Ann Arbor, an exurb of Detroit and a blend of Midwest urban and rural, may not have the most eye-catching wrapping. But inside is a jewel of a present.
All I knew about Ann Arbor when I made my first visit was that it is home to the University of Michigan. The city’s population of 114,000 swells to 145,000 when students are on campus. But after only four days, I left knowing this: If the dictionary had a definition of “cool American town,” it would be Ann Arbor.
Consider the following: Ann Arbor has five farmers markets; 23 used-book stores; the largest collection of antique and heirloom peonies in North America; a hardware store that transforms into a beer garden by night, and a local deli, Zingerman’s, that holds an annual fundraiser, Camp Bacon, where events range from the Potlikker Film Festival to the Bacon Ball.
It has a university art museum, which inspires as much civic pride as the university football stadium, known as the “Big House.” The Wolverines’ stadium is the country’s largest, seating nearly 110,000.
It has a musical paean from raspy-voiced hometown boy Bob Seger, who was referring to Ann Arbor when he crooned about “feeling lonely and beat, drifting back in time and finding my feet … down on Mainstreet.”
Surprisingly, it also has a culinary and craft cocktail scene that is staggering in a town of its modest size.
Where to eat
On my first night in town, arriving at Mezzevino and meeting chef Brent Courson, I immediately thought, “Is this guy old enough to have a driver’s license, let alone oversee a restaurant kitchen?” But after tasting dishes such as his Tuscan kale ribbon salad, followed by swordfish drizzled with a lemon rosemary marinade, charred eggplant purée, roasted pepper and feta relish, I decided that baby-faced or not, Courson didn’t just have a license, he was ready for the culinary equivalent of a Big Rig.
Another high-bar dining experience came at a tasting lunch at the aptly named Slurping Turtle — for if only it was as socially acceptable in Michigan as it is in Japan, slurping would have been the order of the day.
Chef Takashi Yagahashi combines the culinary influences of his native country and his favorite country, France. His duck-fat fried chicken may sound like the artery-clogging special of the day, but the portion is on the small side so you can enjoy it guilt-free. For something healthier, try the hamachi tacos — a tartare of yellowtail tuna with truffle soy.
Don’t expect spartan fare in Ann Arbor. My brunch at Vinology — a breakfast charcuterie of salmon mousse, Scotch egg, black pudding and artisan cheese, as well as a Belgian waffle with caramelized white chocolate cinnamon glazed peaches, Chantilly cream and mint — was another winner. So were tasting menus at Mani (small plates and wood-fired pizza) and Aventura, where the emphasis is on traditional Spanish comfort food (order the paella) accompanied by Spanish wines.
At Sava’s, the breakfast should come with a warning label — if you eat even a portion of the bountiful platters, you will be set for the day. With such delectable dishes as brioche bread pudding topped with maple apple chicken sausage, fried egg and house-made date ketchup and red velvet waffles with vanilla bean cream and maple syrup, the difficulty is in eating just a portion.
‘Zinger’ of a food empire
The name Zingerman’s is synonymous with Ann Arbor’s food scene. What began as a traditional Jewish deli is now an empire dedicated to good taste. The deli, famous for its Reuben, has been joined by the Bakehouse, Creamery, Coffee Company and the Roadhouse, where I enjoyed a tasting lunch courtesy of James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Young, who has a Southern sensibility.
Just try his signature buttermilk fried chicken or his BBQ plate, where the spare ribs and pit-smoked chicken are served with grits and bacon-braised greens. And even those who normally skip dessert will be tempted by his doughnut sundae — a house-made doughnut topped with brown sugar, vanilla gelato, caramel-bourbon sauce and fresh whipped cream.
Ann Arbor’s dining scene is matched by its craft cocktail scene. Your cocktail crawl might start at Raven’s Club, where an entirely new drink menu is introduced every three months, and end at the Last Word, a below-street-level speakeasy that has 62 different bourbons. Be sure to ask for the Friends List, which showcases the club’s rarer whiskeys.
If you prefer tequila, opt for a tasting at Isalita, which has 17 different brands of tequila and mescal.
University of Michigan Museum of Art: With 18,000 works, this is like no university art museum in the country. Its emphasis is on Japanese and Chinese art, but it also has works from the masters, Monet and Picasso, as well as the moderns.
Kelsey Museum of Archaeology: 100,000 objects from the ancient cultures of Egypt, Greece, Rome and the Middle East. Exhibits range from an Egyptian mummy to medieval Islamic textiles, but the highlight has to be the large-scale reproduction watercolor mural depicting a secret ceremony at the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii.
Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum: The former has trails connecting individual garden areas, including a wildflower garden, rock garden and knot garden, as well as a conservatory designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright to house three major biomes — tropical, temperate and arid.
The latter, affectionately known as “the Arb,” may be the most spectacular site in Ann Arbor, at least from Memorial Day through mid-June, when masses of scarlet, pink and white peonies, the largest collection in North America, are in bloom.
Ann Arbor Convention and Visitor Bureau: visitannarbor.org.