2011 Current Dining Guide: Restaurants

. May 18, 2012.

For lovers of food and drink, there is no better place to be, or better time to be there, than in Ann Arbor right now. With its diverse culture, our city has always had a strong tradition of restaurants and nightlife. With interest in food at an all-time high, Ann Arbor is bursting with culinary talent. Current’s food writers take this chance to share some of their favorite things this town has to offer.

Best New Restaurant:

Mani Osteria
341 E. Liberty St. 734-769-6700.

As our review last month illustrates, there are lots of reasons to choose Mani from among the contenders.  We’ve since been back several times, and they just keep getting better.  For example, their Farmer’s Market pizza, available while the ingredients are in season, includes only goat cheese and coppa ham, but also fresh Michigan peaches.  It’ll be gone from the menu by the time you read this review, but we’re excited.

Friendliest Waitstaff:

Zingerman’s Roadhouse
2501 Jackson Ave. 734-663-3663.

They’re friendly (but not too friendly), they know the menu cold, they care about what they’re doing, and they’ll bring you free stuff.  And if things go wrong, they’ll step up to the plate (see what we did there?) and make it right.  What more could you ask?  We eat out a lot, and not just around here, and the staff of Zingerman’s Roadhouse are right up there with the best in the nation.

Best Place to Get a Cheap Lunch:

Earthen Jar/Jerusalem Garden
Earthen Jar, 31 S. 5th Ave. 734-327-9464.
Jerusalem Garden,
307 S. 5th Ave. 734-995-5060.

Walking distance from both Main St. and campus, these two Ann Arbor restaurants have been a lunch favorite for students and locals for years (since 1987 in JG's case). Carnivores, vegetarians, and vegans will all find something they like at affordable prices. Don't let the construction stop you from visiting; they're both still open. Raves for JG's chicken shwarma sandwich, hummus, and falafel. At EJ, check out the chana masala, banana pudding, and mango lassi.

Best Place to Catch a Late Night Burger:

Pizza House
618 Church St. 734-995-5095.

By our definition, “late night” means after Midnight, which cuts out a lot of otherwise obvious contenders.  Despite the name, Pizza House has decent burgers – and they’re open until 4am (!) so you can fulfill your late-night real food craving without going to the dreaded drive-throughs.  And your dining companions have access to a lot of non-burger options, including a range of pizzas (obviously) and some of the best shakes around.

Best Steak:

Knight’s Steakhouse
2324 Dexter Ave. 734-665-8644.

The eternal favorite is still going strong, with even wider appeal now that it’s smoke-free.  The steaks are top-notch, the side dishes what you’d expect, and desserts are made especially for them.  And the prices?  Surprisingly reasonable.  If it’s a fancy occasion, you’ll want the Chop House, but otherwise do as the townies do and head for the sign of the Knight.

Diamond in the Rough:

Happy Wok
403 N. 5th Ave. 734-998-3484.

This place looks like one of hundreds of unremarkable Chinese strip-mall restaurants with similar names. But buried in a menu filled with acceptable American favorites is a section of Malaysian and Singaporean dishes not available elsewhere in the area. Try Roti Canai, Satays (we recommend the beef), Wonton Mee, and an array of noodle dishes.  They stand up to anything at Malaysian restaurants in much bigger cities.  And they deliver.

Best Place for a Business Lunch:

Mani Osteria
341 E. Liberty St. 734-769-6700.

We try to avoid throwing multiple “bests” to the same restaurant, but we’re going to have to go with our “Best New Restaurant” winner on this one too.  At lunch time, Mani offers a complete menu of pizzas, salads, and cold appetizers (though no pastas, alas). It’s fast, it’s tasty, it’s different from the places you were thinking of, and at lunch Mani is uncrowded enough that you can actually have a business conversation.  If you’re watching expenses, their “Italian Job” deal lets everyone get a combo (soup, salad, or pizza, pick two) for $12.50.

