leave your inhibitions at the door
This is the second of a three-part series that takes a look at the recent history of the A2 food scene, its current state, and what the future could hold. Even if you don’t live in A2, I’m sure there are enough similarities to your neck of the woods.
In the first installment, I highlighted how some restaurants I’ve reviewed made some big mistakes leading them to be not-so-fond memories.
In this second part, I take a look at what’s happening now.
* Here’s a link to Part 3, where I propose a fix*
I recently saw that Thrillist rated Ann Arbor as #4 in their list of best college towns for food and drinks.
I was shocked at the high rating because I figured the homes of NYU and University of San Francisco would be at the top of the list, but they stripped away big cities. They only included towns where local life is dominated by the neighborhood college and in Ann Arbor’s case, that’s the University of Michigan. (Sorry Washtenaw Community College) Their list had the usual suspects of Blimpy Burger and Zingerman’s, but they also mention Mani Osteria, Frida Batidos, and Slurping Turtle.
That indeed is a great list. Zingerman’s has put Ann Arbor on the culinary map because of their food and their whole way of doing business. Mani has ties to an Iron Chef and has garnered national praise. Both Frida Batidos and Slurping Turtle are helmed by Top Chef Masters, the latter also a Michelin-starred chef. To that list I’d also include Mani’s sister restaurant – Isalita – as a must-eat for it’s inventive take on Mexican street food.
With all that in mind, however, I would describe the larger Ann Arbor restaurant scene in two words – meh. And meh.
The first problem has to do with stagnancy. Locals here have delusions about the progressive nature of the town and how we are at the leading edge of a lot of things. Sure, the town has a rich history of activism for civil rights, war protests, marijuana legalization, and many other hot topics. Just looking around, you can see all kinds of hippie influences, in addition to ACTUAL HIPPIES.
But here’s the thing – they’re not progressive anymore. They cling to how things used to be and lament the incursion of any kind of new trend.
What this means for restaurants is that, in an effort to support local businesses, they prop up restaurants that are sadly dated and are known more for being “classic Ann Arbor” – e.g. Gandy Dancer, Old Town Tavern, Fleetwood Diner – than known for being “good.” Even restaurants that haven’t been around as long have been impacted by this collective desire to not change. Grizzly Peak and Pacific Rim are just two examples where the menus are exactly as they were over 10 years ago. That’s a shame because they’re pretty good the first time you go, but there’s no reason to go back a third or fourth time. (Although I suspect that’s an issue in many restaurants beyond Ann Arbor.)
The bigger problem is that Ann Arbor, as a whole, has gotten too good for its own good. In addition to the Thrillist list, I’ve seen Ann Arbor listed in the top 5 for best college towns, best small towns, smartest towns, best towns for seniors, etc. The high unemployment and poor housing market that walloped the rest of Michigan (and other states) in the past few years had relatively little effect here. Not to say that restaurants didn’t see a dropoff in business, but most of them did more than just survive. Even in the worst parts of the recession, it was still pretty hard to get a table at many downtown restaurants.
The dark side to all that prosperity is that downtown Ann Arbor is a pretty darn popular place to be. That’s not inherently bad until you realize that this drives up real estate prices which, in turn, makes it very expensive to conduct business.
The higher cost of doing business means that if you want to start up a restaurant, you have to be an established name and/or part of a corporate conglomerate of some sort. Look at the last few restaurants that opened up downtown –
These corporate restaurants have deep pockets that can take on the costs of starting and building up a restaurant. And those deep pockets are there because they have some kind of formula to generate revenue – a lot of it in a very little amount of time.
I’m not saying that they’re evil or have bad food. It’s just that they’re not very exciting. They have to serve food that appeals to a large portion of the general public and, as the ubiquity of Applebee’s and Olive Garden proves – the general public has shit for taste.
That’s the same general public that likes their food salty and sugary. The same general public that wants to make sure that they can get their favorite dish all year round regardless of season. The same general public that doesn’t like whole fish on the plate. And don’t even think about serving them cheeks, sweetbreads, or feet. Just keep the boneless, skinless chicken breasts coming thankyouverymuch.
Is that too simplistic? Is it really just a matter of high rent? Could it be that the plain-ness of the downtown restaurants is more a matter of Midwestern tastes?
Recently, Zagat’s put nearby Detroit at #3 on its list of America’s Next Food Cities. I’ve been to two of the restaurants listed – Selden Standard and Gold Cash Gold – and can confidently say that their assessment is not exaggerated. I never thought that the tired genres of farm-to-table and southern comfort food, respectively, could excite me like these two did. They exemplify Zagat’s description of Detroit’s “ballsy, DIY attitude.”
Here’s the thing – when we went to Selden Standard, we ran into three different groups of people that we knew. ALL were from Ann Arbor. Different acquaintances here have talked about all those exciting new Detroit restaurants and seem to have no problem driving close to an hour for a great meal. Clearly, there’s a demand here for that kind of food.
The big difference is that rents in Detroit have been driven down to rock-bottom levels after decades of urban decay. It’s much easier for indie-spirited restaurants to open in Detroit. Even though they may be bigger business risks, the low startup and overhead costs mean they can continue to take culinary chances and be inventive.
Obviously, there’s not a lot they can do to make things cheaper in downtown Ann Arbor. They can’t control rents and I don’t think anyone with any shred of sanity would want there to be some kind of local economic nosedive.
So what does the future hold for Ann Arbor restaurants?