AS GREAT AS ANN ARBOR’S restaurant landscape is, sometimes you crave a change of scenery. When summer comes and you feel the need to get out of town–to roll down the windows and cruise while listening to a few mood-enhancing tunes en route to dinner–roadhouses rule. This is the second of a pair of venerable destinations.
Karl’s Cabin is a lively roadhouse in Salem Township, about ten miles northeast of Ann Arbor via M-14 (exit at Gotfredson and follow the signs). Johnny Cash reportedly played the joint in one of its earlier incarnations, and that pedigree alone could justify a pilgrimage.
The log cabin built in 1945 as Rusceak’s Rustic Tavern is the focal point of a now-sprawling family eatery. Karl’s specializes in grilled meats and the Greek favorites of the Karl Poulos family, who took over ownership in 1982. Hanging Tiffany lamps and festive white lights brighten the dark-wood interior. A stage stands at one end, big enough for dueling piano shows. There’s a waiting list for dinner most Saturdays, yet many Ann Arborites have never heard of the place.
What they’re missing is an antidote to our sophisticated local venues. At Karl’s you can get a fine filet mignon for under twenty bucks or flaming Greek saganaki cheese proffered by servers who may not clear your veneer-topped table until you raise dirty dishes and say please. One saucy server was not afraid to say no when asked if she knew where the crunchy sesame bread sticks and decadent desserts were baked. “They come in boxes, so it’s not here,” she declared, then spun away to deal with six noisy Harley riders, who dwarfed their patio table.
The boisterously casual atmosphere would be less amusing if the food weren’t a draw–but much of it is. Plan to fill up on a buttery whitefish and salmon pate (the best of a quartet of appetizers we sampled), nearly a dozen Michigan beers, and mostly hearty offerings spanning six large menu pages. Fish and chips here means fresh-tasting cod. A sweet-potato soup is savory and sweet. Lamb chops come alive in a zesty oregano marinade, and the massive half-rack of barbecue ribs proved delicious right down to the bone.
On the lighter side, salmon in a chardonnay sauce with lemon and capers was delectable, and the “forest salad” had crunchy house-roasted walnuts sprinkled among the dried cherries and blue cheese. I didn’t care for the raspberry vinaigrette that came on the side, but my server willingly substituted the feta-studded house Greek dressing. The little dinner salads have homemade croutons in generous enough portions that you can pick around the less crispy ones. The buffalo burger was a lean treat; order it a tad rarer than usual to stand up to the char from the grill.
That would be the old-fashioned brick-based open grill sizzling away at dinnertime, just under a neon sign that announces “The Cabin” in red and blue script. To its side is an authentic-looking cut-stone hearth–topped by a large-screen television, tuned, on the Sunday night we visited, to a UFC cage fight. I watched a server deliver a tray of cute kiddie-meal spaghetti and meatball “sundaes” right under the screen. The kids were clearly charmed by their dinner choice; it was harder to tell what they thought when one TV combatant started bleeding from his eye. Britney Spears on the satellite radio channel provided a surreal soundtrack.
Karl’s food, too, runs to stark contrasts: A plate of golden waffle fries being served to another table on our first visit looked so tempting that we had to order our own. They arrived fried up crisp, yet pasty and tasteless on the inside. I summoned the courage to flag down our server (on her way back from the Harley table) to ask if they were made in-house: “Nope, they’re frozen,” she said. “But we cook them here.” Way at the other end of the spectrum, on our next visit we greatly enjoyed the homey horseradish mashed potatoes, a sharp complement to the quality-cut grilled meats.
Bon voyage if you embark on this road trip. Whatever the outcome, it’ll provide a change of pace.
6005 Gotfredson Road
Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. noon-9 p.m.
Appetizers $5.95-$8.95, lunch entrees $6.95-$13.95, dinner entrees $11.95-$19.95, desserts, $4.95-$5.95