A walk down Main Street on a Friday or Saturday night is proof that despite financial fears, Ann Arborites and weekend visitors are still going out to dinner. And at the Earle on West Washington, booked tables and a bustling waitstaff prove there’s still plenty of interest in the restaurant’s provincial French and Italian fare.
At the Earle Uptown, half a dozen blocks east on the edge of the U-M campus, it’s been a different story. While the original Earle’s entrees come in at around $20-$30 and include an accompanying side, the Earle Uptown has offered its classic French cuisine at closer to $30-$40 a pop–and that’s a la carte. For most local pocketbooks, that’s a sizable outlay. For the Earle Uptown, it’s meant a lot of empty tables.
So when the Earle Uptown’s lease in the Bell Tower Hotel came due this summer, it didn’t make much sense to owner Dennis Webster to re-up. It’s been a good six-year run, he says, but “the economy being the way it is, [staying open] didn’t seem financially the direction to take.”
Webster won’t be idle. The original Earle is celebrating its thirty-first year in business. “I’m just going to focus more intensely on that for the moment,” Webster says. As far as opening another Earle at some future date, he says “I suppose anything is possible, but there’s nothing planned at the moment.”
Another campus dining destination also has run its course. “We had a good fourteen years, but our time was up. Every business has a cycle,” says Dick Schubach, co-owner of Zanzibar, which closed in July and was scheduled to reopen in late August as the new home of Sava’s Cafe, which is moving from across State Street.
Schubach has seen plenty of ups and downs: he’s been involved in some capacity with Ann Arbor’s most seminal and iconic restaurants of the last four decades: Great Lakes Steakhouse, Alexandra’s (now Gratzi), 328 Main (now Prickly Pear), Southside Grille, and Casey’s Tavern. In the 1990s, he partnered with Roger Hewitt, whom he had met back in the seventies at Great Lakes, and Marilee Sturtevant, a former colleague at Alexandra’s.
First they opened the Red Hawk, a casual but sophisticated pub, cannily priced just out of reach of most undergraduates, and then, in 1995, Zanzibar, with its slightly postmodern pan-ethnicity. Like Red Hawk, it wasn’t aimed at students but at their parents and faculty.
“We were not the most expensive restaurant in town, but we were in that tier where you have to make a commitment,” says Schubach. Things were OK in the winter, but “we were a destination restaurant in a nondestination neighborhood.” In the summer, with the university traffic gone, things were “unsustainably quiet,” he says.
Red Hawk, more casual and less expensive, is still doing fine. “In fact,” Schubach says, “we picked up business after closing Zanzibar.” And now he and Hewitt have a new campus project. They have leased two noncontiguous spaces on the ground floor of Zaragon Place, the new student apartment high-rise on East U. They plan to put a coffee and sandwich shop in the larger space. “The little postage stamp of a space” on the southern end will sell beer, wine, essential groceries, and perhaps prepackaged meals.