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Trip Report Trip Report: Ann Arbor bars, resturants, coffeeships, et cetera

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The following information comes from an extended stay in Ann Arbor during the summer of 2009:

Bars:

Arbor Brewing, 114 East Washington (between Main and Fourth Ave), www.arborbrewing.com
Best beer in Ann Arbor in my opinion, from a stunningly refreshing pilsner, through the hoppy midsection all the way to the serious bottle-aged yeasty brews. The best places are out on the sidewalk as the sun sets (though don't try to carry your beer the three feet across the public thruway--it's illegal for anyone but a server to carry alcohol along that hallowed ground). The decor and feel inside is much less appealing, though there is darts and shuffleboard for those needing amusement. It's now smoke-free, so less interference on getting the nose of your beer down. Food can be very good if you choose carefully. Service is good, though the service at the bar can be quite slow--don't think they've figured out how to dispense the beer for the entire place in an efficient manner--now it seems to depend on one or two tenders, which can make things slow down a lot when they hit a bottleneck. Music can get oppressively loud and seems to follow some sort of periodic sine function over time with relation to volume. But over all, if I'm in Ann Arbor, I'm likely to be here. Good brews.

Grizzly Peak Brewing, 120 W Washington (between Main and Ashley), grizzlypeak.net
Kind of a ski-lodgy feel to the place with lots of wood and different cutesy names for the different sections of the place that evidently close at different times--Bear's Peak or somesuch. Food here is well-prepared and can be quite delicious. The beers, not so much, at least to my taste. They seemed a little watered down and lacked precision and focus. They do do a nine-beer sampler, however, so you can make your way through their brews pretty easily. Service varies--at times, very well versed with helpful guidance on beers, beer styles and advice on their offerings, other times incredibly slow sidewalk service that feels like watching a play that will never end. The environment and the food were sufficiently enticing for me to return, but if they could focus more care on the beer, this place would be much more likely to be a candidate as a local haunt for me.

Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewery, 205 E Washington (between 4th and 5th Avenues), www.bluetractor.net
This place has a very weird feel to me. Feels like a environment cooked up in some marketing department two doors down from the boardroom. Big wooden standing tables, condiments proudly displayed on all tables, often pretty empty and looking like someone who got all decked out and then didn't leave the house on a Saturday night. I didn't have any food, so I can't speak to that, but the beer was all pretty lousy, but pretty cheap. I got the sampler (in a muffin tin, which, I admit, was pretty cute), but other got these huge beers one might barely be able to lift. Bad movies' interpretations of oktoberfest came to mind. The bartender was pretty awesome, however, and they have a strip of crushed (?) ice upon which folks can rest their weary beers, which was pretty neat. Downstairs it has a whole 'nother scene going on with some cavernous lounge linking to the Habana--another place that I have not visited. Returning to the romantic downstairs would be an open possibility, but returning to the upstairs is not something I'd consider. I'd be surprised if this place is still in business in five years--they made a huge upfront investment, but it's not clear that the model they came up with will actually attract real human beings. Worth visiting for the case study approach.

Ashley's, 338 S State (between William and Liberty), www.ashleys.com
Across the street from the center of campus, this place feels likely an overwhelmingly student-dominated pub, even in the summer when the students are gone. Beer taps adorning the walls, the place has a worn feel, which usually I like, but this place just feels overrun, and the downstairs is a really sad state of affairs that equates square footage with profit opportunities. Service is incredibly casual and infrequent--even when things are slower. And when things are busier, forget it. That being said, the beer selection is beyond respectable with numerous rotating taps, oodles beer samplers--even mix-and-match, plenty of Michigan choices, and a by-the-bottle list which might explain more than a few 6-year bachelor's degrees. The food is okay, but very pricey for what it is. I'll visit there as I know they'll always have something I'll want to try beerwise, but a little too close to campus for comfort for me. Best when you need a beer when it is still light out and most respectable folks have not begun their alcohol consumption.

Dominick's, 812 Monroe (between Tappan and State, behind the Law Quad)
On the weekends or near-weekends, the place is loud and there are lots of large groups that grow larger as the early evening wears on. Outdoor leafy seating on picnic table-type seating that rocks as folks come and go, it's a great environment with folks enjoying a sweet simple sangria or completely respectable beer selection from a mason jar (focused on Bell's with a smattering of other Michigan specialties thrown it). I try to avoid sitting under the awning, where the echoing of noise is deafening and the repeated announcements of food orders being ready is not the best for maintaining any sort of conversation. The most emotional-response-generating feature, however, is the loud siren they crank up every night at ten pm to push everyone out of the place--zoning restrictions on their hours, evidently. Prices are pretty hefty, so I actually don't mind getting pushed out at ten, but you learn quickly to always check your watch before getting another beer--a lot of undrunk alcohol adorns the tables as people file out. Perhaps the best outdoor drinking scene, but not a place for an intimate conversation--loud and proud is the name of the game here.

