You don’t have to be a Wolverine fan to enjoy Ann Arbor. (Actually, it’s OK for Buckeye fans to visit too.) Although the University of Michigan arguably put it on the map, this lovely city is also home to a surprising array of culinary treasures.
And none is more famous than Zingerman’s.
In 1982, Ari Weinzweig and Paul Saginaw opened a tiny deli offering traditional Jewish food. Zingerman’s now encompasses seven food businesses and is an Ann Arbor destination. People line up at the original location for the legendary sandwiches despite price tags of $7 to $14, and for an astonishing array of quality products.
Tasting, like test-driving a car, is standard here. (When a jar of honey can cost $9, you may need a sample to sway you.) It’s a brilliant philosophy. One spoonful of the carob blossom honey, with undercurrents of nut and coffee, and I was sold.
Free Saturday morning tours of the bakery show you rye bread being made. Watch pastry manager Charlie Frank whipping up his Z-Zang or another of his famous treats. “The dude is amazing. Everything is handmade,” says Amy, our tour guide. “He roasts his own peanuts in butter and sea salt, makes his own nougat, dips it in dark chocolate from Ecuador.”
Tours of the Zingerman Creamery, which is a surprisingly small operation for the amount of cheese, ice cream and gelato it produces, are offered on Sundays.
The newest Zingerman enterprise, Zingerman’s Roadhouse, was prompted by Wienzweig’s fascination with culinary history. “Ari realized a lot of culturally significant foods are disappearing from the landscape,” says Alex Young, executive chef and managing partner at the restaurant. So the Roadhouse menu is loaded with nostalgic dishes from real macaroni and cheese and house-made nutmeg-scented donuts to fried green tomatoes and real Southern-style barbecue. Diners can even sample a dish before ordering.
When you’ve eaten your fill, foodies will enjoy devouring the new culinary collection and research center at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan. The Janice Bluestein Longone Culinary Archive — with a vast selection of cookbooks (about half the collection), travel books, letters, encyclopedias, menus, advertisements, magazines, diet books and maps — is destined to become a pilgrimage site for cookbook collectors and culinary historians.
Keep the history theme going at the Vitosha Guest Haus. A former church and parsonage tucked in a neighborhood on the east side of town, the stone, chalet-style buildings are surrounded by a lovely courtyard. Most rooms feature sleigh beds and fireplaces, although the bathrooms are tiny and the decorating haphazard. A breakfast of made-to-order pancakes or eggs is served in the coach house.
Ann Arbor offers many dining options. For elegance, it’s hard to beat The Earle Uptown, a classical French restaurant attached to The Bell Tower, a well-appointed boutique hotel on the university campus with an impeccably trained staff. The evening we visited the Earle, the amuse bouche was a tiny cup of perfectly seasoned salmon pÃ¢tÃ©. The butter, topped with cracked pepper, cardamom and sea salt, was perfect with the house-made seven-grain bread.
Don’t miss the shrimp bisque and the seared scallops atop a bed of caramelized leeks. The house specialty, beef tournedos served in a bÃ©arnaise sauce with artichokes and mushrooms, is divine.
If you opt for a casual atmosphere, Grizzly Peak Brew Pub serves made-from-scratch fare in a boisterous atmosphere. The polenta fries, served with a luscious house-made ketchup, are a must-have. They’re even better with a glass of Victor’s Golden Ale or Steelhead Red.
A trip to Ann Arbor would be incomplete without brunch at the Gandy Dancer, housed in the former Michigan Central Railroad station, built in 1886. The service is so attentive that your linen napkin is replaced each time you leave the table to visit the buffet. The day we visited, the spread included Copper River salmon, cheese blintzes, steamed mussels and bananas Foster, all accompanied by music from a three-piece band.
The imposing stone building with stained glass windows and red oak ceilings still operated as a train station in 1960, when it was the site of whistle-stop addresses by John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. When a train passes, the wait staff stops to clap and ring a bell to wish the train a safe journey.
Before leaving town, sample the wares of Scott Huckestein at Schakolad Chocolate Factory. The former aeronautics engineer traveled throughout Europe, learning how to make chocolate. He uses more cocoa than his American candy-making counterparts, less sugar and no preservatives. His luscious truffles have a shelf life of less than three weeks — an excuse to eat yours immediately. Don’t leave this charming shop without indulging in a cup of hot chocolate. Huckestein foams the milk, adds dark chocolate from the tempering machine, and then foams the drink a second time. Bliss!