DETROIT — The Cadieux Café here on the far east side of the city is known for its beer stew, its mouth-watering house mussels, an impressive stock of fruity Belgian beers, such as Framboise and Lindemans, and the ancient game of feather bowling.
Please be advised, that your correspondent, fresh from a visit to the Cadieux on a recent snowy afternoon, one meant for a drink or two, is not writing under the influence of too many Frams or Lindys. Feather bowling is truly a thing, and a good one.
To walk through the front door of the homey bar at the corner of Waveney Street and Cadieux Road is to stroll back centuries to medieval Flanders, the western portion of Belgium where feather bowling was created. Some 600 years later, with the game rarely played in Belgium any longer, the quirky sport hangs on at the Cadieux as a game that is distinctly Detroit — an all-but-forgotten sport in a Rust Belt city valiantly trying to reimage itself out of the ashes of a once-great American metropolis.
In 2015, ESPN The Magazine referred to feather bowling at the Cadieux as “the most magical, mystical sport on earth.” So that about covers it. Although I bet Jerry Jones and a whole bunch of people between the Back Bay and the Bronx would claim hyperbole, and who better to claim hyperbole?
“We’ll get visitors here sometimes from Belgium,” said Paul Misuraca, one of the Cadieux owners since the late 1980s, “and to be honest, they’ve never heard of the sport.”
Feather bowling is a blend of bocce, curling, and horseshoes, a variation of the many target sports (petanque in France, kubb in Sweden) that involve rolling or heaving an object closest to a designated spot.
In feather bowling, the target is an upright pigeon feather in the ground, one placed at each end of a concave earthen alley or lane. The two feathers are spaced 60 feet apart. The balls are made of hard wood, typically maple, weigh about 5 pounds each, and measure roughly 8 inches in diameter and 5 inches in thickness. They look far more like small wheels of cheese than, say, the balls at your local candlepin or tenpin lane.
Points are awarded based on which of the 12 balls (six per individual or team) is rolled closest to the feather. First one to 10 points wins the game. The challenge is learning the touch, or pace, to apply to the ball as it leaves the bowler’s hand.
Because it is fashioned from natural clay, the alley has its imperfections, often sending the ball on unpredictable, inebriated meanderings down the lane, like Otis the town drunk on “The Andy Griffith Show” making his way down the streets of Mayberry after closing hour.
“I think I missed my calling,” said Kevin Pesta, a first-time feather bowler, pleased over his initial rolls the other day at the Cadieux. “Makes me think I should spend more time at the bar . . . yeah, right, I’ll try selling that to my wife later.”
Pesta was playing in a company holiday outing that, according to Misuraca, makes up a substantial part of the Cadieux feather bowling business. Lanes are rented for $25 an hour on weekdays, $50 on weekends. The Cadieux Café Feather Bowling Club, with a few of its members the descendants of bowlers who played on the same clay alleys in the early ’30s, tie up the place twice a week on league nights, games sometimes lasting until 2 a.m.
Misuraca, 53, grew up 2 miles down the road and began working at the café as a schoolboy. The neighborhood then was full of Belgians, many of them skilled carpenters and masons and painters, immigrants attracted to Detroit after both World Wars to be part of the booming auto-based economy. Detroit was big, bountiful, promising. America in full.
Misuraca’s maternal grandfather opened the café as a speakeasy during Prohibition and sponsored Belgian accordion players who would make a living in the city’s myriad music clubs. Some of them, recalled Misuraca, played on the very Cadieux stage that now invites karaoke, live bands, and the odd Elvis impersonator.
“Been a long time since we had an accordion player,” said Misuraca. “But we had ’em. We’ve tried some comics, too . . . but they kinda bombed.”
There is no typical feather bowler, according to Misuraca. The demo ranges from eager teens to wisened, alley-tested octagenerians.
For some 30 years, the Cadieux Café Feather Bowling Club has crowned an annual grand champion, a portrait of the winner mounted high on a wall, forming a gallery of rollers, poised on the wall as if to watch over every roll on the two lanes. When one of the champs dies, the portrait is taken to the funeral home and placed aside the coffin during visiting hours. It’s then brought back to the club, remounted on the wall, and proud club members bid their pal adieu with a final roll down the hallowed lanes.
With all the action at the Cadieux, it’s probably no surprise that one of the nonregulars would try to hustle a ball out the door.
“Yeah, it happens,” said a chuckling Misuraca. “The last guy, we caught him on tape. Some work function. We looked at the tape and it was, ‘Ah-ha, there it is, he put it in his coat pocket!’ We didn’t make a big deal out of it . . . we just called, told them what we saw, and they brought it back.”
Perhaps the miscreant was under the influence of one too many fruity Belgian beers?
“Probably, yeah,” said Misuraca. “Big party. He was looking for a souvenir, I guess.”
There is no other place like the Cadieux, although another café in the city, said Misuraca, has tried a similar version in recent years.
“And there’s another in Minneapolis now, I hear,” he said. “But we think what we have here is unique.”
The last man out of the Cadieux, located some 10 miles east of downtown, each night has to water down the two lanes. It’s part of the tradition. Belgian history lives on here on the eastern limits of Motor City, with most of the Belgian population long gone from the neighborhood. Life’s changed, but the comfy café keeps the ball ever rolling.