Ann Arbor, Michigan is not just for football! Ann Arbor is a dream destination for foodies, too! Renowned as the home of prestigious University of Michigan and its rich athletics tradition as a fierce Big Ten competitor, the city also deserves accolades as a big-deal culinary destination.
A robust and diverse foodie scene boasts nearly 300 area restaurants–from townie-favorites to world-class eateries–where international flavors commingle with a strong farm-to-table ideology. The offerings are augmented by a retinue of artisanal producers, dog-loving sidewalk cafes and quirky food trucks. Plant-based and gluten-free diners find much to savor.
Ask some of local purveyors and restaurant owners what makes Ann Arbor’s food culture so strong, and the answers vary: An overall trend toward healthier lifestyles and a healthier planet. The influx of faculty and students from around the world who lend their palates and preferences. Southeastern Michigan’s favorable terroir, ample water and agricultural heritage.
Perhaps Kathy Sample, co-owner of Argus Farm Stop, a year-round indoor farmers market and coffee shop, uncovers the key: “Everybody is supporting each other. When someone gets enthusiastic about doing something, it rises everybody else up. There are opportunities for everybody.”
I wanted to learn for myself. Here are some of my mouth-watering tastings along with their stories during a recent media trip sponsored by Visit Ann Arbor:
Made and Curated by Zingerman’s
In Ann Arbor (sometimes affectionately referred to as “A2”), Zingerman’s is synonymous with good eating. That’s because what started out as a small corner delicatessen in 1982 by pals Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw has grown into a family of more than a dozen food-related businesses. The flagship deli and its much-heralded Reuben sandwich on hand-sliced Jewish rye are joined by a bakery, creamery, coffee-roasting operation, candy-maker, two full-service restaurants, caterer, mail-order business and others. Zingerman’s Community of Businesses is one of the Top 5 employers in Ann Arbor.
Zingerman’s Roadhouse restaurant was launched with Chef Alex Young, a 2011 James Beard Foundation award winner, whose creations feature American regional food. Young has since left to open his own restaurant, but we were honored to lunch with him at the Roadhouse. The menu included buttermilk-fried chicken, roasted red peppers, and macaroni and cheese. Dessert was a decadent homemade Dutch donut with vanilla gelato and lathered in bourbon-caramel sauce and crowned with a black cherry.
Young’s passion for local agriculture and natural foods inspired his “chef’s garden,” where the produce grown at the Roadhouse frequently shows up on the plates of Roadhouse diners. What’s in the garden? “Just about any kind of vegetable that grows in Michigan,” he told me.
Zingerman’s newest endeavor is Miss Kim, a restaurant specializing in traditional Korean fare while embracing Michigan’s bountiful produce. Chef and managing partner Ji Hye Kim was a successful health insurance executive in New York when she decided she needed to soothe her soul. She started her second life at Zingerman’s Deli, then graduated to running a food cart and pop-up restaurant selling Korean street food. Ultimately, Zingerman’s approved her plan for a permanent restaurant and welcomed her back into the fold.
Zingerman’s also owns and operates a 42-acre working farm, Cornman Farms, where more than 50 crop varieties are grown using organic and sustainable practices for the Roadhouse and other restaurants. It’s also a picturesque, award-winning event space for weddings, meetings and culinary events.
“All the restaurants get excited about a new product or niche product, and that provides the grower with more diversity at different times of the year,” says Cornman Farms manager Mark Baerwolf.
“We can grow things like figs and ground cherries,” Sample says. “People will grow it if you just tell them. Michigan is such a huge food-growing state. It’s the second-most diverse after California.”
This is where I should mention Michigan is a huge cherry-growing state. You’ll find them often on menus as sauces, toppings and flavorings. This discovery pleased me immensely.
Tastes of Americana
Chef Brandon Johns is another farm-to-table devotee. At the upscale Grange Kitchen & Bar, he strives to serve only food grown and produced within 50 miles of Ann Arbor. Johns personally shops the farmers markets as well as directly from local growers for his seasonal menus. He makes his own sausage, too. The upstairs bar features its GKB Manhattan, made with bacon-infused bourbon, orange bitters and in-house brandied cherries.
Staying local has become easier in recent years due to the increased numbers of young farmers and growers who are experimenting with longer seasons and niche crops, Johns says.
An Ann Arbor institution is the Fleetwood Diner, which calls itself the “hippest little diner.” I won’t disagree. The small aluminum-sided resto, built from a kit in 1948 and open 24 hours, is a longtime hit with students and locals alike. Menu mainstays are omelets, sandwiches, Greek favorites and milkshakes. Fleetwood’s signature Hippie Hash is a melange of homemade hash browns topped with grilled tomato, green pepper, onion, mushroom, broccoli and feta cheese.
Worlds of Fabulous Foods
Ayse Uras started a small catering business featuring foods from her native Turkey while her husband was a student at the University. That endeavor turned into Ayse’s Turkish Cafe, a homey sit-down and carry out restaurant. It’s located at the back of a strip mall, but Ayse’s loyal following knows how to find her. She does all the cooking herself, often making up the menus on the fly depending on what’s available at her next-door butcher and the farmers market. Her lentil soup is a local favorite, and the allspice cinnamon chicken is divine.
The menu at Taste Kitchen is a sophisticated fusion of Asian, French and American dishes made from local produce and sustainably sourced seafood. Vietnamese-born Danny Van is both chef and artist who layers his flavors with imagination and flair. I’m still dreaming about the crab and curry butternut squash soup. Van might be the only Vietnam native you’ve heard speak with a Southern accent. That’s because he logged time working in a Houston country club. Got that, y’all?
Mikette Bistro & Bar is described by restaurateur Adam Baru as a “French-ish bistro.” The atmosphere is casual, and the food is more or less Southern French comfort food. It’s a tad more rustic than traditional classic of cooking. Beef bourguignon, roasted chicken and salmon, pates and frites get raves. Also in Baru’s portfolio are Isalita, a tapas-style Mexican cantina, and Mani Osteria and Bar, a family-friendly spot for wood-fired pizza and Italian small plates.
“It’s not about the eating,” Baru says. “It’s about the experience of eating.”
If you go:
Argus Farm Stop, 325 W. Liberty St. (734) 213-2200; www.argusfarmstop.com
Zingerman’s Delicatessen, 422 Detroit St. (734) 663-3354; www.zingermansdeli.com
Zingerman’s Roadhouse, 2501 Jackson Ave. (734) 663-3663; www.zingermansroadhouse.com
Cornman Farms, 8540 Island Lake Road, Dexter, MI. (734) 619-8100; www.zingermanscornmanfarms.com
Miss Kim, 415 N. 5th Ave. (734) 275-0099; www.misskimannarbor.com
Grange Kitchen and Bar, 118 W. Liberty St. (734) 995-2107; www.grangekitchenandbar.com
Fleetwood Diner, 300 S. Ashley St. (734) 995-5502; www.thefleetwooddiner.com
Ayse’s Turkish Cafe, 1703 Plymouth Rd. (734) 662-1711; www.aysesturkishcafe.com
Taste Kitchen, 521 E. Liberty St. (734) 369-4241; www.tastekitchen2a.com
Mikette Bistro & Bar, 1759 Plymouth Road (734) 436-4363; www.mikettea2.com
Mani Osteria and Bar, 341 E. Liberty St. (734) 796-6700; www.maniosteria.com
Isalita, 341A E. Liberty St. (734) 213-7400; www.isalita.com