The Food and Wine Hedonist

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Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 3: Would you eat here?

This is the third 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.   Based on comments on different social media platforms, there’s a lot here that could be applied to wherever you live.

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 the second part, I outlined a couple reasons why the local scene has got me feeling “meh.”

In this third installment, in true guy fashion, I think I can fix it.

 

I put a link to the last post in a Facebook page for local Ann Arborites and braced for the worst.   I thought for sure my assessment of the populace as being conservative hippies (yes, I know that sounds weird) would bring out the pitchforks and torches.   That I’d be labeled as a fur-wearing, Hummer-driving, mouth-breathing, whatever-hyphen-whatever destined to get the stink eye every time I walk through town.   Surprisingly, there were many that agreed with me.  Or maybe Ann Arborites are just way too polite.

I was also expecting the absolute worst in terms of people’s tastes. This is, after all, the same Facebook page where someone’s question about where to go for a good Margherita pizza had responses that included Pizza Hut and “a really good frozen one at Kroger.”

frozen pizza meme

 

So I thought for sure that people who would be defending some of the indefensible restaurants here. There were a few headscratchers, but generally good responses.   Good on you, A2!

One discussion point that stood out is what defines a good restaurant.  Clearly, it’s unclear.   “Good” is such a subjective term and it’s being applied here to one of the most subjective topics – tastes in food.  My definition skews towards innovation as a necessity for being good – it has to give me something special and push the envelope.   Yes, it’s certainly possible to have a great meal at a restaurant that hasn’t changed the menu since the administration of George Bush the Elder.   But that’s not interesting for me to eat or for people to talk about.

The other thing that became clear was that my definition of good focused more on fine dining.   Ann Arbor does indeed have some terrific casual dining options.  I just posted about how ricewood has some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had. Ginger Deli and Eat each serve high quality food that’s fresh and bursting with flavor.   And I would probably eat Seoul Street’s Korean fried chicken three times a day if I lived closer to it.

SS Chicken

 

But…

ricewood is a food truck.   The others are tiny casual places with a 2-3 tables with no table service or alcohol.   They aren’t exactly the types of places where you take a date, entertain clients, or celebrate an anniversary.    Besides, every city has their share of great casual restaurants.   It’s the fine dining restaurants that stick out.

OK, on to the future.

As evidenced by the crowds of people there in the summer, people want to go downtown.  And since the buildings downtown have been around for close to a 100 years, there’s a good chance that the restaurants will have a lot of character that adds to the ambiance and allure of going downtown.   Restaurateurs know this and they’re no fools – they follow the money.    However, the high rents in the downtown area make it hard for independent, innovative chefs to make the food they want to make.

But can a restaurant make it outside of the downtown area?   The answer is clearly yes.   The area around the intersection of Stadium and Packard is about a mile away form the heart of downtown and is right about where the boundary is between student apartments and townies. This neighborhood is becoming a foodie’s heaven with ricewood, Morgan & York, Eat, Produce Station, and Biercamp.  In the past few months Mi Compadre , Black Diesel coffee, and Lucky Market opened in the area.

But while traffic is lighter than downtown, it can still be a pain to get around.  Parking options are better, but it’s also limited at some places.   I’m not sure about rents, but as the area’s reputation grows it’ll become more popular and more expensive.   Plus it’s mainly a residential area, so once you get your food there isn’t much else to do there.

My solution – strip malls and office parks.   I know, I know.   It’s not really a new thought since there are many great restaurants out west that do this.   Like Roaring Fork in Scottsdale.

RF Patio

 

Once you step inside, you completely forget you’re in an office building.

Around here, strip malls are considered just a hair better than a WalMart.  They lack any personality and are the homes of JoAnn Fabrics, Dollar General, and Fashion Bug. (Is Fashion Bug still around?)   They aren’t where you’d find a fine dining restaurant that serves foie gras torchons with sour cherry and shallot marmalade.

But hear me out.   There’s a strip mall by my house that has Target, a health club, Office Depot, and several other places that draw people in.  There’s oodles of parking and I know there are more than enough interior designers in town that can make the surroundings gorgeous.  I imagine rents here are probably a quarter of what they are downtown, which frees up resources.  Those resources (read: cash) can be used for better equipment and fresh ingredients that allows chefs to put out a product that’s not only good, but something they feel energized in making.   Or hell, they can just keep prices lower.

It makes sense from a restaurant’s standpoint, but does it make sense for diners? Our circle of friends often go out for dinner and 99% of the time it’s downtown.   The choice to go downtown is so that we have options for going elsewhere for drinks after dinner. I suspect that your groups of friends have the same line of thinking.

But do you?

For the most part, we end up staying at the table, chatting away and drinking ourselves silly. Or go to one of our homes for post-dinner drinks. Or just flat-out go home.   So why not go to a fine dining restaurant with an intimate atmosphere, easy parking, with a terrific wine or cocktail list?

That just so happens to be next to a computer repair shop or a satellite sales office for some obscure widget maker?

 

What do you think?  How much does what happens outside the four walls of a restaurant matter to you?   Have you been to any fine dining restaurants in unexpected places?

 

 

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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.

18 comments on “Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 3: Would you eat here?

