Midwest cool: Tiny Driveable Ann Arbor makes a fine getaway
By FLORENCE SICOLI
photos courtesy of The Hamilton Spectator
Our intrepid traveler savors every bite, we’re so glad she’s up for this hard job.
Thank, Florence. I wish I were in Ann Arbor this week end.
Can a boomer find happiness in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the little city with big-city tastes? It depends how you define it, but in early June I was happy to enjoy a long weekend of delicious dining, live music, lively bars, Shakespeare in the park, gallery viewing and great shopping in a walkable, green downtown.
I apologize upfront that I, instead of you, got this sweet travel assignment. Hard to believe, but it’s not easy work. All that eating, drinking and clubbing takes a lot of practice to be able to report to you the following: For an entertaining getaway, you cannot do better than drive 20 minutes outside Detroit to this little city of 115,000 with big accolades, including being among Frommer’s Top 20 U.S. summer vacation spots, No. 5 on Newsweek’s “Happiest Cities” list, the best Midwest food destination, and among the 10 best cities for young singles and families.
You’ll find Ann Arbor easy to get to and get around. Downtown’s vibe is relaxed and trendy without being pretentious. Its unmistakable youthful edge is exemplified by a West Liberty Street hair salon, Salon Vox, that stays busy and open till midnight with a DJ in the front window spinning tunes for young clients.
First stop on my edibles itinerary was to pass muster at Blimpy Burger, billed as one of the best burger joints in America. The trick at this 1953 diner is to be careful how you order. You get in a cafeteria-style queue beside the open kitchen, pay attention to the posted menus and be ready when the deep-fry cook asks what sides you want.
Only near the end do you tell “attack chef” Lisa what size Blimpy you want. I got a starter-sized double and passed on the gut-busting quintuple (half pound). Everyone gets into the ordering shtick and the burger is juicy, making it easy to see why it’s a popular spot for University of Michigan’s 35,000 students, locals and visitors alike.
Another fun food experience was Mark’s Carts in the courtyard behind Downtown Home & Garden store, where eight carts each feature different ethnic or regional foods for under $10 an entrée, including wood-fired personal pizza, roasted beet quinoa, chili lime chicken bowls and paella. After lunch, inside the beautiful century-old store, I bought two sea shell mobiles I’ve been seeking for years. Other shopping delights included the Heavenly Metal gallery and gifts, Treasure Mart’s antiques and collectibles, the brash Pink Pump shop, and Peaceable Kingdom gifts with its Fairy Door, one of about 17 public fairy doors around the city that have taken on a cult following.
Lunch at Zingerman’s Roadhouse one day demonstrated how chef Alex Young adds to Ann Arbor’s food-mecca reputation. Named last year’s James Beard Best Chef in the Great Lakes, Young served us deliciously moist Buttermilk Fried Chicken, with Amish free-range meat dipped in buttermilk and deep-fried to delicate perfection. The roadhouse is one of eight businesses that grew out of the wildly popular Zingerman’s Deli, which was co-founded by Ari Weinzweig, a lapsed anarchist who grew up on Kraft dinner and inspired a $40-million-a-year food “empire.”
Other strong foodie spots include the highly successful producers-only downtown Farmer’s Market next door to dozens of Kerrytown food and eclectic shops, as well as a handful of local microbreweries like Arbor Brewing Company and Wolverine State Brewing Co., specialty food retailers like Morgan & York and knowledgeable wine sellers like Village Corner.
At the casually chic eatery Frita Batidos, chef/owner Eve Aronoff creates spicy and well balanced Cuban-fusion drinks and dishes. The French trained chef whipped up amazingly smooth tropical fruit milkshakes that offset my spicy chorizo burger and coriander-sprinkled shoestring fries. I also sipped a refreshing ginger, lime and sugar drink through a straw stuck in a plastic baggie.
A few blocks away, the upscale Vinology wine bar specializes in global fine wines as inspirations for chef Jim Leonardo whose dining menu “is evolving, changing …we create dishes that enhance the wine.” Leonardo is generous with direction on wine-food pairings, and so divine was his Lobster Roll with roasted garlic, tarragon and aioli paired with a glass of Justin 2009 cabernet sauvignon from southern California.
