Episode 13: Gail Offen — “Iconic Restaurants of Ann Arbor”
Hi this is Deborah Holdship, editor of Michigan Today.
In this episode of “Listen In, Michigan” my guest is U of M alumni Gail Offen, coauthor of the book Iconic Restaurants of Ann Arbor. This is not your standard where-to-eat guide. It’s more like a love letter, actually to all the savory and sensory memories generated by the local dives, diners, and pubs that define one’s college experience. So whether you left your heart at the Pretzel Bell or Steve’s Lunch, this book has many a tasty treat in store. Gail, as you’ll soon discover, has a real thing for Pizza Bob’s. But for now, let’s hear what other spots she and coauthor John Milan showcase in the book. First, we take a trip to Ann Arbor’s Historic Old Town Tavern. So if you’re ready, let’s belly up to the bar with Gail.Gail Offen: It actually started in the late 1800s. You know that factory? I don’t know what it is now, near the Old Town a little further west. So they started the Old Town as a bar for when people would get off the early morning shifts, they’d have a place to go have breakfast and drink basically. And it’s still a great gathering place for people. Still family run. In fact the family that runs it actually built all the wooden booths and tables that are in the Old Town. People I know that come back to Ann Arbor, that’s the one place they want their friends to meet them is at the Old Town. People associate their college time with some incredible memories. Whether you embellish them or not, it’s a carefree time before the weight of the world was on you. Maybe you met some of your best friends in some of these places. Maybe you even met your future spouse in some of these places. So you’ll always look back. To us, these restaurants are iconic because they’re such a part of your memories here in college. And the incredible thing is you can come back here and a lot of them are still around. That’s what people who read this book, they’ll write to me and they say to me and say, “I can’t believe the Brown Jug is still around. I can’t believe Crazy Jim’s is still around, even though it’s in a different location.” So it’s instantly, it’s like that. It’s a memory. When you go back to a place like Dominick’s and you used to sit there in the summer and hoist a glass of sangria in a mason jar. You can still go back there and do it, and it all comes flooding back to you. And that’s what I think is so wonderful. These things trigger great memories in us, these places.
Holdship: You’re in your college town. You worked here for many years, too?
Offen: Yeah. Love it.
Holdship: What’s your go-to place when you come back?
Offen: My gosh, it depends what kind of mood I’m in. And how many meals I can fit in in a given amount of time. I mean, maybe I’m in a mood to go to Pizza Bob’s, a place where I used to work and still has the iconic chapati with that amazing orange sauce that you just want to sit and drink it like a shot by itself because it has mystical properties, and it’s just such a great old-school place to go to. But maybe you want to go right up the street to Frank’s, a wonderful place that’s like out of another era where they frown on you bringing electronics in there which is very, very rare and you could sit at the counter and feel like you’re back in the sixties again.
Holdship: Yeah that connection between food and nostalgia is very strong.
Offen: And because there’s also things here that you can’t get anywhere else. You know I said that thing about the chapati or the ordering experience which is so crazy at Crazy Jim’s. There are certain things that really, when you drink them or eat them, they are quintessentially Ann Arbor.
Holdship: And you time travel almost.
Holdship: Your cells grow back.
Offen: You have more hair.
Holdship: Your wrinkles go away. (Laughs.)
Offen: Oh yeah. You’re young again and there’s so many places– luckily there’s still so many places that you can still do that.
Holdship: Now “iconic.” Pretty strong word. I mean, did you have to think about that?
Offen: Well that’s what I love. There’s a debate. Your iconic may not be my iconic. Now there’s certain ones we can all agree on like the Pretzel Bell or Drake’s or the Del Rio, the ones that we have on the cover of the book, obviously Zingerman’s. But then there might be some that are sort of on the bubble and we love hearing from people that say, “Well why don’t you put x in the book?” And actually Jan Longone, who helped us with the book, wants to do yet another one and there may be more iconic restaurants that weren’t even in there. Jan Longone’s collection at the Hatcher, anybody can go look at it. There’s boxes and boxes and it’s fascinating to just wade through all that stuff. Chefs come from all over the world to look at her. She has one of the largest collections of cookbooks.
Holdship: Oh yeah I know who you’re talking about.
Offen: But she also has a menu collection and it’s from all over, but a lot of them are Ann Arbor menus and those are fascinating just to look at if you like to look through that kind of stuff.
Holdship: Yeah. So, do you like to look through that kind of stuff?
Offen: I definitely do, because people think the stuff that you throw away– but it someday, it’s going to have a place in history and tell you how people lived then.
Holdship: Did something just give you like a visceral shock when you saw it?
