Since 1882, people have been coming to Sleder’s Family Tavern to enjoy good food, good drink, and good talk in an intimate and nostalgic family atmosphere. Michigan’s oldest, continuously-operated restaurant, Sleder’s is an important piece of the unique tapestry of Traverse City and a treasured part of the area that locals proudly share with visitors.
It all began in the heart of what was once known as Slabtown, a working class neighborhood on Traverse City’s west side. Vencil Sleder (1850-1904), a Bohemian immigrant and wheelwright, wanted to build a tavern where everyone could relax after a day of hard work. With the help of neighborhood men, Vencil began construction using wooden slabs from nearby sawmills.
“It took three years to build because the crew could only work on Sundays,” said Louie Sleder (1909–1993), the last of three generations of Sleders to own the tavern, “Afterward they would eat, drink, and tell lies.”
Louie’s mother, Polly, helped establish the “good will is good business” attitude that still prevails at Sleder’s today. When patrons bought a case of beer from Polly for $1.50, she threw in a double shot and a beer for free. She even dispensed regular medical advice to clientele, like her guaranteed cure for a neckache – heat salt in a fry pan, mix in some egg white, soak a rag in the mixture, and then wrap it around your neck.
There was little doubt that Louie would end up in the family business, and he learned it from the floor up, literally, by earning 25 cents apiece to clean out the 21 spittoons in the tavern. By the time Prohibition rolled around in Michigan in 1917, his business savvy helped him manage to keep the tavern open for loyal customers (which is why Sleder’s is the state’s longest continuously operated tavern). He kept barrels of special “root beer” (bourbon and rye), which he served in tea cups and for free, of course, to law enforcement officials.
Sleder’s decor still contains the original bar along the east wall, an impressive 21 feet of solid mahogany sided with cherry wood and fronted with a brass rail. Under the warm glow of antique lamps are old wooden booths and an array of century-old round oak tables and ice cream parlor chairs. The 12 foot ornate stamped tin ceiling is higher than those of most similar structures today, and remains virtually unchanged except for the conversion of gas lights to Thomas Edison’s new electric ones. And many of the signs and memorabilia, trinkets and unique conversation pieces, and photographs that document the inseparable history of Sleder’s and Traverse City have been here since the 1920’s.
A few structural changes have taken place over the years. Prior to 1930, women weren’t allowed in the main barroom but had their own social area in the back room, which they entered through a special door. There was also a small, private “courting” room, but Louie opened up both rooms in the 1930’s, to the dismay of some of his more outspoken male patrons. And he converted the Columbia Hall Ballroom upstairs into living quarters, though a sign on the outside of the building still proclaims its presence.
Around the time of Sleder’s centennial, Bob and Sylvia Classens, who had bought Sleder’s in 1975, uncovered the hardwood floors, re-finished the wainscoting, and added a Victorian-styled side porch that immediately became a popular venue for private parties, receptions, banquets, and even weddings! When they sold the tavern to Deb and Brian Cairns in May 1992, the Cairns held their own wedding there, and the tradition shows no sign of slowing down.
“Sleder’s is such a special part of Traverse City that the entire community feels a little ownership in the place,” say Deb and Brian, “If you visit Sleder’s once, you’ll come back again. How many places can you say that about?”
Deb and Brian’s legacy of stewardship now continues with their son and daughter-in-law, Ryan and Megan Cox who took ownership of the business December 31, 2019. Ryan and Megan are committed to maintaining Sleder’s nostalgic charm, family-friendly dining, and iconic, turn-of-the-century barroom featuring the longest mahogany bar in town, down-home food, and numerous hunting trophies decorating the walls. The most impressive of these is the moose named Randolph, located over the entrance to the back room. Most people who pass through Sleder’s don’t pass up a chance to “Smooch the moose for luck!”