Exclusive Interview: LARRY MONGO the Legendary Owner of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy in Detroit Celebrates Café D’Mongo’s 10-Year Anniversary!
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy 10-year Anniversary Party
Thursday, June 29, 2017
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is the Rick’s Café of Detroit. Humphrey Bogart ran Rick’s Café in Casablanca and his equally dapper counterpart Larry Mongo runs Café D’Mongo’s in Detroit.
The only difference is that Larry is a real-life character. And a real character, indeed! He’s one of a kind. Larry Mongo is a living piece of Detroit history and we are honored and thankful to have The Mongo family here helping to electrify the fabric of Detroit.
Widely regarded as one of the top bars in the United States, Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy officially opened in June 2007 and over the past ten years, has morphed into one of Downtown Detroit’s premier iconic bars. Almost every major visiting celebrity who comes into town drops by D’Mongo’s and the place absorbs a veritable ton of local and international visitors every weekend who overflow the bar.
A timeless quality distinguishes all great things and Café D’Mongo’s offers the world a certain Detroitness which cannot be duplicated, something timeless and classic. Perhaps it’s the interior, the live music, the phenomenal drinks, the outstanding service, the great people you meet there, the fact that Larry is a hands-on owner who leads from the frontlines and is always at the bar with a friendly smile.
History of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
Squeezed between a concrete parking structure and a circa 1937 shul, the building currently housing Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy used to be owned by the Greek Seros family. It was the Seros Chili Restaurant from 1918-1980’s.
“Seros Lunch originally opened here in 1918 then it was the Seros Chili Company in 1920. The owner was James Seros and his spot was nationally famous for their chili con carne. It was a Seros place until the 1980’s.”
“In 1985, I purchased the restaurant and on June 4th, 1987, opened ‘Cafe Joseph’. In the early 90’s, Cafe Joseph was transformed by my son Jerome Mongo, into an after-hours club called the ‘Wax Fruit Rhythm Café’.”
“At the time, seldom known rappers like Eminem, Kid Rock, Esham and others used to perform here. In December 1993, Jerome opened the famous rap music spot ‘The Hip Hop Shop’ on 7 Mile Road with Maurice Malone and eventually closed Wax Fruit.”
“The current incarnation of Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy was opened in June 2007 by me and my lovely wife Dianne. Some local nearby residents of Capitol Park, Sarah Kubik and Margaret Cassetto talked me into re-opening. They lived in some lofts nearby and finally convinced me. I’m glad they did.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy’s Internationally Famous Drinks
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is famous for inventing two hugely popular drinks:
the 1439 (Captain Morgan’s rum and Faygo’s Rock N’ Rye) and The Detroit Brown (Crown Royal, splash of bitters and Vernors Ginger Ale).
“Quentin Tarantino has publicly stated that Café D’Mongo’s 1439 Griswold drink is his favorite drink of all-time. We introduced Quentin to Faygo Rock N’ Rye and sent him home with a case of it.”
“And just recently, Afar Magazine voted Café D’Mongo’s Detroit Brown the #1 cocktail in the world.”
“In 2014, Esquire TV featured us on ‘Best Bars in America’ and we’ve had a number of television shows in here.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy’s Internationally Famous Food
“Our food is real popular too. We’ve got unique food but it’s a limited rotating menu. Andrew Zimmern featured us on his show ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern’ on the Travel Channel. He had our peking duck on there. Sometimes I’ll even get in the kitchen and make Sloppy Larry’s and other stuff.”
“We used to have Esteban Castro making his famous guacamole at Esto’s Garage, a pop-up kitchen here. Now we have Eugene on the grill and Sanford “Rembrandt” Nelson making some delicious and unique grilled cheese creations. Eugene is the chef and Rembrandt creates the menu.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is a Hot Spot of Celebrity Sightings
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is a popular hangout spot for celebrities such as:
Quentin Tarantino, Ryan Gosling, Michael Bay, Sir Richard Branson, Sam Raimi, Charlie LeDuff, Anthony Kiedis, Bruce Campbell, Sixto Rodriguez, Marcus Samuelsson, Seth Ferranti (author of 20+ books, co-producer, co-writer of the White Boy Rick documentary) and hundreds of others.
Café D’Mongo’s Slate of Annual Parties
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy hosts some famous annual events:
“Our best know annual parties are: Brazilian Carnival, the Jewish Purim, Detroit Tigers Opening Day Party the first Friday in April, Dia de los Muertos, Halloween and New Year’s Eve.”
