While the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed indoor dining and music at Detroit Street Filling Station, owner Phillis Engelbert and her team still kept an eye and an ear on the future.
The Kerrytown-area restaurant survived the disruption and reopened its indoor dining room last month. Meanwhile, the music has moved next door into what they believe is the only all-vegan bar in Michigan, the North Star Lounge.
Built in 1887, originally a horse stable, and most recently home to Jessica’s Apothecary & Spa (now on N. Main), the two-story brick structure at the corner of Fifth and Catherine has been remodeled into a cozy music venue with live acts upstairs five nights a week. Its grand opening was Oct. 1.
Engelbert, a grassroots activist-turned-restaurateur, says the idea is an outgrowth of the community-building ethos cultivated at Detroit Street Filling Station and her Lunch Room Bakery & Cafe at the Huron Towers Apartments on Fuller Rd. “It’s been a central part of our mission to bring people together to enjoy the good things in life, like food and music.”
Back in 2010, when Engelbert’s nascent business was serving at pop-up sites such as the Workantile coworking space on S. Main St., she booked the Appleseed Collective for musical entertainment. Their young guitarist, Andrew Brown, now with Djangophonique, is North Star Lounge’s artistic director. Also a graphic designer, he’d been in charge of the music programming at Detroit Street. “And then eventually [Engelbert] calls me up one day and she says, ‘Hey, I want to take this to the next level. Let’s take a research trip to New Orleans,” he recalls. “Couldn’t refuse.
“One of the original ideas we had was, ‘Let’s try to make a cool, tiny, super-intimate, New Orleans–style club.’”
Their space and tastes lend themselves to acoustic rather than electrified genres, but it’s still loud enough for the sound to reach the street. “People will hear the music, and they walk in,” Engelbert notes, “That happened a lot last night. They’re just sort of drawn in by the music.”
Brown booked one act for October—the Lovestruck Balladeers—that required ticketing, but in general the cover charge is solely on the honor system as a supplement to the musicians’ guaranteed fee. “I love all the venues in town, the Ark, Blue LLama, all these great venues, but we don’t have a lot of places that you can just kind of, like, walk into and just sit down at a booth and enjoy some music,” he says.
Fellow local musician Dave Sharp, the Blue LLama’s artistic director, recently toured the desert-themed upstairs listening room, and he and Brown were already discussing plans to book each other’s bands at their respective venues. “It does kind of have an upstairs New Orleans club vibe,” Sharp recognizes, “that upstairs, you’re kind of hidden up there. There’s something going on up there.
“I’m excited about it. I hope it does really well.”
Nightly themes include LGBTQ night on Tuesdays; Hot Club jazz on Wednesdays, evoking the pre-WWII era; a piano bar on Thursdays, mostly held down by Mark Lincoln Braun, aka Mr. B; bluegrass on Fridays; and a rotation of local artists on Saturdays.
A Rock-Ola CD-8 jukebox, found used on consignment in Fenton, was worth the effort to haul it upstairs, Engelbert laughs. Patrons can make free selections from its 100 compact discs. “I feel like it’s romantic. And it’s all part of the vibe. What we’re trying to do here really is bring people joy.”
Plants in every window, Engelbert’s desert photography, and metal sculptured saguaro on the walls help create the ambiance, for which she credits collaborator Nick Wilkinson, a bartender and handyman. Brown sees the closely-arranged small tables and booths as conducive to creating shared experience: “It’s just one big party of forty.”
The all-vegan food menu of snacks and desserts is a selection developed from trying various specials at Detroit Street Filling Station.
The ground floor bar offers more seating, plus a closed-circuit screen and speakers fed from the stage upstairs. The basis for North Star’s name is obvious here, with a portrait of “our patron saint” Harriet Tubman and a starry mural, all the work of local artists, Engelbert proudly notes.
“It’s really about freedom and liberation and hope. It’s a beacon of hope that you want to head toward.”
North Star Lounge, 301 N. Fifth Ave. No phone. Tues.–Sat. 5–11 p.m. Closed Sun. & Mon. nstarlounge.com