  1. the winegetter
    June 24, 2015

    You certainly have a point there. However, and maybe I am not Midwestern enough, the idea of driving out to a strip mall is just so much less exciting than going downtown. I’d probably be depressed by the time I reached the restaurant…especially when you want to go somewhere fancy/nice.

    • the winegetter
      June 24, 2015

      And thanks for the Seoul Street reminder. We should have lunch there soon!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 24, 2015

      Its definitely not exciting. But… What if youre already in an outlying area and the convenience factor is high? Or if the inside and food are magical enough that you forget where you ?are?

      • the winegetter
        June 24, 2015

        Sure. Absolutely (suburbanite, you!). What I am trying to say is that there is something to be said about going into town when you want something special (or to a chalet in the woods). I am acknowledging it’s just a touchy, weirdy thing, but the idea of going to a strip mall for exciting food is off putting…That is not to say I don’t accept all of your points, just trying to express why maybe that has not really happened.

  2. gabrieleneumann
    June 24, 2015

    I’ve had very decent food in strip malls in Reno, but it’s laid out very different than Ann Arbor. I don’t have any beef with food in a strip-mall type scenario, but it definitely feels more downmarket than a standalone restaurant somehow, even if it’s beautifully done.

  3. ksbeth
    June 24, 2015

    still haven’t tried seoul yet, but i intend to very soon. keep hearing great things. as for strip mall food, i used to go to a great thai place in the strip mall at woodward and 13 mile in royal oak. suddenly gone one day.

  4. Max D.
    June 24, 2015

    Well, there’s Bigalora. The pizza joint is not upscale, but I can see someone taking a client, a job candidate, or a date there (or all three at once). Bigalora may not be in a traditional strip mall, but no mistake: it is a mall, and it is on a strip. So i guess your idea/suggestion is not so far-fetched. (Rent there is probably higher than Arborland.) And Bigalora makes great drinks. Where can you walk to after dinner at Bigalora? the Sur la Table store. Or Whole Foods, if you dare to cross Washtenaw on foot.

    By the way, thanks for mentioning my neighborhood: corner of Stadium and Packard. You know what might be good research? The series of food joint and markets on Packard east of Platt. Seems like there’s a bunch of Mexican, Asian, Indian, Middle Eastern food places, all on what I imagine to be low-rent areas. If you need a research partner, let me know. Where can you walk to after dinner? Low-rent apartments and the, er, “south side” of Ann Arbor, if you know what I mean.

    Finally, one of my favorite places to grab lunch (sometimes dinner) is Ayse’s, the Turkish place in the same strip mall as a Wendy’s on Plymouth Rd. The old Village Corner relocated there, and I believe there’s an Indian and/or Korean place there too. Plus a bike shop. And a bookstore. In any case, Ayse’s has been in the same location at least since the early 90’s when I used to go as a poor grad student. Not only is it in a strip mall, but it’s in the back side of the strip mall, with no signage visible from the road. Rent can’t possibly be any lower. Maybe. Her food isn’t innovative or flashy, but you know you’re getting authentic Turkish food. Where can you walk to after dinner? Aforementioned Village Corner, bike shop, bookstore. UM’s North Campus housing is across Plymouth Rd.

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 25, 2015

      The Packard area has TMaz wiich has great tacos and espazole, but it’s still a hole in the wall. The fried chicken joint is the worst, the Indian place is so so (and vegetarian, thus blech) and the Chinese/Korean place is disgusting ( and the food bad). None of which us fine dining either. I wouldnt call Ayses fine either (didnt like it). people rave about Cardamom (the Indian place) but it was just soso. There used to be a rub and tug massage place (allegedly) but i think thats gone.

      Bigalora is close, but Im thinking like a Vellum or Selden Std type place right next to a sporting goods store.

  5. wanderingglutton
    June 25, 2015

    As a new resident of the Stadium/Packard neighborhood, I am enjoying the ability to walk or bike to the places that you mentioned. I am already a regular at Ricewood BBQ and Roos Roast. It is awesome!

    • thefoodandwinehedonist
      June 25, 2015

      Just saw Stadium Markets pizza got voted best pizza in a2 on some site. Thats nice, but cmon…

      • wanderingglutton
        June 25, 2015

        I didn’t know Stadium Market sold pizza. I’ll be happy to go to Mani, Bigalora or Silvio’s if going out for pizza.

  6. Pingback: Ann Arbor Restaurant Scene Part 2: When Prosperity Fails Us | The Food and Wine Hedonist

  7. Anonymous
    June 25, 2015

    One of my favorite writers/thinkers, the economist Tyler Cowen, has long had “go to strip malls, not fancy downtowns” as one of his rules for dining out: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/05/six-rules-for-dining-out/308929/

  8. thewineraconteur
    July 2, 2015

    My only requirements are good food and good wine. If you are good, the location is secondary.

  9. Max D.
    July 13, 2015

    Wait a minute! Is the FWH scouting for locations for his own place? Are you market testing us? (If so, I want in.)

  10. Pingback: Ann Arbor Eats: Mikette | The Food and Wine Hedonist

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This entry was posted on June 24, 2015 by in Ann Arbor, Dining and tagged , , , , .
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