A LONG WEEKEND IN ANN ARBOR
Updated: May 1, 2019
by Andrew Chalk
The people of Ann Arbor, Michigan know something that the rest of us don’t. That their town is a thriving community of restaurants, wine bars, craft breweries, a meadery, cocktail bars, markets, specialty retail stores, history and a rich arts scene. Just a long weekend can leave you itching to return to fill in with all the things you missed.
Here is an itinerary, loosely based on the one I followed on a recent media visit. Some locations hosted us, but the opinionated opinions are firmly my own.
Is easy, thanks to Detroit airport being equidistant between its namesake and Ann Arbor. From there, you will likely want to rent a car to have maximum flexibility. You could bus into town and use Uber or Lyft to get around. The downtown locations are best walked (the city is alive at street level).
Lunch at Ayse’s Turkish Café, a small, family-run restaurant dating back to 1993 that also does takeout, delivery, and catering. The Lentil Soup ($3.50/$4.50)) is highly recommended. It is made in the thick and chunky idiom of a meat and vegetable soup but with the distinctive taste and crumbly texture of lentils. A topping of pomegranate seeds adds not just color, but a fruity taste.
Other memorable dishes were the earthy sautéed baby eggplant ($4.25), the heartwarming stuffed pepper with lamb (Turkish cooking has a strong suite in lamb), and a Vegetarian Stuffed Pepper tasty enough for a carnivore.
The craft beer movement has taken off like wildfire in the area and we start with a tour of two.
A short car ride from Ann Arbor is the township of Ypsilanti and the 734 Brewing Company.There, owner Patrick Echlin and Head Brewer Mariah Gavin along with help from close friends take an enterprise to the next level that until just a few months before was in Patrick’s basement. Try the Flight Paddle ($9) to get a handle (no pun intended) on the current offerings and then pick the beer you like best.
Next HOMES Brewery in Ann Arbor which gets its capitalized name from it being an acronym formed from the first letters of the five Great Lakes that touch Michigan (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, and Superior). The tasting facility has both indoor and outdoor seating and decoration by local street artist Paolo Pedini. Head brewer Nick Panchame focuses on hoppy beers, kettle sours and barrel aged sours. About 14 beers are on tap at any one time. Opened in 2017, HOMES does not distribute but they do can and bottle to sell from the brewery. The food is great, on account of them choosing a local Thai restaurant No Thai to provide it. As well as good beer, HOMES provides a cool place to hang out indoors and watch the game in Winter, or on the patio in summer. Non beer drinks (local spirits, wines, and non-alcoholic) are provided for non beer drinkers.
An unusual drinks producer that is a fun tasting is Bløm Meadworks.
One dinner option is Frita Batidos. Cuban inspired but, in owner Eve Aronoff’s words, not Cuban. She actually trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and was influenced by several styles of cooking while in Miami (Chinese, Spanish, Creole and African). The centerpiece is picking your frita (a chorizo burger, typically adorned with cracklicious extras like fried egg, muenster cheese, thick-cut bacon, or avocado spread), then choose your batido (a tropical milkshake) and any sides you fancy. Its inexpensive, soul-satisfying food.
Another, is at the more formal end of the scale. The Standard Bistro and Larder is all wood beams, black and white patterned tile work and Art Deco style. Dining is white tablecloth
with a menu that is actually less formal, country French. The web site does a terrible job of impressing on the diner just how remarkable this chef is. Chef/Owner Alex Young is one of those highly motivated souls who is self-taught. Born in London, he worked his way up through restaurants in New York, San Francisco, and Pennsylvania before moving to Michigan to be closer to family. He ran into the founders of the famous Zingerman’s restaurant empire (Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw) and pitched an idea to them that would become Zingerman’s Roadhouse. That was 2003 and the beginning of a 13-year stretch that included a James Beard award in the Best Chefs in America category. In 2016 he started the project that would become The Standard.
I could recommend the whole menu at this accomplished establishment but have to winnow it down to be useful. Start with Duck Confit Crêpes with taleggio, caramelized onion and radish sprouts. For mains, Salmon in Potato and, the classic, Beef Bourguignon, are top-tier entrées. Desserts, if you have room, Hazelnut Praline Mousse Cake. A singular indulgence.
We stayed at The Graduate, a newly renovated boutique hotel, near the University of Michigan. Central location, helpful staff, comfortable rooms, an old-school cocktail lounge, a nice lobby coffee bar and a gym make this the ideal place to stay in Ann Arbor.
Visit Willow Run Bomber Plant and Yankee Air Museum and take a flight on a historic C-47 (AKA DC-3). Our flight had to cancel at the last minute due to a low ceiling closing in.