Good Time Charley's, 1140 S University (between E University and Church) www.good-time-charleys.com
Outdoor seating is probably the only good thing I can say about this place. Even the outdoor seating feels forced, very spartan and not very pleasant at night--just feels like a concrete garden. Only one Michigan beer on the list, it seems they make their money making oversized garden variety mixed and frozen drinks. Service is fine (though it seems like they have a really high ratio of servers to customers--likely a function of when things are busier during the school year). Nothing I liked about this place--to undergraddy for my tastes.

Conor O'Neill's, 318 S Main (between William and Liberty) www.conoroneills.com
This place has a number of different faces. It always has patio seating on the sidewalk, a sad nonexistent Michigan beer selection, instead aiming for the corporate approved well established unirish approach to American Irish bars with Guinness, Harp, Bass and the like. When it has a DJ on a weekend night, you have to be in the right mood as things can get kind of crazy. Very weird setup where the music overpowers any attempt at conversation at tables (at least in the main room) but is pretty faint on the impromptu dance floor. There is a lot of scoping (Girls who are boys; Who like boys to be girls; Who do boys like they're girls; Who do girls like they're boys; Always should be someone you really love) and beyond the scattershot conversations off the dance floor, most of the action is happening on the dance floor. If you don't attend a wedding this summer and feel the need to get inebriated and get out with your friends and shout the lyrics to "I will survive" with your friends on the dance floor, this should do the trick. Fun stuff--the tried and true american invention. Other nights, it's a lot more chill going on which can be excellent when the live music is good--and, being Ann Arbor, it can be really good. I am told the food is good, but I didn't try it. Service can be slow to the extreme and the drink selection makes me yawn, but when the music is good--I can forgive a lot of the other shortcomings.

Bar Louie, 401 E Liberty (between Division and State, in alley below the Blind Pig) www.restaurants-america.com
The url will probably tell you all you need to know about this place. Another corporate-invention, I haven't ever been to one before, but I feel like I've visited this many times in many other cities in the United States. Step out of Ann Arbor for an evening and into any other American city of your imagination--want to feel like you're in Houston, Texas, Arlington, Virginia, or Boise, Idaho? Then take a trip to this placeless place. Loud music, antiseptic outdoor seating, but friendly service. First time I went, I didn't see they have a photocopied difficult-to-read menu of their Michigan beer selection (including samplers). Completely respectable and an evident from the dominant corporate model that felt to be the tone of the place. Dollar burger night is completely respectable, with burgers actually being normal size. If you don't get any toppings (additional charges), you actually make out like a bandit. Dollar burgers is probably the only reason I'd visit--though servers are very friendly (though I wonder why napkins is something you have to request--shouldn't that be automatic?).

Red Hawk Bar & Grill, 316 S State (between N University and Washington) www.redhawkannarbor.com
Nice contemporary interior and quieter than a good number bars in Ann Arbor (though I was there during a quiet part of the day. The beer selection is decent, not exciting, but enough choice to keep one happy, I guess. The menu and food look really good, but there is some hit and miss. Some creative cooking and really good dishes, others don't hit the mark so well. Seems like a really great place for lunch, I'd return, but the near-campus location makes me wary.

Heidelberg, 215 N Main (between Catherine and Ann) www.theheidelberg.com
The signs and look of this place made me avoid this place as long as possible. But eventually ended up there one evening, and it's pretty much what I expected. The empty restaurant upstairs (it was late) looked like a 1980s approach to constructing a German restaurant and downstairs the bar was gritty, mismatched, smoky and kind of weird with the jukebox blaring. The kind of atmosphere you want when you want a place that doesn't have atmosphere. Nothing particularly interesting to drink, but large boots of beer are available. Bartenders, servers, and patrons are all friendly--so what can I say? I wouldn't seek out an opportunity to go there again, but given the need for a seedy bar, sure, this one works as well as any.

