Just start down the basement steps in the old house on Avery Street, and you’ll hear the soft chatter of locals and smell the half-pound of fresh beef that just hit the grill.
Continue down the narrow stairway leading to the subterranean hangout — proceeding with care if you’re taller than 6 feet 2 inches (ceiling height) — and you’ll find a clientele who glance up, smile, and then return to their conversations.
At midday, those patrons include Mount Clemens judges, lawyers, police, residents, and celebrities who come for lunch. After dark, visitors as young as the household college grad to as old as grandparents drop by to lounge in the basement. Occasionally, celebrities (Mark “The Bird” Fidrych visited) mingle with the locals.
The 33-by-14-foot room is furnished in textbook bar dÃ©cor: neon lights, beer posters, five television screens, dark paneling, humorous slogans, Wolverine and Spartan athletic schedules, and a quote attributed to God that reads: “Don’t make me come down there.”
Many do go down there daily. And by your second visit, some will know your name. Just as quickly, you’ll learn that they don’t frequent the basement for pool (there aren’t any tables) or darts (the ceiling is too low). And they don’t seek a flashy DJ, because there isn’t one. Locals descend to the basement to play music and cards, eat burgers and liverwurst sandwiches, and talk.
“The [U.S.] Revolution was started in a tavern,” says Tim Regal, a basement regular for three decades. “I think it’s because it’s such an enclosed space, and there aren’t a lot of distractions, that it causes people to communicate with each other.”
But no insurrection is being plotted here, in what’s known as the Eastside Tavern, although it’s actually the basement of a white farmhouse. The cellar level, dug out in 1909, became a place where locals could belly up for a 2-cent glass of beer. In 1933, it became the Eastside Tavern.
Its official status is a bit of an oddity. When Mount Clemens was rezoned in 1981, the tavern was grandfathered in, says Cheryl Printz, who works in the city’s Community Development department. That makes Frank DeBruyn the owner of the only basement bar in town.
DeBruyn bought the house in 1991, and has lived above the watering hole for the last eight years. Look for him at the end of the bar. He’s the bespectacled guy wearing a button-up shirt and a big smile. Susie, his Brittany spaniel, lies quietly at his feet.
He likes to say that he lives in a regular house with a living room, bathroom, bedroom, and kitchen. Oh, and there’s the ATM in the basement. One floor below his bed, patrons play a Wurlitzer jukebox and bring their guitars on Saturday nights. The sound, he says, doesn’t bother him much.
Apparently not. He rises early, at 8 most mornings, and heads to a nearby farmer’s market, where he buys enough fresh beef to make the 20 to 50 hamburgers that a lone employee cooks and serves for lunch daily. “I don’t like that frozen stuff,” he says. Last summer, bartender-waitress-cook Laurie Woodworth topped the usual burgers with slices of hefty tomatoes from her own garden. Two other staffers round out DeBruyn’s crew.
They oversee a simple menu that offers a range of libations from Schlitz to chardonnay to Coca-Cola.
Woodworth says her basement-level job is “like throwing your own party at your house.”
And to the casual eye, it’s just that. In the backyard, where the grass is freshly mown, there’s a picnic table, an RV, and a shed that holds what his basement would, if it weren’t a bar. The domestic scene continues down into that commercial space. Photos of DeBruyn’s kith and kin, including one of his baby granddaughter, hang just behind the neatly arranged liquor bottles.
“It’s like family down here,” Woodworth says. Newcomers find themselves chatting and eating chips as if they’re catching up with relatives. Before long, they’re petting Susie the spaniel as she ambles by, forgetting that they’d just entered the home of a complete stranger.