The Glass House
Dining at Palmer Commons
by Sally Mitani
The Glass House Cafe, which opened in September, sits in a beautiful location-in Palmer Commons, part of the university's life sciences complex on the inside curve of the Huron-Washtenaw junction. The cafe occupies one of the middle floors-the floor called "Plaza" that you tend to end up on if you're wandering haphazardly in the area-but God help you if someone gave you directions. Decorated with spare, polished steel and frosted glass, and warmed by a light-golden wall that looks as if it's crinkled fabric but is actually wood, the dining room with its wall of windows seems to float above Palmer Field (which is actually across the street).
Outsourcing is a dirty word in Rust Belt states, but the U-M has been outsourcing most of its food service for a long time, and where food service is concerned, outsourcing can have the paradoxical effect of forging local connections.
The Glass House Cafe is actually the Ann Arbor outpost of Tecumseh destination restaurant Evans Street Station, which relies strongly on locally grown ingredients from vendors like Calder Dairy, Prochaska Farms, and Eat Local Eat Fresh. Chef Alan Merhar splits his time between here and Tecumseh. The seventy-seat Glass House attracts mostly faculty to its posh breakfast and lunch table service, with lunches like grilled Scottish salmon with pesto orzo and local tomato confit and breakfasts of strawberry crepes with mascarpone and almonds. Students are more drawn to the takeaway counter, open for many more hours, serving much cheaper wraps, sandwiches, snacks, and Starbucks (take-out customers have their own room of tables to sprawl on, with an equally spectacular view).
Rachel Wood, the property manager, came up through Washtenaw Community College's hospitality program; her first big job was at the Lord Fox. Alissa McCool (who married into her name, which she acknowledges is indeed impossibly cool) is the building catering director (the restaurant is often called upon to cater events on the upper floors of the building) and came to Glass House by way of EMU and the Chop House. McCool says the Glass House is certainly open to the public, but she admits few outside the university actually find their way in. She also claims the takeaway counter has "probably some of the best sushi in Ann Arbor."
Glass House Cafe at Palmer Commons, 100 Washtenaw Avenue, 647-3777. Dining room: Mon.-Fri. 7:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Sandwich counter: Mon.-Fri. 7 a.m.-8 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.-3 p.m. glasshousecafe.net
[Originally published in December, 2008.]