Eight Ball Saloon, 208 S First Street (between Washington and Liberty, in alley below the Blind Pig) www.blindpigmusic.com
Dive bar with smoky seating, pool tables, and an internet jukebox. Though the beer is cheap, they still fare well with an offering a very decent Lagunitas IPA (not from Michigan, alas, but respectable choice nonetheless). If you can handle the smoke and are looking for a dive, this is not a bad place to spend the wee hours after other places have closed up.

Fifth Quarter, 210 S Fifth Avenue (between Washington and Liberty)
It has a mechanical bull--which was the purpose of our visit. Some pretensions of being a glitzier club, but the bull keeps it real with drunk people dancing around people trying to slide themselves onto the contraption before falling into a laughing mass. They have drinks, they have bartenders, they have ladies walking around offering alcoholic things I don't understand (is it a shot? is it a smelling salt?). Memories of clubbing when I was 18 and newly arrived in a more urban setting came flooding back--but this is perhaps more a middleground between the big city and the bores of suburbia. Even with a three dollar cover, I can't imagine I'll be returning, but this is definitely an entertaining place for people watching and the drunk dancing culture amongst the younger set.

Blind Pig, 208 S First Street (between Washington and Liberty) www.blindpigmusic.com
Live music or dj-spinning place with a cover, so it all depends on how you like the music. Doable beer selection, but not as enticing as the offerings upstairs at Circus, this place can draw a good crowd and really really good music. As a location, it all depends on the scene that night, but when it's good, it's really good. A good place to live close to . . .

Circus, 210 S First Street (between Washington and Liberty) www.cavernclubannarbor.com
Now we're typing . . . Wednesdays at Circus can be one of the best times in Ann Arbor. Live music and a crowd that really is into live music. Wednesdays and Thursdays offer live music--before things get going there are pool tables and lots of salty popcorn. Beer selection decent, with lovely Two-hearteds on special on Thursday, but PBR often winning out as the dancing man's beer. Wednesdays draw an impressive crowd, and even though the clowns in the decor freak me out, this is clearly one of the best times to be had in Ann Arbor. When it's a good night, you'll stay till they close, dripped in sweat from dancing the night away and smelling of cigarette smoke, but you'll leave feeling young and carefree.

Restaurants:

Seva, 314 E Liberty (between Division and Fifth) www.sevarestaurant.com
The website photos are accurate, I guess, but this place is lot more casual and worn down than I had expected. Very laid back environment, looks like a place better for lunch than for dinner. The food, despite all the claims about freshness, was really good, but I wouldn't say in any way a fresh approach. It's a vegetarian place, but the menu looks like it takes an approach to vegetarian cooking circa 1989, where vegetarian dishes are crafted as meat replacements and the whole-eggplant as meat-substitute moment. Not a lot of complaints, as the dishes were very tasty, but butternut squash as a mainstay on the menu in July? July? A focus during the summer months on the incredible local produce and the freshest thing going would feel better than a menu that looks crafted to be the same all year long. Service was very mixed with a good server for our table, but bussers and other servers who respond to requests with a shrug. Huge portions, and tasty ones at good prices. There are certainly things to like about the place, but it isn't the approach to vegetarian cooking that I like--though for lunch it might do just fine.

Vinology, 110 S Main (between Washington and Huron) www.vinowinebars.net
I went here during restaurant week and wasn't terribly impressed. Excellent decor with white tableclothed attractive tables on the side walk or a sumptuous interior with a great bar. Very friendly, top of the line service, who made sure my order made it into the kitchen though I came in just as the kitchen was closing. It's always hard to tell, but the wine selection didn't look particularly interesting by-the-glass and staff recommendations were not aligned with my tastes. It just felt like a wine selection aimed at a different audience than my own, admittedly strong, preferences in wine. So not much of interest there for me, and the food, while entirely adequate, was not particularly memorable. A pretty good deal during restaurant week, but though the real menu looks good, the ho-hum nature of the dishes I had makes me wonder. Half-price happy hours would be a tempting reason to return as would the excellent service--but local retail outlets have fantastic bargains on wine and I have a front porch, so . . .

Mediterrano, 2900 S State (between Oakbrook and Eisenhower) www.mediterrano.com
Away from the downtown area heading toward the interstate and located in a stripmall with Cost Plus World Market, this place has to do something special to attract a crowd beyond those who get lost on the way to the Olive Garden behind. They do it with the food. Excellent ingredients, fun presentation, and creative combinations make for some of the most delicious food I've had in Ann Arbor. Service is fine and very friendly, and the wine list, while not particularly huge or interesting, has enough interesting things rotating on and off the list to offer something that'll work with your meal. The pan-Mediterranean decor and paintings are kind of weird, as is the entranceway, but the outdoor patio would make a fantastic setting for lunch, and the food would certainly entice me to visit again.