“We have live classic rock and soul music from Carl & Company, the Cafe D’Mongo’s house band. The group is fronted by Carl the Human Jukebox. When he plays stuff like James Brown-I Got The Feeling, the whole place starts jumping, everyone laughing and grooving, in-the-seat dancing, banging on glasses with spoons. It’s a fun time.”
“The interior of Cafe D’Mongo’s is famous for being a one-of-a-kind Detroit history museum. The walls are adorned with rare vintage photographs and ephemera and odd trinkets. Michael Jackson’s jumpsuit hangs from the ceiling. The Detroit artifacts and memorabilia are rare, historical museum-worthy pieces. We are installing The Place Case curio cabinets full of rarities donated by Ryan Place soon above the bar, so stay tuned for more good stuff.”
The Mongo Family History
“My family used to be slaves a long time ago. In 1906, the Mongo family moved from Kershaw, South Carolina to Detroit. The four Mongo men came here after one of them murdered someone. Sonny Boy was able to escape after Grandma dressed him as a little white girl in black mourning clothes. She told Sonny Boy to tell everyone he was a girl and that he was going up north to claim a dead body for burial.”
“Sonny Boy was my Grandpa’s brother. My Grandpa was Benjamin Mongo and they had to come to Detroit after they had to use capital punishment to fight an injustice that was used against them in the South. We also bought all the land we were slaves on.”
“Now, my wife Dianne, she’s Canadian. She comes from the first settlement for black runaway slaves called North Buxton. Her great grandparents have a statue on the other side of the tunnel, George and Alice Shreve.”
“Dianne is also a descendant of Mary Ann Shadd. Her family were free blacks in 1850 and went to Canada. Dianne can trace her bloodline back to the 1700’s. During the Revolutionary times, one of the soldiers came from England. He was 14 years old and wounded. Dianne’s family took him in, took care of him, nursed him back to health. He ended up staying and marrying one of the girls.”
“Dianne’s aunt is Artis Lane, a famous sculptor from North Buxton. Artis did a bronze portrait of Rosa Parks, sculptures of many U.S. Presidents and more. I’m very proud of my wife and her heritage.”
How Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy Started
“Café D’Mongo’s started as a chain of hair salons called D’Mongo’s Hairstyling. We used to cut Coleman Young’s hair, too. His barber chair is here at the bar on display.”
“When I got married in 1968, my wife Dianne wanted me to take her last name. We were both rebel kids, our families were close for generations. I kept my name but we decided to make our own family name. So we decided we needed a new shared name. We took the ‘D’ from Dianne and my last name ‘Mongo’ and created ‘D’Mongo’s. It was a private joke for years until I named the bar after it.”
“Dianne is British Methodist, she prays for me every day! Here’s another fun fact: Dianne made me get baptized before she married me. I took my friends, eight of us went and got baptized. After I told her we went and got baptized for her, she said ‘Lord, if they die now, at least there’s a chance!’”
“Then in 1975, Dianne become a master barber and in 1977 the very first D’Mongo’s Hair Salon opened (19985 Livernois, Detroit). I was a journeyman tool & die maker at the time but helped run the business of the hair salon.”
Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy Was Originally Called Café Joseph
“Back in the day, there was this gay guy named Joseph and he belonged to a political group. He was the secretary, the gopher, and so forth until a new regime took over and they kicked him out just for being gay. But what they didn’t know is that he grew up with me in the old neighborhood. He was a neighborhood kid and we grew up together, I owed him a loyalty. He came to me, told me what happened and I sat down with him and said that I didn’t have a name for my new club that I was about to open. And I told him that I was gonna name the club Café Joseph in honor of him but I told him ‘you gotta go gangster.’”
“He was the host at the door, he’d look at me and get all fragile when the same people who kicked him out of their club showed up at my bar. They kicked him out, so I kicked them out of mine. I had the connections they needed, so they kept trying to come back. So about 1-2 years pass, the club is getting a bigger reputation and Joseph asks me if we can start letting them in. I say ‘tell all your friends they can’t get in unless they Mother with them’. So these guys actually brought their Mom’s down with them and we let them in. Then life changed for Joseph.”
“As straight guys, we never disrespected gay guys, we just let them do they thang. But when the straight square guys saw Joseph being hugged and shaking hands by street guys, his prestige rose to the top and he was grateful and a changed man.”
The Mongo’s & The Purple Gang Connection
“The real money was in bootleg whiskey. My family used to run liquor with Abe Bernstein and The Purple Gang and the Bronfman family of Montreal. My grandpa and the underworld side of Dianne’s family worked with Abe in the bootleg business.”
