The “taste, smell, and texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative,” John S. Allen writes in The Omnivorous Mind, “bringing back memories of not just eating food itself but also of place and setting.”
People who’ve lived in Ann Arbor a few decades know that experience. They may be transported back in time by the thought of a Pizza Bob’s sub, a bowl of bibimbap at Kana, or their first cup of really good coffee at the Blind Pig.
Thanks to Ann Arbor’s pioneer restaurateurs and coffeehouse owners, these experiences “contribute to the autobiographies that we carry around in our heads,” Allen writes.
Here’s a report from the space where what we eat helps us understand who we are. We chose a few emblematic foods, then set out to track down their earliest appearances on the local scene.
John Metzger is the third generation in his family to serve a distinctive, dark pumpernickel bread to customers at the family’s German restaurant. As the story came to him from his father and grandfather, he says, “Three brothers came over at the same time from Germany. One had the Deluxe Bakery, one Metzger’s, and the third, the Old German.”
The baker brother, Gottfried, made the dark bread. “Both Metzger’s and the Old German would have it on the tables,” Metzger recalls.
The Deluxe Bakery closed in 1972; the pumpernickel now arrives ready to bake from a place in Warren. The Old German closed in 1995. But Metzger’s carries on, since 2001 on Zeeb Rd. in Scio Township.
“It was just getting so tough downtown,” Metzger says. “We have a lot of older customers,” and the parking was hard to find.
Like the pumpernickel, Metzger’s sauerbraten—“the house specialty since 1928,” says their website—is a traditional recipe that “my grandfather and grandmother brought back from Germany,” he says. “Spatzen, the homemade German noodle, is a really popular dish still, too.”
His nephew, Ryan Dunkelberger, is in the kitchen learning those recipes, and will “take over one day,” Metzger says. Though his own children are doing other things, “I have four grandsons and Ryan has a daughter, so there may be a fifth” generation of Metzgers at Metzger’s.
The Muffin Delight
Tom Hackett, the affable founder of Afternoon Delight, brought bran muffins and frozen yogurt to Ann Arbor in 1978.
Though it’s possible Seva had a bran muffin at the time, he says, he was definitely the first to bring them together: he halved a muffin, toasted it, and topped it with the customer’s choice of yogurt. He called it the Muffin Delight, and it’s still on the menu.
During the muffin’s heyday, in the 1980s, Afternoon Delight’s bakers were making seven batches a day, with a hundred muffins in each batch.
They’ve always used the same recipe, he says, but the add-ins are constantly changing—blueberry is available every day, he says, and “sometimes apple, peach, peanut butter/chocolate chip …”
“People come back for the muffin,” Hackett says. “They even call me and have them shipped—if they’re in California, they want it shipped one-day air—or a dozen to New York.”
Hackett was seventy-five when the pandemic hit in 2020. According to an Observer article at the time, he told his longtime business partner, Joanne Williams, “I don’t think I want to do it under those conditions.”
Williams stepped up and is now the restaurant’s owner-operator. But Hackett hasn’t disappeared. Since the pandemic it’s been hard finding staff, he says, so “I’m helping them out.”
It still feels good going in on Sundays, he says, and “I go in on some Saturdays, too.” And he still enjoys the Muffin Delight. “I don’t prepare them [anymore], but I do serve ’em and eat ’em, every time I’m there.”
The evolution of bibimbap
“There’s sort of a lineage,” says Mac Herbert, the general manager of Pacific Rim.
Pacific Rim is descended from Kana, a small, family-owned Korean restaurant near the University of Michigan Hospital that Kun and Byung Ko opened in 1982. “They originally brought bibimbap to Ann Arbor in its traditional form,” says Herbert: a rice bowl topped with shredded vegetables, a choice of proteins, an egg, and a sweet-spicy sauce.
When the founders retired in 1995 to do missionary work in Africa, their son Y.B. Ko partnered with chef Duc Tang to move it downtown, change the name, and revamp the menu. “It hasn’t been a traditional Korean restaurant since then,” says Herbert. Y. B. has since moved on, and Duc Tang is now the owner.
Pacific Rim still serves a version of bibimbap, but it’s called “Korean-marinated ribeye” on the menu, and “it’s not traditional at all,” Herbert says.
“We still use all of the components of the traditional one,” he explains, “but it’s served in a more elegant way” on a plate rather than in a bowl.
“The beef is very thinly sliced. The kimchi we use is very mild. And it’s made from jicama, not cabbage” with a quail egg instead of the traditional hen’s egg. If you don’t eat red meat, the chef can substitute chicken or tofu.
If you’re looking for a more traditional version, it’s right around the corner at Kosmo’s Bop Shop, Don “Kosmo” Kwon’s spinout from the former Kosmopolitan Deli in Kerrytown.
When he took over the deli in 2001, Kwon added bibimbap to the menu and built its popularity from selling two bowls a week to 35,000 a year by the time he opened his bop-centric shop on Ashley in 2017. “My goal,” he told the Observer at the time, “is to become like the Jimmy John’s of bop!”
A life in coffee
Coffee has been Tom Isaia’s life and work since he opened the Blind Pig in 1972.
As a U-M undergrad, he’d spent his sophomore and junior years studying abroad, first in Rome, then in Tokyo. By the time he came back to campus and finished his degree, “I was itching to do something,” he recalls. So he “put the Blind Pig idea together” with European touches like a glass-walled café and a cappuccino machine. “It was coffee, entertainment, and whatever motivated a twenty-year-old.”
