Abby Olitzky and Steve Hall, owners of the new restaurant and cheese bar Spencer, met about four years ago in San Francisco, where they had both taken a deep dive into northern California’s famous artisanal food scene. She was a S.F. native working as a pastry chef at Delfina, and he was an Ann Arborite in exile, working at Mission Cheese around the corner.
Finding they both loved simple, rustic, locally grown, and pristinely prepared food, they decided to go into business for themselves. They couldn’t afford San Francisco, so they relocated to Michigan, where he worked at Zingerman’s and she worked at Sweet Heather Anne’s while running a pop-up restaurant, Central Provisions, to make themselves known. A Kickstarter campaign raised $33,000 to give it a permanent home.
Olitzky still seems a little amazed to be in Michigan–a good sport, game to give it a go, but amazed nonetheless. Until pretty recently, “locally grown” in these parts meant mostly corn and soybeans for livestock: she must feel like a reverse pioneer.
When a Portland, Maine, restaurant also called Central Provisions began to gain some national traction, Olitzky and Hall decided to change the name of their business to “Spencer.” It’s one of those obsolete occupation words, like “cooper” or “drayman,” this one meaning a person who dispenses or provisions groceries.
The restaurant is still a work in progress. Without a liquor license in hand (“we wanted to have it by Thanksgiving, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hall says) they’re reluctant to begin their dinner service, so for now, it’s lunch only while they learn the ropes.
Spencer is in the former Wafel Shop (before that it was Cafe Japon). They’ve uncovered the bare-brick walls, torn out the drop ceiling, and covered the floor with white hex mosaic tiles. They’ve also given the insides a quarter turn: the counter is now on the short side, running east-west, as are several rows of tables arranged dining-hall style. But what the heck is a cheese bar, as Spencer calls itself on its Facebook page?
At the moment, it’s simply a restaurant that really trusts its cheese. Hall is the equivalent of a master sommelier in the cheese world. Some of the cheeses he’s working with at the moment are Bayley Hazen Blue from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont; goat cheeses from Andante Dairy in Marin County, California; and a Wisconsin cheddar from Willi Lehner’s Bleu Mont Dairy.
Meat and cheeseboards will come later when Spencer can serve wine, but for now, the cheese is baked into mac and cheese or grilled with tomatoes and dark greens. A late-October menu also featured roast broccoli with Romesco and fried garlic and cabbage-caraway hand pies. “Vegetable forward,” is a phrase Olitzky likes to use. Here the cooks are also the servers: “I wanted to make sure [cooks and customers] made the connection. There’s an educational moment there, if you want to have it,” when cooks can talk about the food, where it came from, what they did to it, and why. She says she didn’t invent the idea. “I’ve seen a few restaurants do it and really loved it.” She names San Francisco’s State Bird Provisions and the Progress as inspirations.
She adds that as they were delving into local history, they were delighted to learn that one of Ann Arbor’s famous early twentieth-century groceries was Lamb & Spencer. Owned by Fred Lamb and Louis Spencer, their store at 318 S. State is now a 7-Eleven.
Spencer, 113 E. Liberty, 369-3979. Wed.-Mon. 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Tues. spencerannarbor.com.