“My family made a fortune. The code word in all the Mongo clubs was ‘Black and Tan’. Prohibition ironically created radical integration. It was hardcore right-wing Christians against all the people who drank alcohol. So, all the different types of people who loved liquor banded together and became friends.”
“85-year old DeVon Cunningham is a local Detroit artist and a very good friend of mine and he comes in here frequently. He was also personal friends with Abe Bernstein, boss of the Purple Gang. He has some of his art at the Smithsonian and he did many of the art pieces you see hanging in Café D’Mongo’s.”
Larry is Proud to Be Jewish
“I was a Jew before I knew I was a Jew. The Jewish culture had me. I really knew I was a Jew when I moved to Detroit! My value system, my beliefs, everything about me is Jewish. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in Oak Park and when I moved to Detroit, some of the old gangsters used to laugh but they kept me around to learn and told the young guys to stick with me.”
“It’s not an accident that I’m next to the Isaac Agree Synagogue. We’re glad to be here and if I see anybody else try to spray paint the synagogue like when I caught those kids on the roof, there’s going to be hell to pay.”
The Dan Gilbertification of Downtown Detroit
“I’ve seen the Dan Gilbert effect. It is a positive business-generating effect and it’s also good for the spirit of the people of Detroit. Quietly among the black people, I call Dan Gilbert “Moses”. He’s leading us out of the darkness in terms of encouraging us to invest in Detroit. Chuck Forbes saved Detroit’s Theater district and Dan Gilbert is saving Downtown. People are in better moods, they’re moving into downtown, Midtown, Corktown, etc.”
“The millennial pollinators, the creative class, showed the world that people can live in Detroit. It started with gay women moving into illegal lofts. They paved the way, then gay men who partied, then straight men and women followed suit. Now it’s a good mix of everybody down here. Creative pollinators made it possible for people to feel safe again in Detroit.”
Larry’s Greatest Happiness: Boosting Other People’s Standings in Life
“My greatest happiness is helping boost other people up to a greater potential in life. I’m a big believer in innate human potential.”
“Courtney Henriette who now owns the Katoi restaurant, created the Detroit Brown drink here at Cafe D’Mongo’s around 2008. She didn’t know how to make drinks at the time and she made it for a customer on a whim. The man said ‘this isn’t what I ordered but I like it. I’d like another.’ Suddenly, that very night, other people started ordering it and we had a runaway hit on our hands.”
“Esteban Castro has his own food truck now. Esteban came in as a customer and we let him run his pop-up kitchen Esto’s Garage in the back here. I let him do it for free until he got enough money together to get his own truck.”
“Carl the Human Jukebox was down on his luck. He was homeless and singing Beatles songs outside of Grand Trunk Pub. I offered him a job. Then a dentist gave him a free set of false teeth. And now he lives in his own place, man!”
“Chris Krsteski the bartender got hired thru Chucky Patch, a local entertainer with a guitar. We love Chris, he always works hard.”
“Sheila Edwards, the white-haired guardian at the gate of entry, retired recently. She was great and we now have her doppelganger at the door.”
Christine Passerini the manager of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
“I met Christine in 1990. She just moved to Detroit from Sharon, Pennsylvania. She came to sell me some candles in this very club. I got a big order. Then, two days later I got shot in my stomach, long story.”
“Two months later, I’m out of the hospital and looking thru my notes and one says Christine delivery. So I called her and apologized. She offered to pay for the candles after I told her I got shot. I told her I would pay for them and asked her to meet me in my office at the Himmelhoch building. First thing she asked me was ‘how does it feel to be shot?’ I said ‘you don’t want to be shot’ and we quickly became good friends.”
“I had a chain of eight hair salons at the time and she became a contractor for us. There’s a lot of money in black hair care and manicures so Christine became a licensed manicurist. We had an opening at the Millender Center, she took over there and runs it to this day. She started at Café D’Mongo’s because we were short of help one day. Christine came to the rescue and has been helping out ever since. She’s amazing, she does everything, a true Jill of all trades. We are very fortunate to have her.”
4 Fun Tales from Larry
Larry is a fascinating storyteller and the essence of Larry and Café D’Mongo’s are best illustrated in a series of four anecdotes and tales from The Life of Larry. He has many, many more amazing stories. This is just a small sampling.
