Ann Arbor is the ultimate college town — a fizzy mix of 70,000 students and an equal number of “civilians” — mostly alums who couldn’t bear to leave.
Its energy radiates from the liberal-leaning University of Michigan campus, bordered by the avenue homeboy Bob Seger saluted in his ballad, Down on Main Street.
Main Street still sports that old-time religion with multitudes of bookstores, indie boutiques, galleries boosting local talent and — the reason foodies flock here — intensely sustainable cafes and breweries.
The Zingerman’s empire
Maybe it started with Zingerman’s Delicatessen, The Holy Grail of delis. Founders Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw spent their college years here (an hour west of Detroit) without a decent bagel, and decided to remedy that tragedy.
Today the “Zingerman’s Community of Businesses” employs more than 750 people and generates over $60 million in annual sales from 10 businesses, including the deli, a bakery, a coffee company, a roadhouse, a creamery, a candy manufactory and others.
Zingerman’s legendary deli these days sports just about every delicacy an authorized gourmet could wish for — 12 kinds of bacon alone — plus a shrine to short-order sandwiches. (The Reuben’s a best seller, naturally.)
Zingerman’s launched its own creamery to make the world’s best cream cheese for those bagels, and today produces up to 24 kinds of soft cheeses (The technical term a manager Tessie employs is “ooey-gooey.”)
They’re long on local milk, which led to the decision to direct some of it toward the making of gelato (bacon-flavored, anyone?).
What was missing? An old-style café celebrating Midwestern cooking. So Weinzweig hired Chef Alex Young to research what he calls “old American food — old-school and simple.”
“But,” Young said, “simple isn’t easy.”
For instance, to create the very best fried chicken — the top seller at Zingerman’s Roadhouse — Young scoured the South, then recreated his favorite version, devoured at a shack in Tennessee (same for the pulled pork).
“Nobody’s doing a very good job with meat,” Young said, “so I decided to raise my own.”
But if you overlook his mac & cheese — well, don’t expect my sympathy.
This reverence for authenticity spills over to other foodie fanatics like Lisa McDonald, who runs TeaHaus; David Klingenberger, the self-styled CFO — Chief Fermenting Officer — of The Brinery; and Brandon Johns, the chef at Grange Kitchen & Bar.
“Michigan is the most agriculturally diverse state, second only to California. And, the biggest benefit of being a university town is disposable income, both of alums and visiting parents,” Johns said. “We all were doing farm-to-table before it became a buzzword. Farmers have extended the growing season with hoop houses and greenhouses, and by preserving and pickling. They’re now growing unheard-of things, like local ginger.”
Pickling is Klingenberger’s forte. He sells The Brinery’s kimchee and sauerkraut to Zingerman’s and to Whole Foods Markets nationwide.
McDonald, at TeaHaus, is one of only a handful of European-trained tea sommeliers.
“I use tea in everything we make here, from macarons and jam to gelato,” she said.
And she’s first in line at the farmers market.
“It’s really cool,” she said “People get excited when the first garlic comes in.”
Johns, at Grange, is one of those snout-to-tail kind of guys.
“I make sausage, confit. I’ve even got fried pig’s head on the menu, and it sells.”
So does his beef-cheek pierogi; his Michigan smelt; his heritage pork loin with ramp bratwurst; and his stinging nettle pasta.
At Spencer, Chef Steve Hall gives local produce pride-of-place, celebrated in roast cauliflower soup with ramps and sorrel; roast radishes with Parmesan-fried eggs; and ramp hush puppies. (OK, he sells fish and chicken, too).
Fleetwood, an iconic 1947 diner purchased from a Montgomery Ward’s catalog (really!), draws hipsters, past and present, with its best-selling hippie hash — a lusty mélange of broccoli, tomato, onion, green pepper, mushrooms and hash browns, all topped with feta and served 24/7 with toast and eggs.
On Main Street, Vinology introduces the wines of Northern Michigan.
Cherry Republic does the same for fruit “grown in Michigan and munched the world over” via juice, candy, mustard and scone mix — plus cherry soaps and spoons made of cherry wood.
But, fellow imbibers, it’s really all about the beer.
Grizzly Peak, launched in 1995, led the way. In its pub setting, brewmaster Duncan Williams is justly proud of his British-inspired ales.
At Null, in nearby Dexter, brewer Ron Jeffries swears by oak aging. His hoppy, citrusy North Peak Diabolical IPA is his best-seller. He follows up with Blanca, a light wheat, breathing coriander and orange.
Salt Springs Brewery in Saline — a brewpub in a converted church of 1896 — is the place to pig out on pulled pork and strawberry shortcake before touring the brewery, where Big Brown Bunny Porter steals the show.
Art to explore
In Ann Arbor, Main Street celebrates art on the palette as well as the palate, starting with the University of Michigan Museum of Art.
Rising outside its Grecian entrance is a Mark di Suvero sculpture, foretelling more shock-and-awe within. And it delivers with Tiffany glass and (Michigan-made) Eames furniture as well as works by Picasso, Rauschenberg and Warhol.
Meanwhile, in the campus libraries, you’ll discover all sorts of original works, including those of John James Audubon.
If Gothic architecture is your bag, don’t miss the University of Michigan’s law school quad, which looks more like Olde England than Michigan, including a law library with a stunning reading room as well as an underground addition regarded as an architectural tour de force and one of the world’s best law libraries.
At Peaceable Kingdom gallery, Outsider art captures the fringes of society.
Then there’s Robot Supply, which dedicates its proceeds to a tutoring program sponsored by author Dave Eggers.
Shinola peddles its designer bikes, sleek leather goods and watches to the 1 percent.
Then there’s the theater where Segar strummed. Tonight it’s Judy Collins.
Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.
Plan your trip
See visitannarbor.org to learn more about Ann Arbor, accessible via a 10-hour drive from Minneapolis or a 1.5-hour flight to Detroit, which is an hour’s drive away.