Why Royal Oak, Michigan Is One of the Coolest Suburbs in America

published May 22, 2019
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Credit: Courtesy of Royal Oak Downtown Development Authority

Royal Oak was chosen as one of Apartment Therapy’s Coolest Suburbs in America 2019. We showcased the burbs nationwide that offer the most when it comes to cultural activities, a sense of community, and simply a good quality of life. For more on how we define “cool” and what exactly counts as a suburb, check out our methodology here. To view Apartment Therapy’s other Coolest Suburbs in America 2019, head here.

Michigan is home to dozens of inviting communities, townships, and cities. A few miles north of Detroit, just off of Interstate 75, lies Royal Oak, a suburb with something for everyone. Nearly 60,000 residents live in the hamlet, first settled by farmers in 1819 and christened Royal Oak by then-Michigan Governor Lewis Cass, who found the high ground in the swampy area highly habitable.

These days, the community’s motto of “Life Now Playing” is an endless loop of work, fun, and entertainment. For starters, there are at least 50 city parks comprising 310 acres; a tasteful and eclectic collection of eateries; movies and live theater; the 125-acre Detroit Zoo; and the cutting edge, award-winning William Beaumont Hospital. You’ll also find an assortment of businesses, including coffee shops, tea houses, toy stores, pottery stores, clothing shops and record shops, as well as a thriving downtown scene, replete with outdoor pianos for anyone to stop and play. There’s a whole lot going on in this Oakland County city.

Downtown is undergoing construction that includes several parking garages, a new police station, a 30,000-square-foot city hall, and more. Parking will be plentiful for each and every event, from the Woodward Dream Cruise to concerts at the Royal Oak Music Theatre to the summer concert series and much more. Where else can you find The Detroit School of Rock and Pop Music (DSRP), right next to the David Pressley School of Cosmetology, down the street from the Eagles’ Glenn Frey’s high school? It’s hard to find more diversified entertainment than what’s available in Royal Oak. It’s a remarkable place to live, visit, work, and play.

Median rent price:

$974, according to RentCafe.

Median house price:

According to Zillow, Royal Oak homes are hot and in demand. This seller’s market has increased nearly four percent in the last year and is looking to climb at least another half percent. The average home price is $230,500

Price per square foot:

Royal Oak comes in at $210 per square foot, higher than Detroit’s average of $133 a square foot, per Zillow.

Walkability score:

Downtown is walkable, but the community spreads out over nearly 12 square miles. Royal Oak clocks in for at an impressive ranking of 87 for walkability, according to Walk Score.

Median household income:

$74,140 in 2017, according to Census data. There are plenty of creative, tech, health care, and jobs in other industries to choose from.

Population:

57,236 in 2010, according to the US Census.

What the city is known for:

Royal Oak is proud to be have Tree City USA status, meaning they take part in the nationwide movement to manage and expand their public trees. It’s is one of just two Michigan communities that have earned the honor every year since the first Arbor Day Foundation award in 1976. Cities meet the designation by meeting four core standards for sound urban forestry management: maintaining a tree board or department, having a community tree ordinance, spending at least $2 per capita on urban forestry, and celebrating Arbor Day.

Hidden gem:

Stagecrafters at the downtown-based Baldwin Theatre offers year-round plays and musicals, as well as a beautiful interior. Stagecrafters was named Best Community Theatre by Hour Detroit magazine multiple years in a row.

Place that makes you happy to live there:

Each city park is an outlet for families to dream and live.

Credit: Courtesy of Joshua Hanford Photography/Detroit Zoo

Favorite activity for families:

The Detroit Zoo calls Royal Oak home and features the Polk Penguin Conservation Center. This high-tech facility features four species and more than 75 penguins that waddle about and entertain.

Favorite hangout for young professionals:

The Royal Oak Chamber of Commerce hosts get-togethers that bring young professionals in from all around Royal Oak and beyond. From trivia nights, to leadership meetings, to breakfast gatherings, The RO Chamber is a happening place.

Favorite place to catch a movie:

The Main Art Theatre, originally built in the early 1940s as a single-screen theater, features an eclectic mix of independent and foreign language films. Each summer, the theatre hosts a midnight series, offering new classics like “The City of Lost Children,” as well as hometown favorites, such as “Evil Dead II.”