Tale # 1: Larry Once Had an Opportunity to Bankroll Eminem
“Back in the day, my son Jerome and his son Claudio were friends with Proof and Eminem. Proof was cool, always called me Mr. Mongo. Eminem used to rap at Wax Fruit sometimes and one day Jerome brought Marshall to me. He said ‘Dad, this guy’s gonna be the next Elvis’. I took one look up and down at that little white boy and didn’t think that his rapping career was ever going to be a moneymaker. Man was I wrong!”
“We had the original rapper anyway, back in 1964. His name was Butterball, he was a DJ on Inkster 1440 AM radio. Butterball was the first rapper I ever heard. Wade Briggs was Butterball Jr, it was a guy before him even.”
Tale # 2: Michael Jackson’s Jumpsuit is Hanging in D’Mongo’s
“Michael Jackson was the kindest, warmest human spirit I ever met, an angel. He wasn’t a child molester but he was a fool for trying to be a good guy to devilish people. I knew him thru the Berry Gordy family when I was living at Indian Village Manor and we became friends when we were trying to do a casino with Don Barton. He gave me his jumpsuit as a gift.”
Tale # 3: Larry took Henry Marzette to DuMouchelle’s
The film ‘American Gangster’ is based on the life of Detroit cop & drug kingpin, Henry Marzette.
“I took Henry Marzette to DuMouchelle’s auction house in downtown Detroit once and it changed the black underworld when it came down to furniture. When they realized that furniture and lamps had names like Tiffany and Hunzinger and that it was worth millions, they listened.”
“About six months later, all of them were subscribing to Architecture Digest and buying high-end stuff. They started using the word Henredon. They learned what a Patek Phillipe watch was. Their eyes opened and their world changed. Oriental and Persian rugs started going in their houses. They learned that investments come in different forms, not just money. White culture is white art. Their art is their culture.”
Tale # 4: Larry’s friend George Murphy once had an Opportunity to Bankroll prince
“Around about 1976 or 1977, Quentin Perry who ran Taurus Productions, brought Prince to the Palms Theatre in downtown Detroit, the place is now called the Fillmore. We had a private session with Prince because they wanted us to invest money in him and bankroll his breakthrough.”
“Now at the time, you gotta understand that Prince was a nobody, none of us had ever heard of him or seen him or knew anyone who knew anything about him. Prince comes out on-stage in pantyhose, high heels, bouncing around. We laughed like idiots and walked out like idiots too. We all told Quentin he was crazy and thought Quentin might have been down low gay himself for suggesting this guy. We thought Prince would never make money. We thought wrong and regret it to this day.”
A Tribute to Benjamin “Benji” Mongo (1948-1982)
“Benji was my big brother who I love very much. We were completely loyal brothers to each other. He was a big influence on me growing up. He was an Original, the Miles Davis of the underworld, a rare person. He was like no one else.”
The Future of Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy
There’s a Jean-Paul Sartre quote scrawled on the tiny bathroom wall here, “Existence precedes essence”. Only at Café D’Mongo’s would you find such an existential proposition in the bathroom. And as you can surmise, Larry is a wild fascinating character with a big heart and a lot of true friends. Go to Café D’Mongo’s and if you’re lucky, he might regale you with tales of his life.
The future of Café D’Mongo’s includes:
- Installation of a series of display cases colloquially referred to as ‘The Place Case’ that will feature many rare Detroit artifacts donated by curator Ryan Place.
- Rooftop patio dining sometime in 2018.
- Possibly applying for a State of Michigan historical marker for the building.
- Possibly installing an old school neon sign on the front exterior of Café D’Mongo’s.
“What I love about this club is that from the very beginning, we opened up with a fun crowd of oddballs, people who are not a part of normal society, you know, creative misfits, the entertainment types.”
“People should know that Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy is the Toronto of the USA in terms of diversity. The love for diversity here is tremendous. We welcome all kinds of people through our doors every week. We tell people, if you have prejudices, leave them at the door because you will be mixing and having fun with all types of people here.”
“We’re a bunch of misfits that fit together,” says Christine Passerini, “And we were the first bar Downtown to stock Faygo Rock n’ Rye and the first ones to have mismatched glasses.”
“My wife Dianne and I love Detroit. We are lifetime members of the Detroit Yacht Club and members of the Detroit Athletic Club. We love everyone down here and hope you can come check out Café D’Mongo’s Speakeasy. Thank You to everyone!”
1439 Griswold Street
Detroit, MI 48226
Cafe D’Mongo’s Speakeasy facebook page
Quentin Tarantino at D’Mongo’s in Detroit
Esquire TV names D’Mongo’s one of the best bars in America
Andrew Zimmern features D’Mongo’s on Bizarre Foods