The cheerful, hardworking vigor of Phillis Engelbert and Joel Panozzo has given an everyman gloss to the sometimes finicky niche market of veganism. Engelbert and Panozzo were amateur cooks who had both turned vegan mainly by way of lactose intolerance. They don’t turn up their noses at hearty plebeian food like burgers and mac and cheese–they enthusiastically re-create it. Their Lunch Room rocketed from food cart in 2011 to Kerrytown restaurant in 2013 to Kerrytown restaurant with liquor license in 2014. Now they’ve opened a second location in Huron Towers, across from the VA hospital.
Panozzo says there’s room in Ann Arbor for “twenty vegan restaurants. We already have a large clientele driving in from Toledo, Royal Oak, Plymouth. Hey, places like Portland, Seattle, San Francisco have fine dining establishments that are vegan–cloth napkins, sommeliers, candlelight–where you’re eating a $35 cauliflower steak. They exist out there!”
No $35 cauliflower steaks here at the Lunch Room Cafe & Bakery, as they’ve named the new spot (the Kerrytown location is now the Lunch Room Restaurant & Bar). The Huron Towers menu has been shaped to meet different needs. There’s plenty of room to eat in the large, light-filled cafe, but, he says, “our lunches here are more in the theme of grab-and-go–assembled sandwiches and salads.” Also unlike at Kerrytown, breakfast is served every day. The desserts and baked goods are exactly the same, though.
The bakery was actually the reason for taking on a second location. There was way too much going on under that small Kerrytown roof: “We had been looking for space to move the bakery,” Panozzo explains. “When we did catering, we were really stretched to the limit.” As Lunch Room regulars know, while the restaurant specializes in humble, earthy chow, the bakery turns out traditionally beautiful (though vegan) cakes and pies.
Panozzo says that the students who live in Huron Towers–a menu item called the “Hangover Bagel” is pointed toward them–are not like the Central Campus crowd. “North Campus has a lot of Asian students”–a demographic he’s used to serving–“and other students who are on longer educational paths. Also, Huron Towers is home to lots of older people who moved in here in the Eighties and Nineties and never left.”
One of those longtime residents, Maureen Perrault, helped recruit the Lunch Room to fill the vacant space most recently inhabited by the Garden Cafe, whose opening and closing we chronicled in back-to-back issues. Perrault was co-owner of Escoffier, one of Ann Arbor’s most ambitiously classic French restaurants that opened in the early Eighties and closed in the early Aughts. (Perrault, now a librarian at WCC and a master gardener who does landscaping work at Huron Towers, had earlier exulted: “I’ll be their first customer. All the time I had the restaurant, I was a vegetarian.”)
During its opening week, the Lunch Room was drawing customers from other parts of town, like triplets Ellen, Catrin, and Daniel Koselka and their mother, Suzanne Devine. Devine explained it was a snow day, and they were looking for something fun to do. She said they’re regular customers of the Kerrytown Lunch Room, which catered the wedding of older sibling Elizabeth. In fact, Panozzo says, that wedding was one of those catering jobs that drove the Lunch Room to look for more space.
The Lunch Room Bakery & Cafe, 2200 Fuller Ct. (Huron Towers), 224-8872. Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Sun. thelunchrooma2.tumblr.com