Favorite teen hangout:

The Metro Detroit Youth Clubs is celebrating 60 years of service. The club has four locations with 2,200 members between the ages of 6 and 18.

Favorite outdoor lounge spot:

Eagle Plaza, in the heart of downtown Royal Oak, offers bistro tables, shade sails, and free WiFi. Located next to several restaurants, it is the perfect lunchtime getaway.

Favorite date spot:

Trattoria Da Luigi offers traditional from-scratch Italian fare in a quaint setting.

Average commute/traffic report:

There is a bus system to get from city to city, and plenty of Uber and Lyft drivers to get you out and about in Royal Oak. The average commute is just over 24 minutes, according to bestplaces.net. Drivers can get testy at rush hour, but there are plenty of places to pull over and enjoy a meal or a beverage and let the traffic thin out.

Favorite local bookstore:

Paper Trail Books in downtown Royal Oak stocks around 20,000 used books, in addition to a selection of new books from local authors. The trendy bookseller also carries an assortment of collectibles, gift items, comic books, greeting cards, and music.  Feel free to play the store piano or a game of chess or checkers.

Favorite place to get coffee:

Dessert Oasis Coffee Roasters is a family business that focuses on bringing people together with desserts and live music. Over the years, the roasters have won awards such as second place in the America’s Best Espresso Competition. Multiple baristas have gotten to the Final 8 in the Latte Art World Open Championship, including Nathan Hamood, the cafe’s president.

Favorite bar for when you want to be around people:

Mr. B’s Gastropub combines food with plenty of entertainment, drinks, and a sports bar with lots of televisions.

Favorite alone spot:

Ye Olde Saloon combines great food with old-school comforts, such as pinball and dartboards, for an evening of relaxing or meeting new friends.

Favorite free cultural activity to take part in:

In the summer, Center Street is closed on Thursday nights for the Royal Oak Commission for the Arts summer concert series. The normally bustling road is converted into a pop-up park with green carpeting, bistro tables, and a stage with music from the area’s top artists. DSRP’s Jason Gittinger brings plenty of talent from the school, as well as drawing on other area musicians.

Signature food:

Pizza? Burger? Chicken? Since 1956, Chicken Shack has been frying up chicken in their world-famous broasters, where the chicken is cooked under pressure in its own juices. There’s lots of flavor to choose from in Royal Oak.

Favorite boutique:

Hihi, in downtown Royal Oak, is a concept store that brings together a fun, colorful mix of kawaii products for all ages.

Most walkable area:

Downtown offers a variety of food, movies, a library, a concert venue, bars, and a farmers market, which you can reach from one downtown parking spot.

Favorite bike trails/parks/outdoor activites:

Royal Oak installed bike paths on major roads, and there are 50-plus parks to choose from. Each park offers playground equipment, and some have disc golf courses, and even a miniature train that runs in the summer. The new, 40-acre Normandy Oaks Park will feature a splash pad, picnic pavilion, sled hill, nature trail, parking lot, and its first play structure. Construction will begin in fall 2019 and continue through spring 2020.

Credit: Courtesy of Royal Oak Downtown Development Authority

Favorite spot for an Instagram:

Look for Royal Oak’s bevy of artwork around town, as well as a public art installation of eight pianos on the street, for anyone to play. The Detroit Zoo also offers plenty of wacky photo opportunities with animals.

Credit: Courtesy of Jim Brady's

Favorite brunch:

Café Muse, O.W.L., and Jim Brady’s are highly ranked on Yelp. Each has different flare.

Favorite free activity:

On the weekends, the downtown area has plenty of street musicians and other entertainers, and people-watching on bench can be eye-opening.

Favorite grocery store:

Hollywood Markets, which started as a small neighborhood butcher shop and specialty store in 1954, has grown from 2,500-square-feet to 60,000-square-feet. The market focuses on high-quality products, coupled with friendly neighborhood service.

Favorite place for a workout:

Tiffany’s Training HIIT Gym offers offer 55-minute, high-intensity, circuit training, consisting of cardio on treadmills and strength training on the floor. The workout changes daily and uses a different piece of equipment each week. Classes are capped at nine people.

