In Las Vegas, resort casinos are self-contained: designed to keep guests on-site as they gamble, but also as they dine, drink, dance, shop and sleep. Casinos are also in their own districts, lined up along Fremont or Boulder or the Strip alongside other brightly lit temples of chance and cocktails.
But the MGM Grand Detroit breaks both of these rules: A shining Gotham-deco monolith in the heart of an industrial city, it encourages guests to go out and explore beyond the property. “There’s nowhere else in our country where you have a full-service luxury gaming resort in the middle of a major city,” says Lisa Williams, executive director of sales for MGM Grand Detroit, noting that guests can “go to the different sports, go to the up-and-coming small restaurants, encourages guests to go out and explore beyond the property to do cultural things, and still come back and hit the blackjack table.”
One of the keys to the Detroit MGM Grand’s success has been offering Sin City glamour while accommodating the Motor City market, a point played out in the property’s two main restaurants: TAP and Wolfgang Puck Steak. Demand from sports fans transformed TAP into an upscale sports pub with dozens of screens and a curated selection of Detroit sports memorabilia—as well as beer options from as nearby as Detroit itself (Atwater Dirty Blonde Ale) or as far away as Dublin (Guinness).
Wolfgang Puck’s initial restaurant on the property “was really more of his California menu,” Williams explains. “He looked at the market and created a Wolfgang Steak that was unique to MGM Grand Detroit.” This intention is visible in the decor, which pays homage to the city—glass panels etched with images of Old Detroit, bas-relief wall tiles adorned by maps of local streets, as well as chandeliers inspired by auto tires suspended above diners’ heads. The menu nods to local produce and appetites that are more comfort food, less California. A Honeycrisp Apple salad plays up Michigan’s finest fruit with fennel, pomegranate seeds, dates and blue cheese for a smooth-yet-complex blend of seasonal flavors. Other dishes keep it simple: finely cooked Angus and Wagyu steaks, sides such as broccolini sauteed with lemon and garlic. And, of course, Rocky Road baked Alaska and crème brûlée banana cream pie aren’t part of the typical Los Angeles diet.
Adapting to locals’ taste and adding a bit of familiarity to the flashiness isn’t part of the game plan for most Las Vegas resorts, where the vast majority of guests are from out of state or even out of the country. But at the MGM Grand Detroit, 95 percent of the guests are from the area. “We have a healthy local market and our visitation to the resort is much different than our Vegas properties,” Williams says. “Our customers from Canada, Ohio, Illinois, they drive in to have that Vegas experience.” It’s an experience that can include a few (virtual) swings at their Topgolf facility, or a treatment at their top-shelf Immerse Spa; after your facial or massage, relax by the Zen-like indoor pool and let the glow sink in.
But, of course, the heart of the Vegas experience is the casino, which buzzes with activity, even midweek. The gaming floor is spacious and sleekly designed, with plum tones and brushed-metal finishes. There are also several nonsmoking gaming areas. As Williams explains, “The addition of Crystal Clear, the nonsmoking gaming venue, it’s all based on feedback. … There is a certain segment of our market that enjoys that smoke-free environment.”
The Detroit MGM Grand also has that staple of all modern casinos: the center bar. Axis Lounge has the psychedelic carpet, smooth leather upholstery and little tables topped with cocktail menus that we’ve come to expect in our casino lounges. However, it must be admitted that their Motown cover bands thrash our Motown cover bands. But though we may be 2,000 miles from Las Vegas, it’s still a casino and people will still order martinis at noon and doubles at midnight.
At one end of the casino, a pair of double doors leads to a separate hotel lobby. It’s a high-ceilinged, ruby-and-amber-toned room, the colors glowing even more in the flames of a fireplace that runs the length of one wall. Guest rooms are spacious, with big fluffy beds and big flat screens. Enormous bathrooms have Hollywood lighting and walk-in marble showers large enough to host a cocktail party in. Hell, between the comfy couch, the superhero’s-eye view of downtown and the kickass old-school soul music station programmed into the television (Irma Thomas! Isaac Hayes!), it’s almost tempting to throw a party in the room. However, with so many options, better to take the festivities downstairs, if not outside.
The MGM Grand Detroit will be 20 years old next year. It predates the rebirth of downtown Detroit and the millennial interest in urban living. “It was our company’s first attempt at a city-center resort,” Williams says. “That was a game-changer for us.” As everyone looks for what’s next in casino properties, they might want to look north and consider the idea of a resort that doesn’t try to be all things to all people, but rather part of experiencing a whole city.
