Cobo Joe’s adjusts to life after Joe Louis Arena
The longstanding sports bar’s new co-owner Delroy Thomas has added authentic Caribbean food and live Motown bands
For years, Cobo Joe’s identity revolved around the Detroit Red Wings, with the team playing just steps away at Joe Louis Arena.
Now that the Joe is history and the Wings are skating on the other side of downtown at Little Caesars Arena, it’s time for a change at the modest sports bar on West Congress.
Enter new business partner Delroy Thomas. Also the owner of First Place Lounge in East English Village, Thomas stepped in so that longtime owner Richard Cadreau could start working toward retirement.
Thomas says he’ll keep the name Cobo Joe’s and the sports bar atmosphere, but he has also diversified the bar’s offerings with a Caribbean food and DJs spinning reggae music on Thursdays and live bands performing Motown on Saturdays.
Thomas says he doesn’t see the end of Joe Louis Arena as a death sentence for Cobo Joe’s.
“We don’t see failure in the picture at all because the Red Wings are no long across the street,” he said. “We’re revamping. They did it on Michigan Avenue (after Tiger Stadium closed), we can do the same thing here, as well, and I strongly believe that you are at your best when your back is against the wall.”
Thomas, a self-proclaimed “wine snob,” perked up Cobo Joe’s barbecue food menu, adding new items such as the “triple hit,” a sandwich stuffed with beef brisket, pulled pork, applewood bacon and smoked Gouda.
The menu prices are still very approachable, with appetizers running $5-$9, sandwiches $8-$10 and a full rack of St. Louis-style ribs $26, including fries and coleslaw.
Born in Jamaica, where he started cooking for the workers on his grandfather’s pineapple farm at age 14, Thomas has crafted a special menu for Thursday’s Caribbean Night. Look for his grandmother’s secret oxtail recipe, served with braised cabbage and “rice and peas” (which we in the United States may call rice and beans). The Thursday night menu also has jerk chicken, rum punch and favorites from the regular menu like smoked, whole wings served naked with sauces on the side.
Cobo Center, of course, is still a big draw for the restaurant, which will open an hour earlier at 10 a.m. during the North American International Auto Show this month.
Cadreau told me in 2016 that sales collected during the Auto Show account for 30 percent of their business for the year. Thomas wants to even that out, though, and lead Cobo Joe’s into becoming an entertainment destination year round.
He’s teamed up with jazz artist and promoter Joan Belgrave to curate the Saturday night Motown line-up. Belgrave — the wife of late Motown and jazz trumpeter Marcus Belgrave — doesn’t see why there shouldn’t be Motown music performed on a regular basis in the city.
“One of the things that Marcus and I used to talk about as we traveled around the world is that we would go to places as far as South Africa and see people doing Motown, and they were doing our music,” said Belgrave. “And then we would come home and there was no place in Detroit, on a regular basis, permanently, that someone could come and be guaranteed to hear the songs that made this city great.”
For now the Motown music will be Saturday nights only, but Belgrave hopes to expand that in the future.
“People come (to Detroit) and they go to the Motown Museum,” said Belgrave. “And then afterward it’s like, okay, what do we do? Where do we go?”
Belgrave has booked the Stubbs Girls to perform Saturday, a group made up of family members of the late Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. The show starts around 8 p.m. and there’s no cover charge. Next month she’s invited singer Rochelle Laughhunn, a member of the original Vandellas. Belgrave herself will perform a Valentine’s Day dinner show on Feb. 14.
Cobo Joe’s Smokehouse BBQ & Sports Bar is at 422 W. Congress in Detroit. Call (313) 965-0840 or visit facebook.com/CoboJoes. The restaurant opens 11 a.m. Mon.-Sat. usually (will open at 10 a.m. during the Auto Show). Parking is available next door in the Millennium Garage for $10.