Favorite place to take an out-of-towner:

The Royal Oak Farmers Market began in 1925 as a community farmers market serving the produce needs of a growing town. A more permanent structure was added to enclose it in 1927. A strict, “farmer must grow” rule applies to vendors. The market is more than just fruits and vegetables and hosts weddings, food trucks, parties, and craft shows.

Worst place to find parking and easiest place to find parking:

With consistent construction happening, parking is tight near downtown hotspots, especially on Main Street. Luckily, new parking garages dotting the area are alleviating that problem.

What the neighbors say:

Residents describe their city as best of a city and small town rolled into one! There are beautiful trees, but it’s also close to Detroit, they say. Neighbors enjoy one another and say that for the most part, Royal Oak residents are down-to-earth.

“I’ve worked for the city, I’ve been a member of various committees, my four children graduated from Dondero (High School) and I live downtown. My neighborhood is awesome and I met my husband at a neighbor’s party! I love being half an hour or less to get to any event in Metro Detroit,” says Kay Aquilina, a lifelong resident.

Residents say they moved to Royal Oak and stayed because of the Royal Oak Public Library, the playgrounds, and the parks.

“I like to say Royal Oak is a city that feels like a small town. I’m on a first name basis with most of the city commission and many members of the school board. I love the parks. I love the parades and festivals and our lovely historical museum,” says Nancy Vickers, a 40-year resident.

Favorite annual event:

Woodward Dream Cruise brings one million people to the area to watch classic cars cruise the historic byway each year in late August. Everything automotive comes to town, and Royal Oak is in the heart of the weekend event.

What I miss about the city living in a suburb:

Royal Oak offers the best of both, in its nearly 12 square miles, including the hustle and bustle of downtown and the quiet of residential neighborhoods.

What I never miss about the city:

Some Royal Oak residents might mention parking, but that will be alleviated when construction ends and parking garages and streets are back to normal soon. There’s actually plenty of parking if you’re patient.

Favorite local home store:

If it’s hardware, Frentz & Sons has it. Named one of the 12 Best Hardware Stores in America according to Popular Mechanics, it has a large service desk at the center of the store with three staffers always at the ready. It’s an efficient process: You show up with your shattered piece of plumbing and an employee whisks you to the appropriate aisle. You’re told what you need to buy and how to fix your plumbing. Then suddenly, the employee is gone, back at their desk like a sentry.

Favorite local garden store:

English Gardens has great stock all year round! There are also seasonal pop-up stands along Woodward Avenue.

Favorite local diner:

Comet Burgers’ cheeseburger and fries are to die for. This ‘50s-style diner brings in folks of every age and stays open late. The shakes are historic and there’s no loser on the entire menu. They’ve got great servers and a cook who knows how to run a flat top. You can thank me later.

Favorite neighborhood for yard sales:

Yard sales abound, but hitting the high-end Vinsetta Boulevard area can reap appealing finds at bargain prices.

Favorite house/garden walk:

Out of all the parks, Quickstadt Park is tops because it’s home to Tenhave Woods Nature Trail. The trail is nearly one mile and features plenty of wildflowers and birds for nature lovers. The 22 fenced-in acres was once part of an early settlement and haven’t been clear cut since the early 1800s. Hickory, beech, and maple trees abound, and there’s plenty of wildlife to boot. Unfortunately, it’s one of the few places in Royal Oak you can’t take your dog.  

Favorite dog park:

Mark Twain Dog Park. No, dogs aren’t reading and recreating Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn’s adventures, but they are making plenty of friends on this former elementary school site. This fenced-in neighborhood dog park is a great place for Royal Oak pets to get their off-leash exercise. You’ll need a membership that ensures dogs are vaccinated. Mark Twain Dog Park is open daily from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Favorite salon/spa:

Royal Oak has more than a dozen salons to choose from, including a beauty school and impressive 12 chair-plus locations. Head to Woodward Avenue for Ella Rae Salon, which offers haircuts and styling, along with eyelash treatments, facials, pedicures, manicures, makeup, and spa services.

Favorite resale and antique store:

The popular antique market, which includes several rotating vendors, is held on Sundays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., in the 23,000-square-foot Royal Oak Farmers Market.

Why do you think your suburb is cool?:

Royal Oak is eclectic and made to order—no matter what your desires are.

Credit: Apartment Therapy