Landlocked in the Midwest, this modestly sized yet progressive college town has gradually evolved into a restaurant destination for foodies on the hunt for eclectic and international cuisine.
Announcements of new high-end restaurants, offering trendy nuevo and haute cuisine with seasonal menus and locally sourced ingredients, seem to multiple by the week with more than a dozen announced in the last six months. The proliferation of good eateries seems to be received by those in the industry as a boon for all.
“I think it feeds on itself,” said Mark Hodesh, whose Mark’s Carts courtyard has “graduated” two food carts that have moved on to brick and mortar restaurants.
“If you’re doing something like the person next door it’s competitive, but there are a lot of people and a lot of tastes,” says Hodesh. “If you’re thinking, you’re on your game trying real hard and having original thoughts, you’ll do fine.”
For whatever reason, residents here like a good meal more than most — be it the number of two income families, young professionals and college students, or just the availability of places to go. Ann Arborites, according to a market study by the Downtown Development Association, actually dine out at a frequency rate which is 160 percent of the national average.
Downtown has gradually transformed itself into a restaurant corridor. In the last three decades, the amount of restaurant business downtown has nearly doubled, from 7 percent of all downtown commerce in 1983 to 13 percent today, according to the latest DDA report.
“It’s been growing exponentially over the last 30 years,” says Susan Pollay, DDA executive director who moved to Ann Arbor in 1983. “When I came here, there was not much to recommend about the food. There were some restaurants getting a toehold. Zingerman’s had just started. Real Seafood was open, but there weren’t that many.”
Over time, however, diners have been educated to enjoy quality food and ingredients, she says. “Zingerman’s was offering artisanal foods before we had words for it,” she says. “Their fabulous cheeses would inform us: they came from this dairy and specialize in this kind of cheese and came on this kind of bread. Some thought it was expensive but they were teaching us how to appreciate really good food.”
Excellent food became a matter of expectation.
“Our pallets are opened,” she said. Not only is the restaurant scene evolving, but so are local growers. Seasonal menu offerings from local farms are also on the rise. Such “Farm to Table” operations resonate with folks interested in land use planning, green space preservation and support for local farmers, says Pollay.
“Arbor Brewing and Vinology and many others have made a commitment to locally source their ingredients, which makes their menus more interesting,” she said. “You can see what is coming in from market, and those of us who go out to eat a lot enjoy the menu changes to match.”
A steady demand by local restaurants has created a market for more small local farms, says Grange Chef Brandon Johns. “You can keep a market for small mostly family farmers that are only going to raise 15 pigs at a time, 4 times a year,” he says. “That’s why you pay a premium too. You only have 15 pigs, not 3,000 pigs. You’re feeding them better and they have more room to roam.”
Local folks are also in a better position to pay more for it. With the University of Michigan as a major employer and economic engine, Ann Arbor’s median household income of $52,711 well exceeds the national average. And the customer base is well educated as over 69 percent of area residents have completed four or more years of college.
“Let’s face it, we’re very fortunate. Although we’ve had tough times, we were not hit as hard as a lot of other places in Michigan,” said Maura Thompson of the Main Street Association. “People really look at downtown Ann Arbor as a restaurant destination,” she says. “Restaurant Week is a good example.” Restaurants participating in restaurant week have more than doubled — 21 restaurants participated in June 2009, while 55 restaurants were included in January, she said. With downtown space in high demand, businesses that close don’t stay empty for long.
“As many openings as we’ve had this year, I like to think there are more to come,” says Pollay. “I see more being welcomed.”
Vellum: American Nuevo, owned by Peter and his father, John Roumanis, who owns Mediterrano and Carlyle Grill. Offers a high-end seasonal menu, located next to the Raven’s Club in the 200 block of S. Main Street.
What Crêpe: Chic French bistro, the third location opened by entrepreneur Paul Jenkins Jr., in the former Squares restaurant on Liberty Street.
Isaleta: Mexican restaurant offering small plates, owned by Adam Barus, which has opened next door to Adam’s other popular eatery, Mani Osteria on Liberty Street.
Kuroshio: Asian fusion, owned by locals Kenneth and Grace Wang, who moved into the former Champion House after that long standing business closed in January.
Slurping Turtle: Chicago based Japanese noodle house owned by award winning chef Takashi Yagihashi of Top Chef Masters fame. The plan is to open sometime this year; space has not been secured yet.
The Lunch Room: vegan food cart, which operated at Mark’s Carts courtyard, is opening in Kerrytown Market in the space occupied by Yamato restaurant. Owned by Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo, it is the second cart to “graduate” into a brick and mortar restaurant (the first was Eat, which moved in the Fall of 2011 to 1906 Packard, near East Stadium Boulevard.
Mission Management, which owns Jolly Pumpkin, Blue Tractor, Cafe Habana and Grizzly Peak, has added three new ventures: Lena in the space occupied longtime by the Parthenon Restaurant on S. Main Street at Liberty; Mash, a bar and live music venue beneath Blue Tractor on Washington; and a third venture, The Old German, an eatery harkening back to another downtown occupant which folded several years ago, will open in the basement of Grizzly Peak.