Marnee Thai, 414 S Main (between William and Packard)
Basic thai place with very contemporary interior and creepy Beatles music playing the time we visited. Not sure why it was creepy, as I love the Beatles. But the whole experience felt like being in a dentist's waiting room. The food was fine, if not particularly exciting, but the place was dead even on a Friday evening even when ridiculously priced eateries a block away were packed. The prices here were much more reasonable, but nothing particularly good that I'd want to pay for. Don't think I'd visit again, given a choice.

Prickly Pear, 328 S Main (between Williams and Liberty)
Kind of a old skool Mexican and southwest themed place. Decor inside looks fine, but the place to sit is under the tent on the back on a warm summer evening. The chips are decent (the salsa less so), but they are provided gratis on the table and are regularly refilled, which is great as folks debate the menu. The menu is large, both in terms of the physical space it takes up and the number of choices. I chose the sauteed chicken sope, which was really a tasty dish. The servers are friendly and very helpful in negotiating the menu choices and often stopping by to check how things are progressing. The food was good, if not authentic in any sort of real Mexican way--but, hey, I'm in Michigan, not southern California. Margaritas are kind of the old skool approach as well, tasting more of margarita mix than anything else (not sure why margarita mix even exists--is lime juice, sugar syrup, triple sec and tequila anything that requires a premade component?). In any case, the servings were generous and I thought the food quite good and pretty exceptionally good prices, especially considering the prices charged by its upper scale neighbors. The food's good enough that I wouldn't mind dining there again, though perhaps the loud and fun atmosphere on a Friday makes it better for a large or small group than a couple.

Fleetwood Diner, 300 S Ashley (at intersection with Liberty)
Old skool greasy spoon diner with awards hanging on the wall for its status as best townie hangout--the term townie reminds me of soches (sp?) the name some long-forgotten movie gave to the clique of high school kids who were social and popular. In any case, out of the freezer and into the fryer, this place offers exactly what you'd want at a greasy spoon--whenever you would want it, as it's open 24 hours. Great neighborhood spot when all else is closed and the stomach calls for food on the way home--a patty melt with small fries did the trick. Everything just looks cool in this place--especially the clientele and staff--much more interesting than the day-old Detroit newspapers.

Coffeeshops:

Comet Coffee, 16 Nickels Arcade (off of State)
They take coffee seriously here and hence have the best coffee in town by far. Drip coffee and espresso-based drinks are available, but this is no typical coffee shop. There are but two tables in the arcade outside, but it feels quasi-european to belly up to the bar and enjoy your espresso there as you chat with the staff and the regulars. Though there isn't any place to sit, I far prefer hanging around for the cool coffeeshop ambience and dropping out for a moment from the grab-and-go approach. The coffee here is astounding--rotating selections, ground to order by the fantastic staff. It is delicious, and once I discovered this place, I really couldn't stomach coffee anywhere else. My complaints are few--12 ounces is simply too small for a coffee--they need to retool their serving size to fit the sealable coffee mugs we all carry around with us. 12 ounces simply is not enough--even of the good stuff. I love love love their normal everyday espresso, but wish they had some more rotation going on--when visiting there every day, a bit of variety would be nice. I am not a fan at all of their cappuccinos--but that's okay, I don't need any more dairy. Prices are high--but frankly, prices for rotgut coffee in town aren't cheap either (well, except for at Washtenaw Dairy). A must for the coffee nut--very decent pastries as well.

Pastry Peddler, 619 Packard (between State and Hill) pastrypeddler.com
I only visited here once and I try to avoid pastries, but if I were ever in the mood for one, there is no doubt I'd make a return trip here. No ambiance or anything to speak of, but the almond croissant I had was nothing less then phenomenal. It's in a hard spot to sell what they sell, but it is worth going out of your way for a sample of some phenomenal pastries. Wow!

Washtenaw Dairy, 602 S Ashley (at intersection with Madison) washtenawdairy.com
An NPR story waiting to happen (if it hasn't been made already). Horrible coffee, awesome donuts (though toppings are a bit over the top in sweetness-stick with the plain), and the place in Ann Arbor for people watching. I can imagine a good section of the clientele I see have been coming here every morning for the past 35 years--some to scratch lottery tickets, others to read the sports page, others to argue politics, sports, or landscaping, and others to just get their morning mud. This is a whole 'nother slice of Ann Arbor away from the shishy downtown. I loved every visit here and would return for more donuts in a heartbeat. They also have ice cream, and it is quite good--though one waffle cone is big enough for two.