Offen: Well yeah actually there’s one in the book for La Seine which is one of our favorite stories because Ruth Reichel, she was the editor of Gourmet and she was a U of M graduate. And so when she was here she worked for this place called La Seine which was this fancy French restaurant that only lasted a year and two weeks. That was from 1966 to 1967. And they hired the chef who was, he was trained under the guy that invented the crêpe suzette. And that was one of the menus we found for Jan that has all these duck la ronge and chateaubriand and things like that in there.
Holdship: So how long did it take you to decide what you’re going to put on the cover? Were there some fights about that?
Offen: Yeah there were definitely some fights about that and then some of them obviously ended up on the back cover instead. But we wanted it to be like if somebody picked it up they go, “Wow. I haven’t seen that in a long time.” And especially the Fleetwood and obviously Drake’s. When we were doing this book people said, “Are you going to put in this book– is the Pretzel Bell, that was number one. Number two is Drake’s. The number three surprisingly was the Whiffletree. And when I was talking to the owner, he said on the weekends sometimes the line to get in would be so long, it would merge with the line getting into the Old German which was like a few blocks away. The lines would actually be like, “Well which line are you in? And it was, for some reason, people remember the fries, there was a lot of things they did there. Whatever chemistry they had, the people really always ask about the Whiffletree.
Holdship: That is an interesting point that chemistry because it’s like what makes it an iconic restaurant? You have atmosphere. You have the people who work there. You have the food. What is it? Like, what is that alchemy? What have you sort of discovered in talking to all these people?
Offen: It’s– sometimes it’s the food. Sometimes it’s a place. Like for example the Pretzel Bell. So many people celebrated their 21st birthday there. So it was like a rite of passage kind of place. And so people would go there and they would tell their friends to go there. And again it was really iconic. But then I look at a place like Dominick’s and their schedule revolves around U of M. They open up on spring break and they close the week after the last home game. So you think about it, it’s mostly spring and summer. You’re sitting outside. You’re with your friends. And so that’s the kind of thing you look back again in your mind’s eye. You can see yourself sitting there. Almost like a movie sitting there and enjoying things with your friends. So I think a lot of these gathering places are the places the people remember– or people remember… for example Drake’s. My mother used to study at Drake’s and that was a long time ago. And so again you remember some of those little cozy moments where you would be in a booth at Drake’s eating a grilled pecan role and drinking a limeade. And that– there’s no other place you could do that.
Holdship: And then you bring up an interesting point. Being able to go some place that your parents may have gone or your children can come to a place where you may have gone. That connection!
Offen: That loop! It’s so true, because I find people tell me when they come in for football games they always go, “I always go to Pizza Bob’s,” or I always go to this place. My uncle used to make donuts at the Brown Jug and the Brown Jug, actually, is the longest surviving restaurant now still operating. It’s been around since 1936. So I think about that; I think about my uncle working there, I think about my mother at Drake’s, I think about all these places that I also went to. And then you look back at some of these places. You look where Drake’s is now and it’s a Bruger’s Bagels when you go. Really nobody could have saved Drake’s. You look back and it’s… just you look at some of these icons and think why couldn’t somebody have stepped in and saved them?
Holdship: You broke the book sort of into sections: the legendary and long forgotten, local favorites and student standbys, still here and going strong… So, tell me about some of the legendary and long forgotten that really get people going.
Offen: Well I think of places like the Del Rio, because again to me that was very much Ann Arbor where it was run like a commune or a co-op where everybody got to make decisions equally. I had a friend that worked there. And you know that would really hold things up, but they hit a hole, in the middle of their busiest time, they would hold a staff meeting to decide on whether to add a pickle to the side of a sandwich or something. It was truly Ann Arbor, it was truly a spirit of the sixties and seventies were all decisions were made by the people. And I feel like that’s a real window in time of a place like that. That was a big hangout and a place that’s really very very much missed and they’re famous debt burger as well. Interestingly enough, the guy that started the Del Rio, his father was a lyricist for The Wizard of Oz. He wrote all the lyrics to the Wizard of Oz and his name is Ernie Harberger his father’s name was Yip Harberger and that was his connection. Sarah Molten, you know, the chef — she went to U of M. She worked at Del Rio too. So everybody has stories about the Del Rio, and another place I love to talk about is Le Dog, and now that’s still open, but it’s one of the few places where you can get amazing soup and put things like cassoulet and all kinds of wonderful things. It’s all cooked from scratch. Now that’s an incredible place as well.
Holdship: And it’s such a nondescript place as well.
