For more than half a century, Nemo’s Bar has been synonymous with Detroit sports. A lasting remnant of old Corktown, they were doing burgers and fries long before kimchi dumplings and craft cocktails defined the neighborhood’s appeal. While Michigan Ave. has been made over in the image of its newer inhabitants, little has changed within the walls of this timeless Detroit establishment.
Nemo’s once served as the unofficial bar of Tiger Stadium. Now Tigerless, the ballfield down the block serves as a constant reminder of a Detroit that many current inhabitants cannot recall. But at Nemo’s, it’s recent history. Free Press clippings cover nearly every square inch of wall space – most commemorating monumental moments in Detroit sports history. It’s worth noting that since opening in 1965, the city has experienced a total of nine championships – two World Series, four Stanley Cups, three NBA Titles. One has to wonder if there will be any space left by the time the Lions get around to winning a Super Bowl.
Of course, nobody expects that to be an issue any time soon.
From behind the bar, Pat Osman recalls the way things used to be. “The world is different now,” he reminisced. “When the Tigers were playing, you’d get part-way through the game and sneak down there, go get a hot dog and then come on back and work the end of the game. That’s not gonna happen now, but it was really nice when it happened then ‘cause everyone knew each other. It was a different world.”
“That last home week of Tiger Stadium in ‘99 was awesome,” Osman continued. “When you think about it, it’s been twenty years. Hard to believe.”
Despite the team’s relocation downtown – to what we now reference more specifically as The Stadium District – Nemo’s remains an institution for fans, offering shuttles between the bar and Comerica Park on game days. But it’s not just about the Tigers. When Pat started tending bar and manning the grill in the late nineties, the Red Wings were enjoying the peak of their dominance. After the seventies’ Dead Wings, an eighties rebuild and agonizing, premature playoff exits throughout the early to mid-nineties, Bowman, Yzerman and the Russian Five built what many consider the greatest dynasty in sports history; 25 consecutive playoff births – the longest streak in all four major sports. Pat recalls the excitement of working the iconic venue amidst the back-to-back championship runs of ’97 and ’98 and a third in ‘02.
“Ilitch brought the cup in here after they won!” Osman exclaimed with the sort of boyish pride that only comes from true fandom. “He pulled up on 8th Street facing southbound and had the Stanley Cup in his trunk. Brought it into the bar, set it on the round table here. Had lunch. Took a bunch of pictures with people. It was awesome. Couldn’t ask for anything better than that. You never see that anywhere else. Just a slow lunch hour and the guy who owns the Wings – and they just won the cup – and he’s got the cup sitting on the table right next to you. Kinda cool. Not kinda cool. It’s really cool.”
Nostalgia only gets you so far. Ilitch came in for the same reason generations of Detroiters have for decades: the best burgers in town. “The secret is the meat we use,” Osman explained. He would know. He can’t even begin to estimate the number of patties he’s grilled since taking up the work over twenty years ago. “We’ve used the same place since 1965. A neighborhood place right around the corner from us – Rex Packing. They bring it here every day. I talk to the guy in the morning. It’s a family business too. Same as us. That’s what makes the world go ‘round.”
And that’s what Nemo’s is all about: Family. Tradition. Quality. Osman was quick to point out the essentially non-existent turnover rate for staff. He described himself as a “lifer.” So did Sandy, another manager who’s spent decades at home behind the bar.
Today’s Corktown may appear different than opening day, ‘65, but Nemo’s will continue to be the backbone of this rapidly-developing community. A stabilizing force amidst near-constant change. “It’s a great neighborhood no matter what,” said Osman. “A classic.”