leave your inhibitions at the door
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.”
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.
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.
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?