The Food and Wine Hedonist

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Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 2: When Prosperity Fails Us

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.

Slurping Turtle's Hamachi Tacos – yellowtail, truffle-soy, taro root shell

Slurping Turtle’s Hamachi Tacos – yellowtail, truffle-soy, taro root shell

 

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.

Isalita's Tacos al Pastor – guajillo glazed pork belly, pickled pineapple

Isalita’s Tacos al Pastor – guajillo glazed pork belly, pickled pineapple

 

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.

WHM hippie

 

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 –

  • Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse – large chain of high end steak joints
  • Mezzavino – Part of Main Street Ventures that owns several other downtown restaurants
  • Knight’s – Steakhouse with other Michigan locations
  • Hopcat – Michigan chain of beer-focused restaurants

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.”

3-day short rib with carrot puree, confit rutabaga, & turnip, pickly gremolata

Gold Cash Gold’s 3-day short rib with carrot puree, confit rutabaga, & turnip, pickly gremolata

 

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?

Stay tuned…

 

 

 

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About thefoodandwinehedonist

I don't know everything about the world of food and wine, but I'm not going to let a small detail like that stop me from blogging about it.

16 comments on “Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 2: When Prosperity Fails Us

  1. Tamara
    June 1, 2015

    Great post!

  2. ksbeth
    June 1, 2015

    i look forward to seeing where it all goes here –

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 1, 2015

      I have an idea… Not sure itll be popular. Spread the word, would luv to get lical feedback!

  3. the winegetter
    June 1, 2015

    Awesome post, and so spot on. I never really made the connection with Ann Arbor’s exorbitant rents, but that would definitely be a factor. You know I’m with you on this.

  4. teacherpatti
    June 1, 2015

    I think the rents have a lot to do with it. I also think that they are causing our downtown to become a boutique for the wealthy housewives to come in and spend their husbands’ money (husband’s money? money of the husband, you know what I mean!) I realize that we can’t have dry goods stores any more, but I really miss the Acme Mercantile, where I could get a freaking pair of pantyhose if I needed them.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 1, 2015

      I think the lack of dry goods stores have more to do with the Walmarts and Targets of the world than rents.

      Not sure I know what you mean by wealthy housewives, I see all kinds downtown. And is that a bad thing who’s funding the shopping trips? I think twenty dollar bills and credit cards look all the same to the a shopkeeper.

      • teacherpatti
        June 4, 2015

        It’s a bad thing when the only people who can afford to shop/eat there are rich people.

  5. thewineraconteur
    June 1, 2015

    Very insightful and I am sure that it will cause some discussions. I have to admit that I do enjoy some of the old guard of Ann Arbor, and then again I do miss a couple of other places that are gone. The restaurant business is very tricky to survive. I do agree with you about the big chains, which I try to avoid like jug wine. My biggest lament is that it is getting harder and harder to find local independent restaurants any more. It seems that every city has the same restaurants and the same stores. Keep Ann Arbor on their toes.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 1, 2015

      Ann Arbor has a really strong independent streak, so it’s surprising people stand for it. There are some really good cheap options, but that only gets you so far.

  6. mrsugarbears
    June 2, 2015

    You had me at Taro root shell. Yummy.

  7. Pingback: Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 3: Would you eat here? | The Food and Wine Hedonist

  8. Rents are awfully high in Portland and the Bay area too (outrageously high here). It gets to be a destructive, almost frightening thing. The flip side is that we are landlords too, with two small rental houses in Portland, that are in effect our retirement. So we can see both sides, but not see clearly. As a family, we “spend out” on restaurants, meaning we rarely balk at the cost of a good meal. As long as there are some good places around I think we’ll be fine in Ann Arbor.

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