Country Club Comeback
Max & Bella's On the Green
by Shelley Daily
Last fall, when a manager at the now-defunct L.A. Pub inside the Ann Arbor Country Club asked new prep cook Aaron Peggs what he'd do if the failing restaurant were his, Peggs didn't mince words. "I told him I'd shut it down right now, stop the bleeding, and start over," Peggs says. After taking a closer look at Peggs' resume, which included traveling the world as a chef at five-star restaurants and a stint with Emeril Lagasse, the club's owners took his advice and put Peggs in charge of the makeover.
A native of upstate New York, Peggs was already developing "a concept for a restaurant." That concept became Max & Bella's On the Green, and its launch is part of the club's grand plan to return to its 1970s heyday--minus the cigarette smoke--when the late Ray Knight set up what was then a members-only restaurant at the club in the Loch Alpine neighborhood northwest of Ann Arbor.
This time, it's open to the public--and aspires to be a destination restaurant. "We've gone from two people in the dining room on a Friday night to having reservations for forty-six this Friday evening," Peggs says. "Everything used to be served out of a can or a box," but now, he emphasizes, everything is fresh. Meat is ordered from Sparrow Market, produce from Frog Holler farm, and the menu is more diverse, featuring pasta dishes, steaks, ribs, chicken, fish, and salads--along with pub fare, pizzas, and a $5 kids' menu. He's replaced the "Home Depot smoker" the restaurant was using with the $20,000 smoker he had custom built for competitions--he also owns Max & Bella's Smokehouse, which sells smoked meats (his two dogs are the businesses' namesakes).
"You could gild it in gold, but if the food's not good they're not going to come," explains Mike Weikle, country club president and CEO, who lives in one of the surrounding neighborhoods. Weikle is part of the investment group that took over
the indebted 137-acre property in 2011 through a member transfer of assets in the courts. Weikle says they've overhauled the facilities and last spring renovated the bar area, which, along with an adjoining dining room, is lined with windows that overlook the golf course and its towering maples and oaks. "We have the best views," he says. "We want this to be a fun and relaxing place for people to come. Plus," he laughs, compared to dining downtown, "you won't be moved to tears when you find a parking place."
The golf course opened in 1929, but it wasn't until 1963 that the first clubhouse was erected, a prototype DuPont built free of charge with a foam material--"the foam dome," Weikle calls it. (Because it was pink and topped by a cupola, pilots who flew overhead compared it to a breast.) The dome was replaced in the late 1960s by a more traditional clubhouse that served as "a blue-collar club--never a millionaire's club," and families flocked to it, he says. The current clubhouse followed in 2002, but falling memberships and economic woes eventually put the club on the chopping block. Weikle says area homeowners who knew their home values were tied to the course banded together with plans to save it, until the investment group stepped in. Don Knight--Ray's son, and like him, an AACC member--has been advising them on the restaurant makeover.
Downstairs in the clubhouse on a weekday morning, several men who appear to be in their seventies are hanging out in the pro shop waiting for the weather to clear. One is Phil Walker, a twenty-four-year member of the country club, who's seen its ups and downs. He says he rarely ate upstairs anymore--until recently. "It's done a 180 from what it was," Walker says. "Good food, good service."
Max & Bella's On the Green (inside Ann Arbor Country Club), 4699 East Loch Alpine Dr. 426-4693. Dinner: Daily 5-9 p.m. (open later on weekends). Starting after Memorial Day weekend: lunch: Tues.-Sun. 11 a.m.-4 p.m. annarborcc.com
[Originally published in June, 2013.]