Disappointing, however we sat on the plane and taxied. Willow Run perhaps played the most seminal role of any institution around Ann Arbor. In the second world war Ford built it to produce the B-24 Liberator. In 1944, at its peak, it turned out a Liberator every hour.
The Yankee Air Museum is a fascinating history of flight in the Detroit area. There are nearly two dozen static aircraft displays and also activities for children.
Head to Ypsilanti again, this time to Ollie Food and Spirits.This is Danielle and Mark Teachout’s militantly local modern American restaurant cheffed by Travis Schuster in the heart of Ypsilanti’s burgeoning food scene.Try the creamy Grilled Cheese and Tomato Soup and the Ollie Burger.
In the afternoon there are several choices. Art Lovers should head back to Ann Arbor and take a tour of the University of Michigan Museum of Art. The scope is vastly greater than most University museums with over 18,000 works in its permanent collection, representing 150 years of collecting. Afterwards, take a tour of the galleries in downtown Ann Arbor.
Food lovers should drive to The Brinery, David Klingenberger’s temple of fermentation of locally sourced fruit and vegetables. He will take you through a class in fermentation technique to produce your own kimchi, pickles or sauerkraut.
Food lovers could also head back to town and visit Fustini’s Oil and Vinegars, the Ann Arbor branch of a small (five location) Michigan chain of oil and vinegar specialists. Each product is sold from a large stainless steel keg and sampling is encouraged. Started by Jim Milligan, a Michiganian with international business experience, he saw the idea in action in Europe and started it as a retirement project here. As well as products, Fustini’s also offers an extensive range of cooking classes.
Dinner can be at Gratzi, a northern Italian restaurant spectacularly located in an old theatre (including tables on the balcony!). The restaurant is operated by Mainstreet Ventures, an Ann Arbor-based company that focuses on developing restaurants in downtown areas. As a pasta lover, at Gratzi I really enjoyed the classic Fettuccini Alfredo and the Ravioli Fritti.
Afterwards, head to The Last Word cocktail bar, voted the best craft cocktail bar in Michigan by Radio Michigan. The speakeasy-style basement-level bar specializes in locally-produced spirits.
Breakfast at Detroit Street Filling Station. A pure vegan café which treats breakfast as the first class meal that non-vegan establishments do. Try Seitan “chick’n”, fried plantains, roasted yukon gold potatoes, cashew sour cream, and corn tortillas.
Next, on to the quirky TeaHaus, owned by Lisa McDonald. She is a Tea Sommelier, certified by the International Tea Masters Association. As well as teaching on the finer points of tea selection, preparation, and serving she has 180 different varieties for sale.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse is one of the most iconic restaurants in Ann Arbor, and a must stop. Created in 2003 by owners Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig based on a concept preparation by Alex Young (now at The Standard, as described earlier) who became the opening chef and stayed 13 years, it bills itself as an American brasserie. It won a James Beard Foundation Award. Best Macaroni and Cheese on Alton Brown’s TV show Best Of. Top 10 2009 New Barbecue Restaurants in Bon Appetit. In 2017 Bob Bennett took over as executive chef. The
menu is pure comfort food with plate-squashing burgers, sensuous mac-n-cheese (six ways!), and hearty London Broil. That said, a vegetarian/vegan can eat really well here with each menu item flagged for acceptability.
KindleFest is a traditional outdoor holiday market that runs one day (last year was November 30th) from 4pm to 10pm. There is food, mulled wine, holiday gifts and fire pits to keep warm. It’s really the atmosphere created by the throng of humanity in the nippy weather that makes it so special. A related festival is Midnight Madness. Downtown shops are open until midnight with carollers, street performers, and carriage rides, and all proceeds from donations go to charity.
Taste Kitchen is one of the highest-rated restaurants in Ann Arbor. At weekends it is a packed, boisterous, din of people all enjoying chef Danny Van’s eclectic New American style food. Van will watch for the waves of culinary change and then alight on them to give Taste Kitchen a modern, edgy feel. So Tuna Salmon Poke, Duck Tacos, and Vegan Pho all reside alongside trusted classics like Cheese Plate, Asparagus Soup, and Grilled Berkshire Pork. Plus a great wine list. There is something for everyone. Little wonder this place is so popular.
Bad news -- we leave! And we haven’t even found time to visit ‘The Big House’ (the University of Michigan football stadium), discuss the formative ways that the presence of the university (and other universities) transforms the area, visited any local artisans, toured Zingerman’s Creamery, unlocked Miss Kim , listened to a classic Symphony at Hill Auditorium, or shared cherries together. That is because Ann Arbor has so much to offer that just one long weekend trip cannot cover it.