Restaurants always circle college campuses–students don’t cook much. The new high-rises and dorms that have sprung up, many just a few blocks away, are another reason State and Liberty is now practically wall-to-wall eateries. Susan Pollay, director of the DDA, says 4,855 people now live downtown, a 55 percent increase since 2000. And by day, she adds, the State/Liberty area also hosts as many as 2,400 tech workers.

All those people need to eat, but they seem to be darn finicky eaters, because a lot of restaurants have gone down in the last few years trying to gauge their tastes: Earl of Sandwich, Grand Traverse Pie Company, @burger, Hommus Express, La Pita Fresh, Tamaki, RJ’s Coney, and a couple of candy stores all thought they’d be a slam dunk in the State/Liberty nexus with their quick service and a high calorie-per-buck ratio, and they were wrong.

Now a new generation of restaurateurs are betting that what campus-area customers want are not faster, cheaper calories but classier ones. The new Knight’s, a flat-out expensive steakhouse, appears to be off to a good start. Two more restaurants with culinary ambitions opened shortly afterward on the same stretch of Liberty. Slurping Turtle and Tomukun’s Korean Barbeque are not wildly expensive, but they’re first-date worthy, and they don’t seem to be taking any business away from other new upper-end restaurants in the area, like the thriving Mani Osteria and Aventura. A block down, Ginger Deli also opened–this one is quick takeout food, but ingeniously elegant for its price.

There were ninety-minute waits for tables during Slurping Turtle’s opening week, and that was before it got its liquor license (which at press time was approved and expected any day). Takashi Yagihashi, an internationally acclaimed chef, is behind this operation. His first restaurant was Tribute, at the turn of the century one of the Detroit area’s most lauded restaurants. He now owns three restaurants in Chicago: high-end Takashi, low-end Noodles, and in-between Slurping Turtle, which he decided to duplicate in Ann Arbor.

Takashi knows Midwestern college kids: his son graduated from MSU, and daughter Emily just finished her freshman year at U-M. And if he didn’t already know that ramen noodles in a restaurant setting would be a hit on campus, he probably noticed Tomukun across the street doing a land-office business in them.

Slurping Turtle is set up to serve noodles and donburi to a lot of people quickly during the day, with abundant counter and bar space. But by night, the linen-colored Mid-Century Modern decor takes on a more sophisticated look. It’s not all counter space–booths line the room–so “grown-up people can come here, no problem,” says Yagihashi, and put together a fine dinner, “maybe some sashimi, some duck-fat fried chicken, and bao [steamed buns] to start, and finish with noodles,” accompanied by flights of fine sake.

Yagihashi has an urban mindset. When scouting locations, he says, he was more concerned with serving people without cars than accommodating people with them: “We looked on Main St. and suburbs, and each has some benefit. But we knew we wanted to have students for lunch, and I don’t want a place where people need a car to get to it.”

Slurping Turtle, 608 E. Liberty, 887-6868. Lunch: daily 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. Dinner: Sun.-Thurs. 5-10 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 5-11 p.m.

Thomas Yon had signed up for the space next to his Tomukun Noodle Bar, vacated by Grand Traverse Pie Company, to open Tomukun Korean Barbeque before he heard that Slurping Turtle was bringing a competing noodle bar to town. He would have opened his new place sooner, but both city regulations and life got in the way–this month he’s marrying his neighbor on the other side, lab cafe owner Joanna Hong. They met when they opened at nearly the same time four years ago, but Yon says it was inevitable: “We have a lot of mutual friends who had been trying to set us up before that.”

Korean barbecue, he says, is “a very traditional thing. Korean food is always family style. The food is in the middle of the table, and everyone digs in and grabs what they want.” Wells in the center of the tables hold gas-fired grills. Trays of meat and veggies for one or two people start at $20, including banchan, side dishes like kimchi. The staff will give you plenty of instruction in using the grill, or even cook your meal for you if you’ve over-lubricated yourself with the insidiously strong soju. Like sake, soju is made from rice–but at forty proof, Yon says, “it’s more like a weak, slightly sweet vodka.”

