Restaurants revitalized Ann Arbor. Then came the pandemic.
Published in August, 2020
"It was a dark and stormy Sunday night, and I met my friend Jennifer Conlin for dinner at Mikette," Micheline Maynard recalls. "We were browsing through the appetizers when I spotted the fried chicken. I love fried chicken, so that was a no doubter. I bit into a piece, and it was like a Disney movie, with bluebirds tweeting and shooting stars going off around my head. It was that good."
For M.B. Lewis, the "first time I ever saw or tasted purple sweet potatoes was in 2013 at the stylish Babo deli that catered to Ann Arbor's new high-rise dwellers from its big-windowed perch at Washington and Division. Opportunity to adore acai bowls came after Babo morphed to Fred's a few years later."
Sally Mitani met a friend weekly for breakfast ever since he helped her move a couch more than twenty years ago, most recently at the Classic Cup Cafe on Jackson Rd. But she hasn't seen him in months. He is "in his seventies, has COPD, and won't set foot in a restaurant until the pandemic is over," she says. And even if a vaccine is released tomorrow, they can't celebrate at the Classic Cup. Like Mikette and Wilma's--the last incarnation of Babo/Fred's--it was killed by Covid-19.
At least fifteen Ann Arbor restaurants have shuttered since March, and many others teeter on a cliff's edge. In a June Observer interview, Mainstreet Ventures president and CEO Kevin Gudejko predicted the locally based fine-dining chain would be operating at a loss for twelve months--and that as many as one in five local restaurants might not survive.
So it made no sense to try to publish our usual year-round guide to every restaurant and bar in greater Ann Arbor. Instead, we emailed four past and present Observer food writers to get their thoughts on the rise of Ann Arbor's restaurant scene, why it mattered, and what might come next.
"I miss my 70s restaurants: Whiffletree, La Pinata, the
Parthenon, Manikas, Steve's Lunch," writes Mitani, a restaurant reviewer from 1987-1993 and Marketplace Changes writer from 2012-2018. "But oh my God! The 80s were the revolution that's still with us ... Chinese split into a dozen sub-genres. Pizzas came on thin crust. We were eating raw fish! Escoffier was just like being in Paris! Zingerman's began making bread!"
As chain restaurants kept expanding, diners also learned to cherish places that were "independent" and "chef driven"--owned by people, not corporations, and shaped by the head cook's convictions and passions more than market research.
"Chef-driven cooking is an art that brings pleasure, evokes memories, and provokes surprise and conversation," writes Lee Lawrence, who's been involved in the food business in one way or another for more than thirty years and has reviewed restaurants for the Observer since 2010. "It satisfies the body, soul, and spirit.
"Restaurant chefs are usually the first to introduce new ingredients, foods, and dishes from abroad, new flavor and texture combinations. What would life be like without cilantro, bacon in dessert, SE Asian influences? Eventually these innovations, ideas, and introductions go mainstream and broaden all our choices, but it's the independent chefs and restaurants that begin the long education process."
"Yes, chef-driven restaurants are terrific," Mitani writes--with the caveat that they're "usually short-lived. A chef-driven restaurant is a place with an exciting and excitable cook who almost certainly doesn't know how to work with other people and burns out quickly. 'Independent' is a good thing, too--for the local economy. But there are independent restaurants that get their ravioli off the Sysco truck. Find a restaurant where the owner says s/he can't afford to deal with Sysco and you've probably found a good place."
"I'm not as focused on chefs, because chefs bounce from place to place," says Maynard, who reviews restaurants for the Observer, oversees the Marketplace Changes column, and is working on a book about Zingerman's. "I'm a huge supporter of independent restaurants, especially when the owner makes the rounds of the dining room to check on customers. Ari at Zingerman's Roadhouse, Don at Knight's, Nick at Nick's House of Pancakes, Helen at Village Kitchen, Adam at Mani."
Mani Osteria owner Adam Baru also owned Mikette on Plymouth Rd. After briefly using it as a central takeout location, he closed it in June to focus on Mani and Isalita, which sit next to each other at the corner of Liberty and Division.
Lawrence credits Mani and Isalita with breaking down the town/gown divide between Main St. and State St. in the early 2010s. Since then, she says, "all ages move freely throughout town."
As the dining districts grew and overlapped, chefs and investors alike saw opportunity. Or at least imagined it.
"Restaurants are so romanticized in movies and on TV," writes Maynard. "There's the impression you'll rule the roost, and your creativity will win over an adoring audience. Likewise, some people love providing hospitality. They see customers as guests in their 'home,' and they want to celebrate with them."
"American exceptionalism has always had a 'pull up by your bootstraps' and 'be the host of your own party every day' manifestation that can be motivation for restaurateurs," agrees Lewis, an Observer reviewer from 2010-2019. "In the best of times, this can make visions reality, sustaining ethnic traditions or values like vegetarianism."
People open restaurants "because they're inspired, talented, driven, or because it's all they've known," writes Lawrence. "Because they love to cook or to share or to create. Because they have a vision. Because they love speed and energy and parties. Because they love to give back to the community."
But, she adds, "Ann Arbor, particularly downtown, has been over-saturated with restaurants for years." Lawrence is "pretty sure the public will return to eating out as soon as it's truly viable, but I'm not sure the closed restaurants will reopen as new ones, or that landlords will bless the transformation of their buildings into eateries." When Arbor Brewing Company closed after twenty-five years, owner Michael Collins said he thought his landlord would be happy with a non-restaurant tenant.
"Even if someone is willing to take on the headache of starting a restaurant in the next two to five years, who's going to invest in it?" Lawrence asks.
"Lots of people will still dream of owning places, but it's going to be harder to get financing," agrees Maynard. "Four out of five failed in five years pre-pandemic. It is a very tough business and Covid will just make it tougher."
How much tougher will depend on how long the pandemic lasts, and how long it takes to recover from the recession it triggered.
We'll be following those questions in the monthly Marketplace Changes column. Stay tuned.
[Originally published in August, 2020.]
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