When Ashley’s Restaurant and Pub on State celebrated its thirty-fifth anniversary in September, the main guests of honor came from Bell’s Brewery—some on two legs and some in kegs. Joining the eighteen Bell’s beers already available at Ashley’s was a commemorative “Ashley’s 35th Anniversary Imperial Oatmeal Stout,” exclusive to Ashley’s Ann Arbor and Westland locations and Bell’s hometown café in Kalamazoo.
“This is not the sort of thing we do for just anyone,” a Bell’s employee said while handing out menus for the anniversary pairing of Ashley’s food with Bell’s brews. “Our relationship goes back thirty-three years, to when Larry Bell was driving around selling out of his van, and Ashley’s was one of his first customers. We’re still fans. Where else do you find a college bar like this?”
Ashley’s vintage décor, with stained-glass lamps and beer bottles on shelves, earned it a role in the 2011 independent film Answer This (which suggested bar trivia as a balm for student angst). The wood tabletops’ patina of sophomoric graffiti includes quotes from the 1994 movie Clerks. And with fifty single-malt scotches, flights of whiskeys, and seventy beers on tap, its bar bona fides are solid.
But what about the “restaurant” part? After learning the Observer had never reviewed Ashley’s, I asked around and found several friends who eat there semi-regularly. Their first comment: “hit and miss.”
Ashley’s menu strives. While Taco Tuesday and Pizza Wednesday specials draw droves of young adults, wider-ranging diners can choose among a couple dozen small plates and at least as many meal options. But I wound up agreeing with my friends: Ashley’s execution doesn’t always live up to its ambition.
The menu isn’t quite as elaborate as its length suggests, because certain ingredients reappear in various forms. Still, it fills both sides of a tall sheet. Feeling like I was reading it too slowly while our server stood by, I asked for recommendations.
She pointed out the fries with specialty toppings. Options include chicken curry, poutine, bacon-cheddar, pesto, and “Ashley’s Original” topped with Stilton cheese and a jalapeño ranch dip. She said bacon-cheddar was her favorite, so we ordered it. And it was surprisingly good: the seasoned waffle-cut potatoes were fried crisp and served hot, the cheese was perfectly half-melted, and the bacon meaty.
After indulging in the fries, we ordered Korean short rib tacos to share. They came in a tidy metal stand, but with slippery kimchi slaw and tough meat, they were messy to eat. The roja sauce packed serious heat.
On a second visit, weeks after the anniversary, our table of four sampled a few of the large plates on the back of the menu. A sandwich of “Hopwurst” sausage (house-made from beef, pork, hops, and ale) was tasty, but both meat and bun were dry; the caramelized onions and whole-grain Bavarian mustard helped, as did a second pint of Czech Urquell pilsner.
Dryness was also a problem for the buns of both burgers we tried, but not their contents—with creamy strong cheese, lettuce, tomato, and onion, the Stilton burger was delicious. It went well with my hard cider and probably would have been great with many of the beers as well. My spouse liked his lamb-and-beef Greek burger; topped with goat cheese and arugula, it was accompanied by a bomb of garlic sauce on the side. Listed as tzatziki, it was more reminiscent of the whipped garlic spread you get, and use sparingly, at Middle Eastern restaurants.
Most disappointing was the fish and chips, whose decent beer-batter breading unfortunately could not conceal cod that was overcooked to a thin white paste. To make matters worse, no fries or chips of any sort were delivered with the fish. I summoned our server, who said we should have asked for them. I opened a menu and showed him that under the “Fish & Chips” heading it lists “hand cut fries.”
Doesn’t matter, he said: “Everything is served à la carte.”
I was annoyed enough to lose interest in trying the one dessert, a Tollhouse Sundae. It’s described as “fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie, vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce,” but perhaps you should make sure none of that is à la carte.
Despite Ashley’s thirty-five years of success, dining satisfaction isn’t a sure thing. But if you encounter unexpected dryness or spice here and there, you can wash it away with top-notch beers and spirits, here in brewery-rich Michigan during the height of America’s craft beer revolution.
As summed up in written materials for the thirty-fifth anniversary: “Ashley’s is Michigan’s oldest craft beer restaurant and pub, starting in 1983 before the term ‘craft beer’ was even coined, and is 8,935 days Bud Light free.”
Ashley’s Restaurant and Pub
338 S. State St.
Full menu available Mon.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–midnight, Sun. noon–10 p.m.
Appetizers, soup, salads, and starters $5–$13; sandwiches and dinners $7–$14; dessert $6.