Most of us, when we have a lull at work, keep quiet about it, surf the web, catch up on admin, writes online travel editor Isabel Choat. And you'd imagine a couple expecting their first baby to be doubly grateful for a few weeks' calm in the office – a chance to conserve energy. Not Davey and Erin Spens. When the pair, who run a fledgling creative agency in King's Cross, London, realised August was going to be quiet month, they decided they needed a challenge, something that would combine their love of magazines and design and travel
And so they upped sticks and relocated their office and two colleagues to ... Sarajevo, Bosnia, where they set about finding a cast of interesting characters – a war photographer, the author of a cookbook, a film director – who would help them "tell a new story about the city". The result was Boat Magazine, a "nomadic" publication that focuses on one city per issue.
Despite being upstarts in publishing the Spens commissioned an impressive array of writers from Dave Eggers, who introduces the issue with an extract from his short story collection How We Are Hungry, to Scottish writer Sophie Cooke and a host of international names. And of course, as a labour of love by people passionate about design, it looks beautiful - printed on luxurious thick matt paper, clever and smart. You can read Boat online and subscribe to the print version at boat-mag.com.
So where do you go from war-ravaged Sarajevo? Detroit, Michigan, is ravaged in a different way – but is equally unloved and under the radar. Published this week with an introduction by Detroit-born author Jeffrey Eugenides, it features basketball stars, It Girls, city farmers and a film director. Their next move? Sao Paulo, due out in April.
The following is an extract from the current issue – by photographers Liz and Max Haarala Hamilton – on some of the best and most interesting places to eat and drink in Detroit - and the people behind them.
Our journey starts out at a little place in Ferndale called AJ's Music Cafe (ajsmusicafe.com). We'd heard that the owner, AJ O'Neil, had the best coffee in Detroit, so decided to head down there. AJ's is not just known for its coffee – it also holds the record for the longest concert in the world, lasting 360 hours and involving local bands. The cafe is split in two, with the restaurant on one side and on the other a little stage, where the longest concert took place. It's typical of Detroit independent businesses to set out with a simple mission and then out of the blue decide to put on the longest gig in the world.
Rafino Valentine moved back to his home town, Detroit, and like so many is intent on bringing industry back to the city. His idea for a local vodka distillery came from a Dirty Martini he downed over eight years ago when he was working on Wall Street. Rafino couldn't understand why vodka was seemingly always imported: someone in the US had to be able to produce a world-class vodka. After spending several years working in other distilleries and studying the traditional processes of production, Rafino started Valentine Vodka (valentinevodka.com).
As he showed us around, Rafino explained that the whole concept of being a Detroit-based company starts with the building itself. The doors to the distillery are stripped back to the original doors of the former pool table factory that now houses the distillery and bar. The bricks and wood in the bar are salvaged from old buildings that were being demolished in Detroit. Rafino gave a few bottles of vodka to the foremen in exchange for the bricks and timbers.
Rafino clearly loves "old". He uses traditional distilling techniques and makes a single batch at a time, tasting and smelling the vodka throughout each step to produce a spirit that competes and often beats the big brands that most of us know.
The vodka is bottled by hand, and 99% of the material used in the process is locally sourced. Rafino starts by trying to source ingredients from Detroit, then Michigan, then Illinois and finally from the rest of the US, but so far the furthest he has had to go is Illinois.
While enjoying a Dirty Detroit (Valentine's bar's signature version of the Dirty Martini), we told the barman, Nick, about our morning spent driving miles and looking unsuccessfully for one of the local food vans we had heard about – Jacques Tacos, only to discover that he usually parks up right round the corner.
Starting over is a common tale nowadays in Detroit. We had heard that there was a Detroit-based company making mead, an ancient alcoholic beverage produced by fermenting a solution of honey and water.
B. Nektar Meadery (bnektar.com) was founded in 2006 by Brad and Kerri Dahlhofer and their friend Paul Zimmerman. The three had been avid home-brewers but it wasn't until Kerri and Brad were laid off that they decided to set up a meadery and start producing and selling their own mead. The day we visited them at their distillery on an industrial park, also in Ferndale, they were bottling their new concoctions ready to be tasted for the first time by the general public and sent off to 10 states around the country.
But not every enterprise in Detroit has positive stories to tell. We'd heard of Detroit resident Kristyn, who had got hold of an old Airstream trailer and was trying to serve healthy street food. We tried to track the truck down, so drove to the last address we had heard it was parked at. We ended up on the outskirts of downtown in an area of boarded-up buildings and open green spaces. We drove past a building with an Airstream trailer outside and pulled up to have a closer look. Kristyn explained that her business, Pink FlaminGO! (find it on facebook.com) was off the road at the moment.
Kristyn still goes out with the truck, although it's not supposed to be serving food. She has been fighting against paying extra taxes for permits to park up and serve food downtown, and dealing with the realities of a local government hampering small businesses. We spent a few hours with Kristyn and her friend Malik talking about Detroit, and listening to their solutions for the city. (Find Pink FlaminGO! mobile restaurant on Facebook (facebook.com)
We heard more about two food vendors in Detroit than any other. Before we'd even landed, people had been telling us about the infamous Coney Dogs war that has been raging since the early 20th century. This is a rivalry fought over the Coney dog, a hot dog topped with beef chilli based on the legendary Nathan's hotdogs found in Coney Island, NY. In downtown Detroit, two restaurants sit side by side, American Coney Island (americanconeyisland.com)and Lafayette Coney Island (find it on facebook.com), both serving their interpretations and claiming supremacy.
Legend has it, a family feud created the two rival eateries, and portraits of family members hang proudly in each place. Residents in the city take sides, but we sampled the delights of both. American Coney was the bigger restaurant, decked out in a patriotic red, white and blue and patrolled by an owner who introduced himself as "Dan the Hotdog Man". Conversation was flowing until Dan discovered we didn't love Tony Blair quite as much as he did. We walked around the block a few times before sneaking in next door to Lafayette Coney. The service here left a lot to be desired and it was definitely a less polished experience, but in the end their dogs came up trumps.
Everybody we met in Detroit told us we had to visit Eastern Market (detroiteasternmarket.com). This is a huge farmers' market surrounded by meat wholesalers and restaurants. We headed down there on a Saturday morning to find a bustling area filled with vegetable stalls, and thousands of people from all over Detroit and the surrounding states shopping for produce for home or business. The must-haves are the ribs from Berts, but we were as taken by the market across the freeway, with its walls painted in murals of meat, fish and cheese, which are sold inside.
Food is a great introduction to any city. We met so many extraordinary people through the plates, bowls and glasses of this town. They have given us a good taste of what Detroit has to offer. But we leave with an unsatisfied feeling in our stomachs as if we have only just had the appetiser. The rich food landscape of this city is evolving so rapidly, we'll have to come back in a few years for the main.