Old friends come to town, and for hours at the Farmers Market and Kerrytown we’re talking food: new recipes, how our gardens fared, restaurants galore. I’m looking forward to dinner at the Earle, a treat for fellow foodies from small-town high-school days.
Our reservation’s for half past seven, and I have fun taking the first-timers down the stairs to this oddly hidden high-end restaurant. Sparkly lights everywhere (including little ones in blue glass on the tables) set an elegant mood. We get water right away, and our glasses never run dry. The bread is freshly baked, the butter rich, the salads crisp. We nibble at but don’t finish the barely breaded calamari, which pale in comparison to the crusty rings across the street at Grizzly Peak. The sommelier apologizes appropriately once he realizes he has forgotten us on this busy Saturday night.
Right when I’m getting nervous that my friends may not be having a good time, a trio of musicians take their stools, and soft jazz begins wafting over the crowd in the large stone-walled room. We settle in and enjoy fine filets of well-sauced beef and salmon—the latter cut in house from a whole fish, our friendly server Julie tells us. Her adept attention does the heavy lifting that pulls our special-occasion night back on track. An exquisite dessert tops off the fall feast: rich Tuscan apple cake swimming in confidently anise cream.
We head out sated with classic continental fare. And it’s only later, saying goodbye and promising to send each other the spicy hummus and roasted beet recipes we’d discussed, that a disconnect between our afternoon and evening strikes me. Dinner was good, but it is the food talk in the afternoon that resonates most. And I suddenly recall comments from a chef friend about the Earle, from earlier this year. “I look at the menu and feel kind of bored—so many exciting things currently happening with food aren’t happening there.”
After seeing so many versions of familiar foods, professionals especially appreciate innovation. But is it fair to demand it from a clearly traditional venue, one well versed in excellence within its chosen provincial European parameters?
Personally, I’m always hoping that all aspects of a dining experience—menu, service, atmosphere—meet their full potential and together lift the evening to a memorable realm. Restaurants can do that classically, or they can hop aboard the latest fad. With a wine list into the thousands and decades in the same space with the same style of cuisine, the Earle has chosen the traditional path. Its challenge is that familiarity breeds lofty expectations, magnifying flaws that might pass unnoticed where the novelty quotient is higher.
The Earle dates back to 1977, to a very different Washington Street. Before there were brewpubs, espresso depots, African, Asian, Eastern European, and Cuban-inspired restaurants on Ann Arbor’s trendy restaurant row, big chowhouses like the Old German, Metzger’s, and the Cracked Crab piled food onto plates. Even with its cave-like space, the Earle’s elegance must have brightened the horizon like Julia Child floating in on Mary Poppins’ umbrella.
The Earle still anchors Washington St., with its signature burgundy awning outside and gleaming brass and etched-glass lobby within. Brightly colored marketing posters (surprisingly dissonant with the signature logo and menu script) now line the path down the staircase, ensuring that you note the food’s from scratch, the mussels and wines lauded.
Who cares about marketing when you’re cutting into a fork-tender gem of beef, topped with peppercorns, Roquefort, mushrooms, or wine sauce? The Earle’s panzanella has a fan club for its fearless way with garlic and anchovies that invigorate cucumbers and any old tomatoes. Decent wine can be had for under $5 a glass, and no entrée hits $30. I’ve never been disappointed by an Earle dessert, whether it’s cognac ice cream drenched in dark chocolate, fruity sorbet, or textbook crème brûlée.
Not every item on the menu hits a home run, however. A tasty duck quarter came with overly sweet cider sauce. Pillowy ravioli stuffed with eggplant had great flavor and red-peppery sauce but left me chewing overlong on purple rind.
Service at the Earle also runs the spectrum. Julie was a real pro. To the server another evening who kept touching my shoulder (once I wouldn’t have noticed, twice would barely register, but three times after I started counting?): please save that attention for when I’m waiting for you to bring cream for my coffee and a pen for the bill slip.
Holiday season nears, and the Earle continues to be a cozy place for intimate festive dinners. College kids bring their parents here, or vice versa. Anniversaries and engagements are celebrated with spirit(s), as are ends of workdays with specials in the cheery wine bar.
Bittersweetly, long life brings more chances for bad moments along with the good. Spot-on service across the board, continuing menu updates (the relatively recent appearance of minted artichokes and gingered fish seem good signs), plus everything it already does well should keep the Earle’s magic alive.
121 West Washington
Dining room open Mon.–Thurs. 5:30–9 p.m., Fri. 5:30–11 p.m., Sat. 5:45–11 p.m., & Sun. 5:30–9 p.m. Wine bar opens at 5 p.m. Mon.–Fri.
Appetizers $8.95–$12.95, salads $2.95–$9.95, dinner entrees $18.95–$29.95, desserts, $6.50.