By Elizabeth Ann Morabito
Café Zola, a well-known restaurant in downtown Ann Arbor, has had a loyal following ever since it was opened by Hediye Batu and Alan Zakalik 25 years ago. Almost everyone who has lived in the area for any length of time has dined here. When I asked locals about this popular eatery, their enthusiastic reviews motivated me to try it. Eating outside on a beautiful fall afternoon before the winter chill hits, created an exceptional ambiance.
Curious about the eatery’s name? Well, it comes from Émile Zola, an author and foremost proponent of the Naturalist movement in the late 1800s; a nod to the French influence found in the breakfast and lunch menus. Their dinner menu, however, leans more toward Italian, Mediterranean, and Turkish cuisines.
Café Zola’s patio vibe is on point…super chill and yet at the same time invigoratingly charming. My lunchtime partner in crime and I at first opted for a table in the sun but quickly became overheated. No big deal, though, as we were graciously accommodated by the hostess when we asked to move to a table that had just opened up in the shade. The soothing tunes being piped in, the festive tables and umbrellas, my delightful dining companion, and the pleasant buzz of our neighboring diners’ conversations started the experience off right. As an Ann Arbor newbie, I had been jonesing to dine here for a few months and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into their delicious European fare.
Between my dining companion and I, we ordered a salad each and three appetizers to share – Smoked Salmon Bruschetta, Calamari Fritti, and Mustardy Cauliflower Aged Cheddar Casserole Curry. She has been here a few times for breakfast/brunch and traditionally opts for their omelets, particularly the Omelette Duxelles. But this time she ventured with me onto the next page – the lunch section of the menu.
I tried the $16 Halloumi Salad which was composed, meaning the non-tossed ingredients were artfully arranged in a visually pleasing manner. I quickly became a big fan as I love all three of the main ingredients – grilled halloumi cheese, avocado, and mango. I had fun mix-matching and stacking these items on my fork for some combination bites.
My friend’s choice was the $17 Roasted Vegetable Salad which sounded hearty and mouth-watering on the menu. Served in a soup bowl-sized dish, it was a bit smaller than anticipated, but the onion, eggplant, and squash were a fun mixture and surprisingly filling.
The appetizers ended up being good choices as they were different enough to provide variety but complemented each other well and weren’t too filling. The smoked salmon was hands-down the table favorite. Some restaurants skimp on the fish, but there was a good portion in this dish which I appreciated. I’m also kind of a fried calamari snob. It’s either good, or it’s not. I find there’s really no in-between. Well, this one, being light and crispy, was perfect. The cauliflower dish was served as small pieces, not big florets, in a curry-based sauce that had to be eaten with a fork. Because of this presentation, it felt a little more like a side dish than an appetizer, but the flavor and texture were palate-pleasing and we gobbled it right up.
No surprise given the pandemic-related worker shortage crisis, Café Zola was extremely short-staffed the day I was there. However, our waitress had a lot of heart and I could tell she was zipping around as fast as she possibly could. I left her a hard-earned tip in recognition of her obvious efforts
My mouth is already watering at the thought of trying their breakfast! Perhaps I will go for one of their omelets or something with salmon, one of my top three favorite foods. I’m also looking forward to an evening visit so I can sip some of their fantastic European wines and experience the exotic feeling of the dimly lit interior.
I think I’m just making excuses to go back now. Can’t wait!
112 W Washington St, Ann Arbor
Hours (Dine-In, Delivery & Carryout):
Monday-Thursday 7 am – 11 pm
Friday 7 am – 11 pm
Saturday 8 am – 11 pm
Sunday 8 am – 10 pm