The Court Tavern
Author: Grace Shackman
With the repeal of Prohibition, Gust Sekaros turned his cafe into a bar
When Prohibition ended in Ann Arbor, at 6 p.m. on May 11, 1933, the Court Tavern at 108 East Huron was ready. One of twenty local establishments that had received permission to serve beer, the former Court Cafe was filled with patrons until it sold out, around 11 p.m. Sam Sekaros, son of then-owner Gust Sekaros, recalls that historic night: “Men, women--everyone was out celebrating that beer came back, that Prohibition was over.” The celebration continued around town until well after midnight, according to the Ann Arbor Daily News, “in a spirit of joy and festivity which outrivaled the celebration which annually ushers in the arrival of a new year.”
When Prohibition was repealed nationally, Michigan set up a state liquor commission that permitted breweries to begin production and make warehouse deliveries. By May 11, twenty-two breweries around the state had received this temporary approval. (The Ann Arbor Brewing Company, on Fourth Street, which had survived Prohibition by making ice cream, was not in that first batch, but it was soon up and running, making its “Old Tyme Bru.”)
Gust Sekaros had applied for a license the first morning they were available. Then he had gone to the State Savings Bank to borrow $500 to buy the beer. It was during the Depression, and the bank had lent him the money but required that it be repaid quickly. Business was so good the first night that Sekaros was able to repay the loan the next morning.
As 6 p.m. approached, the town geared up for action. Cars lined up near the grocery stores that had permits to sell beer. Downtown filled with people eager to make a night of it. Besides the Court Tavern, permits had been given to one hotel, the Allenel at Fourth and Huron; one club, the Elks; and one beer garden, Preketes on Main Street. Many students were among the celebrants, although the city council had purposely not issued any licenses east of Division Street. While early stories had promised that beer would sell for 5¢ a glass, the paper reported the price as 15¢ on that first day.
Since none of the establishments had sold beer (at least not legally) for fifteen years, they were not completely prepared. Sam Sekaros remembers that his family used three or four washtubs filled with cracked ice to keep the beer cold. At many taverns, especially the German ones, customers brought their own beer mugs. Fred Dupper, who had a beer distributorship at what is now the Bach School playground, used a fifty-five-year-old copper mug made in Germany by his father, Jacob, who claimed that the metal brought out the beer’s flavor.
Born in Greece, Gust Sekaros had run a restaurant in Sioux City, Iowa, before moving to Ann Arbor--his wife Angeline’s hometown--in 1925 to run the Court Cafe. In a prime spot across from the courthouse, sandwiched between a bank and a hotel, the restaurant had a reputation for serving excellent meals, such as pork loin with applesauce or roast beef and mashed potatoes--all-American fare that Sekaros prepared fresh every day. Meals cost 25¢ or 35¢, including coffee.
After May 11, Sekaros finished changing the restaurant into a bar. He took out the booths, replacing them with a bar along the right side and tables along the left. He replaced the full kitchen with a grill behind the bar. The tavern still served lunch, mainly sandwiches and hamburgers. “We had the best hamburgers and cheeseburgers in Ann Arbor,” says Sam Sekaros, who is seconded by former customers. The secret, he says, was the meat, delivered fresh every morning from Steeb’s. (The Sekaroses firmly refused to use frozen meat, which Sam claims is good only for spaghetti.)
Sam Sekaros started washing dishes in the cafe as a junior in high school. When he went into the service during World War II, his wife, Inge, helped her father-in-law run the tavern. It was open shorter hours then, because labor was scarce during the war and the tavern was allotted only a limited amount of beer per week. When Sam returned from the war, his father retired, giving the business to him and his younger brother, Dan.
More of a hangout than a serious drinking place, the tavern attracted customers from the area: courthouse employees--including judges--Ann Arbor Bank workers, lawyers from the Ann Arbor Trust Company, and employees of the nearby King Seeley, American Broach, and Argus factories. Walter Mast of the Main Street shoe store was a fan of the cheeseburgers. Ann Arbor News employees came in to unwind after putting the paper to bed. Friday was the busiest day, since people came into town for weekly errands to the barbershop or the bank. On Saturdays the tavern was busy early, but business tapered off in the evening.
With a window on the street and fluorescent lights within, the Court Tavern was not the place for a secret rendezvous. “If you don’t want to be seen, better not come in,” Sekaros told his customers. Women were always welcome, and people felt comfortable bringing their children. Sekaros was happy to serve them soda pop, white or chocolate milk, and he never allowed rowdiness or bad language.
The Court Tavern became an early sports bar, with its television set on for important sporting events. It was one of the first taverns to get Channel 50, which carried Michigan basketball. When President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, Sekaros remembers, the tavern was filled all day long with people watching history unfold.
In 1960, the tavern celebrated another first: being allowed to sell hard liquor by the glass. Before then, liquor could be served only at private clubs, a local anomaly that had made the Town Club on Washington and the Elks Club on Main Street favorite downtown hangouts. Sekaros and other bar and restaurant owners had spent a year going door-to-door gathering the signatures necessary to put the proposed change on the ballot. When voters approved the change, Sekaros was once again ready, having done all the necessary work to qualify for a liquor license, such as changing the floor drains and upgrading the bathrooms.
But even with its enhanced liquor license, the tavern lasted only a few more years. In 1965, when the Ann Arbor Bank on Main at Huron needed their space to expand, the Sekaros brothers sold their liquor license to the Bolgos family, which had a restaurant on Plymouth Road. Sekaros recalls the last day of business as “like a jam session, with people coming from all over.” The tavern stayed open until it ran out of food at about 11 p.m.--the same hour it had run out of beer thirty-two years earlier.