Inside Look: Standby, Detroit

When Joe Robinson moved to Detroit seven years ago, the fine-dining and drinking options were limited. The cocktail scene was anchored by two destinations—The Sugar House and Michael Symon’s Roast—and local spirits offerings were simply Two James Spirits and Detroit City Distillery. “I had always been in the industry, and loved it, but never really envisioned opening my own place until moving to Detroit,” says Robinson. “At the time, I found myself referring to my few favorite spots as ‘the standby,’ so the name Standby tied into our team’s concept and goal for this spot to be a local standby for many years to come.”

Standby opened in early 2015 with an ambitious menu of 50 drinks. The menu is organized by base spirit, with a key included for deciphering between shaken, stirred and otherwise. Drinks like Tick of the Clock with tequila, ginger syrup, bitters and lime juice represent the simple side of the spectrum, while classics like Tommy’s Margarita, the Sazerac and the Gimlet round out the classic offerings. Other recipes involve obscure ingredients and complicated preparation techniques, but Robinson is quick to point out that the overall approach remains down-to-earth.

“Not everyone geeks out over the intricacies of cocktails the way we do,” Robinson says. “So while our techniques might be complex, we strive to find ways to invite the novice customer into the experience without pushing the details on them.”

For example, cocktails like the popular Snake in the Grass, a take on the Gimlet, features nitrogen-frozen mustard greens muddled into a powder and topped with gin, lime, simple syrup and celery bitters. The recipe sounds complicated, but it’s noted on the menu as “verdant, fresh and tart” to keep things simple. Other drinks follow suit, like the Port Austin, the first nitrogenated cocktail served on tap at the bar. Made with milk-washed Cognac, Ancho Reyes, port wine syrup and Founders Brewing Porter, the drink “looks like a Guinness but has the flavor of a cold Mexican Hot Chocolate.”

The bar stays open until 2 a.m., seven days a week, a perk for the otherwise sleepy downtown area. So far, locals have been so supportive that Robinson and team recently opened another venue just down the alleyway. The more casual space, called The Skip, is a laid-back patio where frozen Jungle Birds share menu space with cans of beer.

Meanwhile, Standby continues to help garner acclaim for Detroit’s growing cocktail scene. “We wanted to not just to be a great Detroit bar, but great nationwide,” Robinson says. “We wanted people to visit our city and go back to where they’re from and say, ‘You have to go to Detroit. You have to go to Standby,’ Because Detroit is a really cool place, and it’s our job to represent it well.”