, better known as Swoon.

With such a high-end art collection, and the traditional reputation of cocktail bars, one would expect to see a few noses pointed toward the original tin ceiling.

Yet, there’s not even one.

When envisioning the Standby, Robinson said he wanted customers to feel just as comfortable ordering a beer as they would with ordering a six-part cognac blend called “The Sylvester.”

“This is something that really didn’t exist in Detroit – a laid-back, craft cocktail bar with good food where people could enjoy themselves,” Robinson says. “With most cocktail bars, you have to sit down and be quiet. It’s great to see everyone enjoying good drinks and having a good time.”

The menu of appetizers touts “Bar Snacks,” yet the small plates are more like the grand cuisine of a gourmet restaurant. The Tunisian Fried Cauliflower with chickpea butter, smoked paprika, chives and honey definitely didn’t taste like the every-day bar snacks I’m accustomed to. Nor did the Brussels sprouts drizzled with ginger tamarind, cashews, and mint.

Standby’s list of entrees is just as unique. With options like the Whiskey Mushroom Pierogi with scallions, chile de arbol, and tamarind syrup; and the Curry Braised Lamb with mint couscous, cashews and fennel, I opted for the good ole’ American Cheeseburger with black pepper aioli, bacon, red pickled onions and lettuce on a sesame seed bun. While Standby may have a reputation for its craft cocktails, it’s also been named one of “23 Must-Try Metro Detroit Burger Spots” by Eater Detroit. So I had to try it. And that delectable burger lived up to every juicy bite of the hype.

Robinson traveled to cities like San Francisco, Montreal, New York, Chicago and New Orleans to get inspiration for Standby. He identified what he liked most about different bars in each city and figured out how to bring those elements to life with a unique Detroit style.

The weekends at Standby provide two different experiences. When the doors open at 5 p.m. on a Friday, it’s a little brighter. Something along the lines of Fela Kuti is playing in the background while people come in for dinner and Happy Hour cocktails. By 10 p.m., the lights are turned down and everyone is bobbing their heads and feeling the bass as the music transitions to Chance the Rapper and Anderson .Paak’s, “Let Me Get Down.”

A standing-room-only crowd of men and women of various ages represent the melting pot that Detroit has become. Some men are dressed in blazers and jeans, others in T-shirts and chinos. The ladies add their own personal flair – some in what could best be described as the Beyoncé “Freakum Dress” and others in tattered denim capris with off-the-shoulder blouses.

The vibe is “come as you are,” whether you’re headed to the club afterward, or stopping by to enjoy a great cocktail with friends. And by great, I mean so in-demand that the line to get inside is often stretched through the alley with those eager to watch and enjoy Robinson work his mixology magic.

Robinson, 30, is a resident of Detroit. He’s lived in the city since 2009 after moving from Clarkston to become a server at Roast inside the Westin Book Cadillac.

“I’d always been in the restaurant industry. Always had a bunch of side gigs,” he shares. “Serving and bartending – it was something to do while I figured out what I wanted to do. Then it turned into a career.”

Robinson admits he had trouble earning a living during the financial crash of 2008. Then, later that same year, he saw an ad for the position at Roast. He read a few books about wine before the interview and soaked up as much as possible once he landed the job, including befriending the bartender, Travis Fourmont.

“Roast was the first place I worked where they seemed to really value the employees and their opinions,” Robinson says. “They asked how we felt about things, they empowered us to make decisions.”

Fourmont noticed Robinson was asking a lot of questions, so he took him under his wing to be trained behind the bar.

“It was a great platform for learning. Roast had one of the first legit, on-the-map, award-winning cocktail menus and I was able to learn from the best,” Robinson says. “From where I started, I knew nothing. Travis really taught me everything about bartender basics. And now I’m here.”

By here, he means his ownership of two successful bars with partners Curis and Goldman. One is the wildly popular Standby. The other is The Skip, an outdoor bar featuring frozen craft cocktails and an extensive beer list. The partners went from hosting pop-up bars at venues like Chartreuse Kitchen and Green Dot Stables, which would draw crowds of 500-plus, to these thriving new establishments.

 

The Skip, far from easy to miss

Just a few doors down from Standby, The Skip is a biergarten-style cocktail destination that offers a casual and relaxed experience. While frozen libations are the main draw, like the Cucumber Margarita or Irish Coffee (my favorite), traditional cocktails with unique names such as “Just a Friend” mixed with amaro Montenegro, allspice, cinnamon, grapefruit and lime, are equally popular.

“The outdoor atmosphere brings something different. It’s kind of a stranger magnet,” Robinson says. “So many people walk in that alley, and you can’t miss The Skip. Some go to The Skip and don’t even realize Standby exists. It’s great because it really is a different kind of vibe – if you’re just getting off work or coming from a long bike ride, come to The Skip. You can really, really come as you are.”

For some, The Skip is the after-party spot when leaving Standby. For others, like Shelby Austin of Detroit, it’s her personal go-to on a warm summer day.

“While I don’t frequent Standby as often, it’s a great spot to get a cocktail at night if you’re lucky enough to make it in the door and find a table,” says Austin. “When the line is long, I usually opt to walk a few steps down to The Skip. This is one of my favorite bars in the city, especially on sunny days when the garage doors are up, and the bar is completely open to The Belt. The patio is nestled in one of Detroit’s best displays of public art and has a very relaxed atmosphere.”

Austin is a bar connoisseur, so to speak. She constantly checks Eater Detroit for new bars to visit so her mind and taste buds never grow bored.

“Detroit offers a lot of great patios, but the atmosphere and layout of The Skip can’t be beat,” she shares.

For Austin, these establishments are as much about personal relationships and the city’s resurgence as they are about imbibing.

 

The History

So how did Robinson and his partners come to own two bars? Curis had been working on reactivating the alley to bring in world-famous muralists. And in the middle of all this beautiful artwork were dumpsters.

Standby’s owners loved the concept of a biergarten-style bar in the alley. So, the three gentlemen collaborated to transform a space designated for trash storage into a magnificent alfresco setting with a Shepard Fairey piece titled “Pattern of Destruction” as the backdrop. The trio recently installed a door on the venue so the once-seasonal outdoor bar could remain open year-round.

 And the name? The Skip is English slang for dumpster. You may notice the logo is a drunk alley rat. The artistic connection from these guys just keeps getting better and better.

Standby was recently nominated as a semifinalist in the Outstanding Bar Program category for the 2017 Restaurant and Chef Awards by the James Beard Foundation, widely known as the Oscars of the food and drink industry.

“We didn’t win, but it was pretty cool to be nominated. Just to be mentioned is insane,” Robinson says. “We’re the first bar in Detroit to ever get nominated for an award. It’s usually New York, L.A., Chicago, so bringing the spotlight to Detroit is pretty amazing.”

Opening a business in Detroit is something Robinson says he realized he could do without having much in the beginning.

“It was work ethic and trying to get my name out there. Grinding and working hard,” he says. “There’s no other city in the country where I could do this. Before, I was just a bartender, and now in Detroit, I own two bars. It’s an insane amount of work. It’s definitely not all fun and games, but I love every minute of it.”