Yon went through multiple suppliers before the city OK’d the tabletop grills. “There was a manufacturer in California that couldn’t believe it. He’s made something like 25,000 units for other restaurants, and he’d never seen anything like the restrictions Ann Arbor had,” Yon says. But that’s all behind him now. “I’m not a confrontational person,” he says, addressing both the competitor across the street and the city inspectors. “We want everything to be safe.” For his business rivals, he has only good things to say: “Takashi and all the new restaurants are raising the bar.” He points out that Tomukun, Adam Baru’s Mani Osteria, and Sava Lelcaj’s Babo were the pioneers in the long-suffering zone between State and Main. “We’re a team,” he says. “We go to their restaurants, they go to ours,” he says.

Tomukun Korean Barbecue, 505 E. Liberty (Ste. 100), 369-2602. Tues.-Sun. 4-10 p.m. Closed Mon. (Lunch hours will be added in the future.)

Te Phan, the owner of Ginger Deli, is a real geek about packaging. “It’s the first thing you see, right?” he asks. From his takeout window on Liberty at Division, Phan, an industrial designer by training, serves pho–Vietnamese noodle soup–in a two-tiered package of his own design that keeps the broth from the noodles and garnishes until you get back to your office or home. It’s also biodegradable and recyclable.

He credits his bread baker, “Mr. Mike,” for developing the perfect baguette for Ginger’s banh mi, a French-influenced Vietnamese sub. “You know how sometimes you bite down on a baguette and it’s so crisp it shatters?” asks Phan. “That’s not good for a sandwich.” Also, “a good banh mi baguette is narrow, so you can fit it in your mouth, and a little chewy.”

Mr. Mike is Phan’s uncle (“I’ve always called him Mr. Mike,” he frowns, when asked for a real name, then calls over to his commissary kitchen on S. Main St. to ask; it’s My Phan.) Mr. Mike learned to bake baguettes in “the clay ovens that people use in Saigon, which have no temperature or air controls,” so baking the perfect baguette in large numbers here turned out to be a snap.

Phan explains that every bite of a proper banh mi should give you layers of flavors and textures: the crunch of carrot and daikon, the herbal tang of cilantro, the chewy marinated meat, the creamy mayo and pate. His spring rolls are constructed with similar attention to all ingredients.

Ginger Deli’s sous chefs are Phan’s childhood friends Sandy Won and Socheat Chau, both graduates of Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program. Won and Chau say their unadvertised soft opening was so successful they’ve been running out of food at the end of the day.

Ginger Deli, 303 S. Division (window on Liberty), 786-1331. Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-3 p.m., 5-8 p.m. Closed Sun.

Susan Pollay says the new eating places are a perfect fit with the neighborhood’s nightlife: “That area’s always had a lot of high-quality cultural events,” she points out, at the Michigan Theater, Hill Auditorium, Power Center, and other venues. But restaurants are often seen as competitors with the retail sector, vacuuming up space at prices store owners can’t match.

Roger Pothus, owner of Renaissance, who sells the classy clothes Ann Arborites wear to those high-quality cultural events, shrugs when asked if he’s happy to see the new restaurants. Maybe it will be good for business, he says, but not in any kind of direct way: “People don’t go out to dinner then go shopping for a suit. The complexion of business has changed. People used to go to Borders on Saturday morning, get coffee, read, then go shopping. Ed [Davidson, owner of Bivouac] says he never sees anyone in his store before one p.m. now.”

Pothus says what the area retailers need is, paradoxically, some big, brand-name stores to draw customers downtown–where they’ll then also discover smaller specialty stores like his. “I don’t get why the Apple store is out at Briarwood. U-M was the first university to support Apple. Apple at one point had more sales per capita in Ann Arbor than anywhere else.”