As 2014 transitions to 2015, storied Midtown watering hole Honest John's changed ownership Wednesday: The "John" behind the name will be new, but the casual atmosphere will stay the same, the new owners say.
Sugar House and Wright & Co. owner Dave Kwiatkowski says he and his brother John Kwiatkowski will take over ownership of the Selden Street bar this week from proprietor John Thompson.
Thompson, who has owned the bar for more than a quarter century at two locations (the first was on Jefferson near Belle Isle), says he's stepping down to take care of his wife, Irene, who is sick.
Thompson was known for being a hands-on owner, often working as the bartender. He has a reputation for being as charitable as he is outspoken. The Detroit News archives are filled with stories of Thompson's charity initiatives, which included wrapping gifts for the needy and raising money by jumping into the freezing Detroit River in winter.
New owner Dave Kwiatkowski says he's a fan of the bar and has respect for its history.
"We're keeping it as Honest John's," he says. "We have no intention on changing it." Dave Kwiatkowski says brother John will take care of the day-to-day operations. John has been managing the Sugar House craft cocktail lounge in Corktown while Dave runs the restaurant Wright & Co.
"John is going to take Honest John's over as his main focus, and he's going to hopefully inject a little bit of new life into it. John Thompson has run it for a long time, and I think he's ready to sort of turn it over. We definitely want to honor him and honor the name.
"The last thing we want is to come off (like) we're buying it and tearing it down or changing it. ... None of that is remotely true," says Dave Kwiatkowski, who also is behind Cafe 78, a new bar and restaurant inside the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit that's slated to open in February.
"We don't want to alienate the people that have been going there forever; we want to embrace those people. Anything else that needs to be cleaned up or fixed up will be, that's all we're trying to do."
Dave Kwiatkowski says the menu and and vibe will stay casual, and that he's not trying to compete with himself or other upscale restaurants in the area, like the Selden Standard, located around the corner. Both are near the corner of Selden and Second in the Cass Corridor.
"My partners and I go to Honest John's all the time," Dave Kwiatkowski says. "I know the guys from Selden Standard go there as well. I just felt like with what's going on in Midtown, this is a really good opportunity for us to add another restaurant to our portfolio that doesn't compete with anything we have right now.
"We look at it as a good opportunity in terms of long-term real estate, but it's also a Detroit institution."