You won’t meet a more serious farm-to-table advocate than chef Brandon Johns at The Grange Kitchen and Bar, across the street from Salon Vox. Johns is also a devotee of charcuterie, and if you ask him politely he may show you the pork tattoo on his right arm. He’s so into the locavore movement that one of his fine dining dishes included shrimp raised in salt water pools in a Michigan barn and deliciously sautéed with peas and pancetta. Early the next morning, we spied Johns at the Farmer’s Market loading a box full of fresh ingredients.
Mani Osteria is a bistro-style restaurant featuring wood-fired pizza, house-made pasta and small-production Old World wines. Mani stands out that weekend for the classic taste of its Pizza Margarita with fior di latte and its al dente pappardelle in a flavourful Bolognese sauce and garganelli in a veal and balsamic reduction with mushrooms and white truffles. Bravo, Mani.
After dinner downtown on a few nights, we walked to The Last Word for a craft cocktail. Sitting in low lighting with live jazz tunes wafting from one corner, we ordered from the four-chapter drink menu, complete with botanical illustrations of varied herbs used in drinks. An especially pleasing cocktail was the Volcano, a rum-and-fruits martini served in a communal bowl with straws, little umbrellas and flames shooting out the middle (my notes get a bit hazy here).
After cocktails, we walked to the Circus and its four floors of bars, pool tables and live music. That Wednesday night, Dragon Wagon, a local folk-rock band “with a shot of Irish whiskey” played to a happy, dancing crowd of casually dressed twenty- and thirtysomethings. In fact, Ann Arbor is an important pop music scene for acoustic, alt, jazz, rock and techno music.
Take The Blind Pig, for instance, which opened downtown in 1971 as a blues club, later nurtured famous bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam on their way up, and now offers alternative, punk, grunge and rap music. One night, we listened to rappers Shigeto and Mogi Crumbles in the gloriously grotty and narrow club that resembles the dark décor of former East Village punk venue CBGB. At Woodruff’s Bar in nearby Ypsilanti another night, Detroit alt-country-roots rock songwriter Doop and the Inside Outlaws played. Doop’s What Am I Supposed To Do? has been called “one of the great songs of the New Depression.”
Back downtown, The Ark is the best folk music club and oldest non-profit acoustic venue in the country. Inside the 400-seat hall one Saturday night, the mainly boomer audience held a love-in with pigtailed Rickie Lee Jones. After singing a wonderfully muted but charged Chuck E.’s In Love, her 1979 hit single, Jones mused, “Wonder why nobody (else) ever did that song.” Amid adoring applause, one audience member shouted out, “Because you own it.”
I stayed at the comfortable Holiday Inn & Suites on Boardwalk. If you’re really lucky, you can book a room at The Palmer House, a Frank Lloyd Wright home. For full accommodation listings and to plan your visit, see www.visitannarbor.org.
If your summer and fall getaways are booked, the next best time to visit Ann Arbor is New Year’s Day when the 2013 NHL Winter Classic pits the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings at the 115,000-seat Michigan Stadium, or The Big House. While the boys are at the game, we girls can check out the downtown scene.
FOR CULTURE VULTURES:
* Check out Shakespeare in the Arb – the Nichols Arboretum, that is – where instead of scenes changing, the audience literally follows the actors from spot to spot. It’s staged every June when the Arb’s historic peony collection is in bloom. Other strong stage offerings include the Performance Network Theater, Michigan-native Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theater and the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase.
* The area has many fine artists and galleries, including Jill Stefani Wagner’s evocative pastels at River Gallery and Nora Venturelli’s dynamic figure series at WSG Gallery. Both artists are featured in the June Fine Art Connoisseur magazine. The university campus also has outstanding art installations, including Maya Lin’s famous Wave. Children will love the downtown Hands-On Museum and the Museum of Natural History. Take a free tour Thursdays at Motawi Tileworks and see how the distinctive tiles are made, then decorate your own. Ann Arbor’s signature summer event is the fabled three-day Art Fair downtown from July 18 to 21.
Florence Sicoli is a Hamilton, Ontario writer.
This story originally appeared in The Hamilton Spectator and thespec.com.Pin It