Our Local History: Del Rio was “a way of life” for many Ann Arbor residents

By Patti F. Smith / WLAA

Every now and again a place opens in the right place at the right time. Even years after that place closes people still remember the food, the waitstaff, the people, the drinks, the experience.

For Ann Arbor that time was 1970 and that place was the Del Rio.

It started with the idea that workers—waitstaff, bartenders, people who worked the door—could manage themselves by consensus. That ideal led to over three decades of good times for countless townies and a place that an Ann Arbor News restaurant reviewer called “a way of life.”

The Del Rio sat on the corner of Washington and Ashley (where the Grizzly Den is now) in a neighborhood that was at best described as rough, featuring frequent patrols by police officers with lights and sirens blaring. The 1869 era building housed several German American restaurants including Flautz’s and Metzger’s, a blacksmith shop, a bottling shop, and a hotel. By 1955, the space was home to a hard liquor bar with country music blaring from jukeboxes.

In the late 1960s the neighborhood began to change with the opening of the Blind Pig and Mr. Flood’s Party (now home of the West End Grill). In 1970, musician Rick Burgess and entrepreneur Ernie Harburg bought the place, changed the atmosphere (with a group of friends, they ripped paneling off the wall with friends at 1am and opened at 8pm the same day), and transformed the corner of Washington and Ashley into a legendary and beloved bar.

There were reports of some initial discord between the clientele from the previous bar and the newer customers, the latter of whom tended to mirror the counterculture of Ann Arbor. Further, a disastrous first manager, who failed to pay taxes or keep the books, led to the owners giving managerial duties to their staff. Workers took over the responsibilities of the former manager and eventually decided they didn’t need one, leading to the management by consensus model that would carry the Del Rio for decades.

The Del Rio displayed a 1000+ cassette tape collection behind the bar, had a bottle of Mrs. Butterworth syrup next to the liquor (and they would make you finish the shot if you ordered it), featured live, free Jazz on Sunday evenings, only accepted cash, referred to its waiters and waitresses as the gender neutral “wait”, and served everything from burritos to homemade soup to the Det Burger (a beer soaked in beer and topped with black olives and mushrooms, named after the former cook who created it). The Del was run by staff who all had an equal say in how it operated, who was hired and fired, and shared in the profits equally, the bartenders had complete control over the music choice and volume, the chefs were responsible for everything that went on in the kitchen just as if they were cooking at home and they had created the daily specials, it featured poetry readings and art by local visual artists, it was called by establishment and anti-establishment.

And it all worked—until it didn’t. Time marched on in counterculture Ann Arbor and eventually, so did the Del Rio. A switch to more traditional management happened and longtime employees either quit or were fired; some of these employees led a picket line out front.

The Del went out with a bang with a celebration that began on New Year’s Eve of 2003 and lasted until the new year.

While many townies mention the Del Rio as their most missed bars, others had just as strong opinions on the other side. In that way the Del Rio seems almost a contradiction; indeed, an Ann Arbor News reporter described it as “dark, yet it’s sun streaked…rude, yet it’s inviting…a place to be alone and a place to be among friends.” Some described it as having horrible service and being “insular”. And complaints about the food were many.

But ultimately, the Del Rio stood the test of time and served generations of townies, students, and passersby through our town. Perhaps the best quote about the Del Rio is this: it wasn’t for everyone, and that’s just the way they wanted it.