Seven Spots to Visit in Downtown Detroit
Most people wouldn’t think of Detroit as a prime spot for a getaway, but there is plenty to do, see and eat in town. Foodies can breakfast at Dutch Girl Donuts, lunch at Dime Store and dinner at Mabel Gray. Sports followers can check out the Red Wings, the Lions or the Pistons (go to welcome Blake Griffin to town). Fans of ballet, opera and Broadway shows can check out the Detroit Opera House or Fox Theatre, and those who prefer more modern sounds can try the Fillmore and the Magic Stick. If you’re in the downtown Detroit area, here are seven spots worth a visit.
Royale With Cheese
The lines are long at this burger joint—and for good reason. The house Royale sandwich is one of the messiest things you’ll ever attempt to eat: brisket, corn relish, caramelized onions, gouda fondue, all sliding together lusciously on a fluffy brioche bun. The chocolate espresso milkshake is one for the hall of fame, and dishes such as the nacho cheese ravioli and brisket fries will also satisfy your palate. 4163 Cass Ave., royaledetroit.com
Detroit Institute of Arts
Located on Detroit’s Museum Row, the DIA offers a wide survey of art history in an afternoon—from pre-Columbian sculpture to Japanese armor, from the hip-hop photography in the basement to the 18th century French dinnerware on the third floor. Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry Murals are impressive in their size and dazzling in their detail (an interactive tour is available), while Nicolo Fuseli’s The Nightmare and Vincent Van Gogh’s iconic 1879 self-portrait are among the other famous works on display here. Be sure also to check out the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History and the Detroit Historical Society on Museum Row. 5200 Woodward Ave., dia.org
If you’ve ever fantasized about being a socialite or a gangster in an old MGM movie, Cliff Bell’s will give you that film-set feeling. The jazz club has been restored to its circa-1935 glory, with Matisse-style murals and luminous vaulted ceilings. Nothing brings out the glow in your Makers Manhattan like having it poured at a solid mahogany bar. The music is consistently top-notch and the atmosphere can’t be beat—and, once you finish up here, there’s always Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. 2030 Park Ave., cliffbells.com
Most local tourist merch consists of map magnets and ugly baseball caps, but Pure Detroit offers a wide range of covetable sweatshirts, glassware, art, books, jewelry and more. There are several locations around the city; the downtown one is located in the Guardian Building, an art deco masterpiece that’s been lovingly restored. The shop offers free guided tours of the building on weekends that you can check out before scoring that Cadillac T-shirt or Stroh’s bottle opener. 500 Griswold St., shoppuredetroit.com
This old-school dive bar has to be one of the most pleasant spots in town: friendly regulars, friendly bartenders, friendly bar cat. The current proprietor has owned the joint for 20 years, but it had been in his family for even longer—and the warm feeling is apparent. During the day, it’s a chill place to sip and drink and shoot some pool; at night, a livelier crowd comes in, with the occasional DJ or special event. 2906 Cass Ave.
John King Books
We’d say the highly specialized and overflowing shelves of John King books are like a Google search rendered corporeal, but, well, a wall of obscure books on any given topic is what Google replaced. Dig the Beatles? They’ve got four shelves. A fan of Vladimir Nabokov? Practically an entire bookcase. British history? That’s an aisle. Prowl through entire sections devoted to fantasy or football or fantasy football. Pick up a map—yes, a map—at the front desk and prepare yourself for five stories of pure bibliophilic pleasure. 901 W. Lafayette Blvd., kingbooksdetroit.com
Lafayette Coney Island/American Coney Island
Like the Montagues and the Capulets, the Hatfields and the McCoys, so do the neighboring hot dog joints on Lafayette Boulevard endlessly duel for supremacy. Lafayette Coney Island is no-frills, but there is something magical about walking into the warm restaurant on a cold night to a puff of steam and a man proffering a chili-drenched dog. American Coney Island offers a (slightly) larger menu and retro-’70s patriotic decor. When it comes down to it, it’s a matter of personal taste: Both serve a damn fine hot dog. Lafayette Coney Island, 118 W. Lafayette Blvd., and American Coney Island, 114 W. Lafayette Blvd., americanconeyisland.com