Though Flat Top Grill doesn’t like to be compared with bd’s Mongolian Grill, that’s the short-cut explanation that’s going to resonate with Ann Arborites. What’s now bd’s has been around so long that most Ann Arborites still call it by its original name, Mongolian Barbecue, and the place seems to have been the originator (in 1992, according to its website) of the concept of gathering your own raw ingredients and having someone else cook them for you.

Less known in these parts is bd’s competitor from Chicago. Flat Top came on the scene in 1995, and the small chain has just opened its first Michigan restaurant on Washtenaw, in a freestanding building near Whole Foods that it shares with Qdoba. If you’ve been to bd’s, you know the drill. You order drinks and appetizers as desired at your table, then you go shopping, leaving your pile of selections to be stir-fried on a large grill and delivered to your table.

Anyone who’s ever walked down Main Street at mealtime knows that bd’s, with its cheap beer, is just about the coolest college hangout west of Division. Flat Top should be eagerly embraced by those who love the food but would rather not brave the rambunctious clientele.

Manager Mark Miller points out the scores of options on the Flat Top cafeteria line of raw ingredients, where nearly everything is described as “fresh,” or “we make our own.” He uses the word “protein” a lot too, as in “there are a lot of protein choices,” but that’s not corporate-speak for “meat.” In addition to the usual meats, and some less usual ones, like squid, Flat Top offers an impressive array of non-meat options, like “Quorn,” which is made from mushrooms, tastes like chicken, and is pronounced like corn (vegans should know it contains a small amount of egg white).

Flat Top also goes to a lot of trouble to cater to special diets. Detailed charts overhead can help you navigate, which is especially helpful if you’ve recently been diagnosed or converted to a new regime. Vegans, vegetarians, low sodium, gluten-free eaters, the lactose-intolerant, diabetics–all are easily accommodated here.

On Saturday and Sunday morning, Flat Top becomes a breakfast restaurant, where Miller says the same self-assembly principle applies. Only the groceries change: “You can create your own omelet, French toast, pancakes, or egg scramble. So if you want chocolate chip pancakes, we’ll make that for you.” Also on the line are fresh fruit, muffins, oatmeal, bacon, and sausage.

Miller, who recently arrived from Chicago, has been with the company for five years, but grew up in a truck stop. His father operates R Place, an I-80 truck stop in Illinois recently named by USA Today as one of the country’s best. How could it not be? “They have a four-pound cheeseburger.”

Flat Top Grill, 3275 Washtenaw, 531-0230. Mon.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Fri. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sat. 8-11 a.m. (breakfast), 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sun. 8-11 a.m. (breakfast), 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.