Sweetwaters, 123 W Washington (at intersection with Ashley) and 407 N Fifth Avenue (by Kerrytown Farmers Market) www.sweetwaterscafe.com
Superb ambiance for getting work done and lots of folks come with laptops and readings to do exactly that. I particularly liked the Washington location. Pastries look disappointing and pretty much are disappointing--though the carrot cake looks like it could be phenomenal. I'm not really sure why long lines form for take-away coffee in the mornings as the coffee comes from pump-pots and is never hot and never particularly good. If you aren't going to stay for the workspace, I'm not sure why you'd spend money there at all. I settled on jasmine iced tea (which was excellent) and perrier as the only things I thought worth paying money for--of course, I didn't try everything, but a few bad examples indicate I should cease trying. The Kerrytown location can be crazy on Saturdays when the farmers market crowd comes in, but the Washington location is the best place for getting some late night work done until they close at midnight.

Shopping:

Farmer's Market, on Fifth between Catherine and Kingsley, Saturdays and Wednesdays from 0700 to 1500 during the summer
This is the place to pick up your produce. As the summer wears on the selection only gets more delightful as strawberries and cherries give way to blueberries, peach, melons, and greens of many varieties. Some odd stuff thrown in with crafts and flowers. But get there early, as folks pack up and leave and things run out (especially eggs) as the day wears on.

Zingerman's, 422 Detroit (at intersection with Kingsley), www.zingermans.com
Evidently this place has quite the reputation. The most notable thing about the place is the prices--they are incredibly high. Many times for very very good quality stuff. Their cheese, sausage, and olive selection is indeed stunning. But $12 a pound for olives? Olives? I mean I love olives, but I'm not going to mortgage my firstborn for olives! The bread is good as well, and the place is stocked with many things I'd never be willing to hand over a credit card for--$12 for 8 ounces of german mustard anyone? I didn't sample the sandwiches (on a budget and all that), but my friends told me they were similarly high quality, but just so expensive to make it nearly impossible to enjoy them. That being said, when I shopped there, I did so early in the morning if it was a Saturday, once the farmer's market picks up steam this place is packed with lines out of the door. This is a good place for that once a year splurge to pick up some really nice dried sausage, but, for the rest of the year, I'll have to cede it to the conspicuous consumption crowd.

Main Party Store, 201 N. Main St (at intersection with Ann), www.mainwine.com
Nothing but a liquor store, small but respectable wine selection with great bargains, but I came here for the phenomenal beer selection--especially the huge number of Michigan beers (don't miss the walk-in cooler in the back and be sure to ask for a sixer to mix and match). Open till 2am, so if you're hosting a party, send your guests over there first!

Village Corner, 601 S Forest (at intersection with S University), villagecorner.com
Don't be fooled by the downscale appearance both outside and in, this place has one of the best wine selections in all of Ann Arbor--especially for european wines. Some fantastic bargains in there if you know what you're looking for. I found a few.

Lodging:

Red Roof Inn, 3505 S State, www.redroof.com
I chose this place for one night when I arrived, mainly due to its location within stumbling distance of the disembarkation point for the Michigan Flyer shuttle. It's a completely normal, Red Roof Inn, with rooms that are fine, a breakfast that is utterly forgettable based on cold cereal and unappealing indestructible pastries, free in-room wireless internet, and a friendly helpful staff. Though it's within easy walking distance to the Briarwood Mall (an incredibly unappealing shopping structure, inside and out), the food choices within walking distance didn't seem so appealing (I got some acceptable ribs at Damon's at 3150 Boardwalk nearby). Cheap real estate near the interstate is the name of the game here--but if you come in on the Flyer and want to crash, this place works.

Transportation:

Michigan Flyer, www.michiganflyer.com
A good deal to get to and from the Detroit DTW airport from Ann Arbor. The cost was only $15 and the ride was nice with bottled water, onboard wireless internet, and xm satellite radio at each seat (perhaps a bit over-the-top for a 25 minute ride, but it goes to points beyond, I guess), and a very helpful driver who actually grabs your bag and packs it underneath the bus. Disadvantages was that the drop-off/pick-up point at the Four Seasons near the interstate isn't near Ann Arbor proper, the schedule (at least in the off-season summer) wasn't too often, and, for some reason, they don't have any signs or indications of where you pick up the shuttle at the airport--so make sure to print directions how to catch the shuttle and bring them with you.

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