Most Relaxing Atmosphere:

403 N. 5th Ave. 734-998-3484.

This quiet little Kerrytown spot is a Mom and Pop place, where mom runs the front of house and Pop (a veteran of the Ginza and New York) turns out the most authentic Japanese food in Ann Arbor.  Yamato is tiny, and service isn’t always fast, but between the serenity of the dining room and the floor to ceiling windows dominated by a gorgeous Japanese Elm in the courtyard, you’ll find peace here, tasty peace.

Best Place to Dine Alone:

The Counter, @ Zingerman’s Roadhouse
2501 Jackson Ave. 734-663-3663.

You’ve got friendly but unintrusive staff, and a ringside view of a bustling kitchen and pass area.  Add to this the fact that you generally don’t have to wait in line for one of these places, and the counter seats at Zingerman’s Roadhouse are the top choice for solo diners in Ann Arbor.  Feel free to point at stuff and ask passing staff members what it is; we’ve discovered some great meals that way.

Best Place for a Long Dinner With Drinks:

110 S.. Main St. 734-222-9841.

This is a tough one for us, as you can have a fun time doing this at a lot of places around town.  We’re going to go with Vinology, both because they have an excellent assortment of wines, and because you can get all the entrees in small plate sizes as well, which allows you to stick around for a long time, sampling and hanging out.

Best Place to Dine Alone:

The Counter, @ Zingerman's Roadhouse
2501 Jackson Ave. 734-663-3663.

They’re friendly (but not too friendly), they know the menu cold, they care about what they’re doing, and they’ll bring you free stuff.  And if things go wrong, they’ll step up to the plate (see what we did there?) and make it right.  What more could you ask?  We eat out a lot, and not just around here, and the staff of Zingerman’s Roadhouse are right up there with the best in the nation.

Best Breakfast:

1100 E. Catherine. 734-761-8996.

An Ann Arbor tradition since 1956; generations of locals and students have waited in line for Angelo's famous raisin toast. The breakfast-lunch menu is extensive, from the usual breakfast plates to their (also) famous deep-fried french toast, a variety of different "eggs benedicts", and sandwiches like their Smoked Angelo Reuben. Their breakfast specials are generally excellent. It's Fall, so we recommend their seasonal pumpkin pancakes. (By the way, they sell that bread by the loaf.)

Best Vegetarian Dish:

Meatless Joe, @ Casey’s
304 Depot St. 734-665-6775.

That's right – in a town filled with excellent vegetarian options, we're naming a dish at a restaurant best known for its burgers (some of the best around). But when patrons who've moved out of state keep contacting them for the recipe, well, you know that's one really good dish. A generous portion of lentils, rice & red beans in a tomato sauce, served over grilled cheddar-corn bread. Utterly delicious.

Best Place for a First Date:

West End Grill
120 W. Liberty St.

All of our first dates were some time ago, but if you’ve got the cash you can't go wrong with an upscale restaurant that Julia Child used to visit. It's quiet enough for talking, with charming old school elegance and a good wine list. Check out the Sesame Tuna, Veal Dumplings, Chilean Sea Bass, and Sea Scallops.  But seriously, tailor your choice to your mutual interests: if one of the other options in here looks better to the two of you, go for it.  We’re sure a lot of relationships have started at Earthen Jar, too.

Best Dessert:

107 E. Liberty St. 734-769-7759.

Sure, you could get dessert wherever you ate dinner.  But why not take a bit of a walk to let things settle, and head over to Ann Arbor’s authentic old-time ice cream parlor and candy shop?  Ice cream flavors span the range from Superman or Blue Moon (Lisa’s guilty pleasure) to Toasted Coconut (Joe’s favorite), they make their own waffle cones while you watch, and their array of candy is impressive.  They even make caramel apples!

Lisa and Joe have been blogging about food in the Ann Arbor area (and points beyond) since 2004.  Check them out at www.kitchenchick.com.


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