4 metro Detroit waterfront restaurants to visit by boat
Detroit may be known as the Motor City for its automobile industry, but with a name that means “strait” in French thanks to its location on a narrow body of water connecting Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair, there’s no shortage of motors made for waves, either.
Car culture defines our relationship to the land, but metro Detroit’s thriving boating culture is also a unique aspect of the area — with rules and rituals all its own.
For a taste of this watery world, Frame Stories commissioned Timmy Tongue to take us out on his 31-foot Pursuit for a daylong restaurant-hopping adventure by boat. The son of Great Lakes scuba divers, Capt. Tongue is an avid boater, fisherman, and duck hunter who is planning to offer private boat charters launching from Grosse Ile next year.
On a sunny August day, we set out from his dock near the Ford Yacht Club and set our sights for the second set of smokestacks past the Fermi nuclear power plant to navigate to the entrance of the River Raisin.
The Clamdigger Lounge & Pizzeria
“Where the water ends and the fun begins” — That’s what the sign says as you approach this hidden gem from the River Raisin. (Can it be considered a hidden gem if The Clamdigger consistently posts the highest liquor sales of any bar in Monroe County?) If Jimmy Buffet had the swagger of Willie Nelson, he might hang out at Clamdigger’s, where bikers and boaters both enjoy the house beverage — “The Clamdigger” — by the pitcher. Order it either spicy(ish) or mild. Either way, the blood Mary-esque concoction comes garnished with olive, pepperoncini, celery, and house-pickled Brussels sprouts, so you know its fresh.
And if that somehow doesn’t sell you, the Digger’s famous potato pizza will. This is no precious white sauce number topped with thin-sliced potato and sage. No, the famous potato pizza at Clamdiggers is basically a twice-baked potato pie, each slice weighing more than any pizza you’re likely to ever come across again. We’re talking a heaping layer of mashed potatoes, melted cheddar, and crumbled bacon, all held together by perfectly crispy crust. It may also be the only pizza served with a side of sour cream. “It’s like Downriver in a slice,” Tongue says.
The Philly “dipster,” which is the Digger’s version of a mini calzone, is also a great sharable made from the same glorious dough as the pizza.
“Serving fun in the sun since ’91!” — That’s another thing they say at Clamdiggers. So, yeah, it’s a pretty great place.
If there’s a Venice of Downriver, Gibraltar is a top contender thanks to its series of canals, Tongue says.
On the opposite end of the restaurant lifespan from the lived-in Clamdigger, the sparkling new JP’s Waterfront debuted here in March 2021 after a long COVID-induced delay, offering cheap eats and 32 boat slips for Detroit River cruisers.
What JP’s lacks in ramshackle charm it at least partially makes up for with its breezy waterside patio. When the sun is just right and the Long Island starts to hit, you might begin feeling vague California seaside feels. JP’s is definitely more Pismo Beach than Malibu, but hey, Pismo knows how to party — at a value, too.
JP’s is the kind of place where happy hour comes twice a day and the margaritas cost $6 all the time. So settle in and watch the boats bob in the heart of Humbug Marina while you pound some coconut shrimp and tequila lime chicken nachos.
Though Portofino has been around for even longer than the Clamdigger, it’s firmly on the opposite end of the atmosphere spectrum, with an appeal derived from a Miami in the ’80s Art Deco-inspired interior and service that might be best described as “Downriver fancy.” As such, the clientele here tends to skew older, which helps explain the 8 p.m. closing time on weekdays. (It doesn’t get much wilder Fridays and Saturdays when the restaurant stays open a full hour later.) Portofino offers one of the most extensive wine lists around and its sprawling nature means it’s often best to order by bin number.
In addition to the restaurant and banquet center, Portofino also runs Sunday brunch river cruises through the peak of fall leaf-peeping season on its own 100-foot luxury yacht.
For boaters trekking farther north, Brown’s Bar has been the longstanding choice on Harsen’s Island since 1946. Located dockside on the reedy waters of the Middle Channel, Brown’s serves up its house-famous “big crunchy fish sandwiches” in a no-frills space that keeps the focus on life’s simple pleasures: cold buckets of beer, cracker-battered fried walleye, and corn-meal crusted lake perch. Make it a deluxe with coleslaw and fries for just $2.99! Brown’s is classic waterfront dining exactly as it should be.