Though it’s now known as a music bar, in his day, it “had a strong coffeehouse,” Isaia recalls. “We sold a lot of coffee.”
He left the Pig at the end of 1978, but not the coffee business: he moved on to a roasting company, Coffee Express. Originally on N. Main, it’s been headquartered in Plymouth for the last twenty-five years.
Over the decades, Isaia has seen coffeehouses proliferate. “It seems like coffeehouses, because they don’t have alcohol, became a safe place for everyone, all age groups,” he says.
His favorites are the ones whose owners put a personal stamp on them. “Comet, to me, is pretty much the best in Ann Arbor,” Isaia says.
In January, 2022, he got back in the business himself. “I opened this place in Corktown called Momento Gelato and Coffee,” he says. It, too, was inspired by trips to Italy—this time, to learn how to make gelato.
Birth of the Chapati
“I’m in a young person’s business,” says Robert Cantelon, co-owner of Arbor Farms. When he got his start fifty years ago, organic food was “a food craze” among his peers but “not necessarily very well received outside of this group of young folks.”
When “Eden Foods opened a vegetarian/macrobiotic store and restaurant on Maynard St.” in 1973, Cantelon’s Sun Bakery “made the chapatis and baked bread in our kitchen downstairs.” The Ann Arbor Sun called the chapati “organic eating’s alternative to the Big Mac … a piece of round, hollow Syrian bread stuffed with cold or hot vegetables and bean dishes.” “We sold hundreds of them every day,” Cantelon recalls.
Eden went on to become a major organic food wholesaler based in Clinton. Cantelon and his coworkers found a former gas station at Liberty and Fifth, “rented it, and turned it into a bakery.” He worked twelve-hour days making sourdough, French bread, and chapatis.
They also made the popular new whole wheat sub buns for Pizza Bob’s. “I remember making those things and delivering them,” Cantelon says, “and my God, we could hardly make enough!”
But busy as the bakery was, “none of us ever had any money. I mean, we traded eighty hours a week for, you know, investment capital. I destroyed my marriage doing it … which was why I ended up selling it after twelve years.”
The buyer “didn’t have the drive or the commitment” to sustain the bakery, Cantelon says. “He did have the honesty and integrity” to fulfill their purchase agreement. “Then he liquidated everything.”
An office high rise stands on the corner today. But the stuffed chapati—now trademarked as Chipati—lives on at Pizza Bob’s and Pizza House.
Tim Seaver knows that history.
Sometime around 1966 or 1967, Seaver recalls, he was eating at a restaurant called Pizza Loy on State St. when the place filled up with customers. The pizza maker, Bob Marsh, was overwhelmed, so “I asked him, ‘Do you need help?’
“And he said, ‘Oh God, yes!’”
So Seaver “went around and got behind the counter and started taking orders … I just walked in and ended up walking into a career.”
He eventually bought the State St. place, which he renamed Pizza Bob’s in Marsh’s honor. He later moved on to launch Tios Mexican restaurant in another building owned by the Loy family on Huron.
Seaver’s son, Jeremy, started washing dishes at Tios when he was thirteen and took over as owner when it moved to E. Liberty in 2009. “I sent him to Greenhills, the University of Michigan … and he ends up being a burrito vendor,” Seaver laughs.
Brewing better beer
“It’s debatable,” says Jon Carlson, whether Grizzly Peak or Arbor Brewing Company was
Ann Arbor’s first brewpub. “I think we probably had our license first,” but “they may have opened their door first.”
It took Carlson and his only partner at the time, Chet Czaplicka, two years to get their door open. They’d originally looked at the nearby building that’s now Café Zola but realized it was too small.
Then: serendipity. “I used to go in and have lunch in the Old German and sit with Bud Metzger,” Carlson recalls. “One day he said to me, ‘Hey, I’m looking to retire. My family’s had this for generations. I think your concept would be better in this place. Would you like to buy the building?’ I went to my partner, and he said ‘Absolutely.’ It was awesome.
“We barely had a document. It was really a handshake with Bud Metzger.”
In addition to Grizzly Peak, he’s now co-owner of the Blue Tractor, the Pretzel Bell, and Avalon Cafe, and comanager at Jolly Pumpkin in Ann Arbor, and involved in many more brewpubs and restaurants elsewhere. But he says, “I learned how to do business the right way for my first one. He was such an honorable man.”
Why craft beer? Carlson says, “There’s a pretty simple answer. I went to college here. I started to drink beer.” And he liked craft beer—brewed in small batches and served fresh—better.
At his Mission Management, “we don’t let anybody, nor do we want anybody, to copy each other,” Carlson says. “Every restaurant has different [beer] recipes. It’s really led by the talent of the people at each location.”
Since traditionally beers have just four ingredients—barley, grain, hops, and yeast—“it’s really how to take these ingredients, and the variety of hops, the variety of yeast, and putting together a recipe that comes out special and unique.
“They don’t always work. But the fun part is you’re constantly challenged to have a new recipe and push the boundaries … There are millions of combinations. It’s fantastic!”
Many more brewpubs have opened since 1995, so they “won’t sit back on our laurels,” he adds.
“We’ll jump in the game. It’s fortunately, constantly evolving, and I do not see it going away—not at all.”