Steve Francis sits inside his bar on a leather stool, waiting for someone to come in and join him.
Steve’s Place, on East Congress downtown, is a classic dive, one seemingly frozen in time since Francis bought it in 1972 with money saved up from working as a waiter at the former London Chop House and the Caucus Club. Now, it’s one of the few such places remaining among Detroit’s skyscrapers. Free of glamour, Steve’s is a nostalgic island in a sea of contemporary clubs and sleek martini lounges.
Judging by the available seats, Francis’ style of tavern has fallen out of vogue.
“A few people come in, they order a few drinks, but now not too many,” Francis says, speaking in a wispy voice tinged with a slight Greek accent.
That’s an understatement. Most nights, the bar is empty but for a stray regular or a sports fan who stumbled upon the place after a game. The quiet emptiness and the vintage décor lend a film-noir quality to the high-ceilinged room.
Francis and his wife, Sophie, both in their mid 80s, own and operate it themselves, as they have since the beginning. The couple, married since 1966, live in an apartment above the bar and, while one serves drinks, sometimes the other one sleeps upstairs. Both have slowed as they’ve grown older, and both have a frail, endearing vulnerability about them. But despite their age, and despite the lack of customers most days, they keep the place open until 2 a.m. most nights.
In its time, Steve’s Place has survived a fire, the closing of its kitchen, the draw of the casino down the street, and the drinking public’s appetite for more than a shot and a beer.
The real charm of the place is Francis himself. Born in Oregon but brought up in Greece, he’s a grandfatherly figure with an air of Old World politeness and manners about him. He wears a tie to work every day, still pours a free shot of schnapps — his trademark — for anyone who comes in for a drink, still treats his customers with unfailing courtesy.
“Steve is a person of humble origins whose essential nature is that of a true gentleman,” says Bill Schreffler, 55, who lived in an apartment above the bar for a time in the 1990s. “There is something almost aristocratic about him, particularly his kindness and willingness to treat everyone with respect. He’s an aristocrat without aristocratic arrogance or pride.”
The bar overflows with nostalgic, time-warp ambience. Bumper stickers from the rockers and rappers who’ve played next door at St. Andrew’s Hall over the years paper the glass-door liquor cabinets. Several vintage tin lunchboxes, including decades-old originals featuring such pop-culture figures as Nancy Drew and the Monkees, lend conversation-starter kitsch. Brand-new when Francis bought them for decoration, they’re now collectors’ items that regularly draw spontaneous offers of cash from patrons.
A Delta blues guitarist who goes by the name Travelin’ Blues plants himself in a booth along the wall for 12-hour stretches every day, springing to musical life when tips are placed in his hat. Otherwise, he’s slouched in sleep. With a 13-year tenure at Steve’s, he’s as much a fixture as the lunchboxes.
A bronze-plated cash register that rings up the sparse sales poses a visual clash of eras and décor with the lime-green cooler doors, strange paintings of animals, and an idled cigarette machine.
Although he has admitted health problems, and a slowing shuffle that’s evident as he walks to fetch liquor bottles, Francis says he has no plans to retire. “I have no choice,” he says. “We’ve worked hard all our life over here. This is my job and my house.”
Despite the lack of steady foot traffic, Steve’s Place stays alive thanks to visits from a loyal core of patrons, many of whom stop in now and then to check on the elderly couple and help keep the throwback bar alive — one drink at a time.
Alexis Tomrell, 22, who moved from suburban Rochester to North Carolina, visits Francis whenever she’s back in town. “It’s like a homecoming each time,” she says. “Your chair is there, your favorite lunchbox looks down, the schnapps are on tap, and you sit back to hear that old familiar story.”
Like so many old family homes, the scene remains comfortingly unchanged. Each night, as darkness closes in, the neon sign glows brighter in the window. Inside, blades of the ceiling fan whir softly. And Steve pours the only customer who’s come in during the last hour a shot of schnapps. For free, of course.