Offen: Oh my gosh, you would have no idea that the food was that good! No, and he’s got rules too. That’s another great Ann Arbor Story. Jules, who is a wonderful man and one of the… that was one of the other great things, and to meet the people that own these places and to hear the stories. And he, in the in the eighties, when he was still the location now he doesn’t have the beautiful location on Liberty anymore. It’s just on Main Street, but during the art fair, the people who services his pop machine refused to deliver. So he threw out all their equipment on the street and said no pop ever. Still, it says “no pop ever” on his his thing. He proudly displays that. There’s another thing as he refuses to do anything about social media, and very proudly you can’t be on your cell phone! Again, you have to go up, order your soup, you know, be very specific about it. And then, it’s just again a wonderful experience. Somebody waited ‘till lobster bisque day which is Friday, and put a wedding ring in the cup of lobster bisque. Somebody almost had to have the heimlich maneuver, she did say, yeah. She thought it was a lobster shell. Yeah, dumb idea but it but it’s only in Ann Arbor, right?! (Laughs.)
Holdship: Okay, so then we have local favorites and students stand-bys.
Offen: Angelos is one of those places that people love to come back too. The song that Dick Siegel did about Angelos with their famous raisin toast is great, and then another place that people may have missed when they were here, and now that they maybe can afford to go to is the Gandy Dancer. You know, people tend to forget about that, but it’s so wonderful. It’s in an old 1920s train station that was almost demolished, came super close like three times to being demolished. And finally was saved and has become, to me, a real iconic Ann Arbor restaurant.
Holdship: Okay, how about still here and going strong?
Offen: Zingerman’s has never really gone anywhere. But, you know, it’s funny when you’re here you take a lot of places for granted. Then you realize a place like Zingerman’s has such national attention and we’re so lucky to have a place like that. A place that cares so much about food and has done so much for the community with food. It’s celebrating its 35th anniversary.
Holdship: That’s amazing!
Offen: Yeah. And then I also look at a place like Seva’s which was started out as a little hippie grocery store, “Soybeans Sellers” it was called on Liberty Street. And then it became in that same location, one of the first vegetarian restaurants. In the seventies there was Indian Summer and there was Eden. There was a real like renaissance of vegetarian restaurants. And Seva’s still survives. Now it’s out near Niklas Stadium. But it still has a really loyal clientele, even though it moves. So to me that’s one of those places that students still remember, but now it still exists even if it’s somewhere else.
Holdship: Yeah what’s fascinating is that you may miss the building, but if the food tastes the same? Right on! You know? Crazy Jim still tastes the same or if Seva’s food still tastes the same, then you can still go there and almost have the same experience, you know?
Offen: Yeah! And then the community supports it. For Crazy Jim’s they did a Kickstarter for the new location when they had to move and people felt so strongly about it you know but it’s great to know the rules are still there. You have to order in the right order and everybody knows that.
Holdship: So stressful!
Offen: I know! And then you feel sorry for the out-of-towers that are like, “Now let me see… what do I want?” And then I look at a place like Washtenaw Dairy which is still around that people still go to for donuts and things like that. That to me is another old school place that people can still go to and have some great memories.
Holdship: So going back to that whole concept of Ann Arbor and thus the vibe of Ann Arbor, I guess, coming through these restaurants. Like, why do you think that is? What do you think that means? What makes Ann Arbor unique?
Offen: There’s this place called Mod’s that we didn’t talk about, which was a very beloved place on Forest St. And literally all the partners that are in ZIngerman’s all met at Mod’s and then they all they went off to do other things but then they all came back together to be the managing partners in segments. They were like dishwashers and waiters and things like that, and it’s interesting to me how these people would meet. The people that started the Main Street ventures: Gratzi, and Real Seafood, and Palio, they all met working at the Gandy Dancer. They all trained there, and then they went and started their own restaurants. So they learned from people, then they got together and formed their own restaurants which went on to become new icons. Now you wonder who’s meeting at these places, and what restaurants are they going to start?
Holdship: Very interesting!
Offen: There’s this sense of community, and there’s a lot of pride in that! When you look at a guy like Tom Hackett who owns Afternoon Delight. And he’s a delight. And he’s on his third generation of people who stand in line to get into his restaurant on weekends. There’s another iconic place. I mean he’s famous for his bran muffins. How many places would you just stand in line for bran muffin? But he says it gives some such pleasure to talk to people who show up with their grandkids and say, “here’s where I used to come.” And that to me is really very, much Ann Arbor. It also had the first salad bar in Ann Arbor.
Holdship: Oh! Who knew?! Very nice, a good distinction.
Offen: A lot of people talk about Steve’s Lunch.
Offen: Steve’s Lunch was one of the places that people first had Korean food when we’re talking about different cultures coming to Ann Arbor, most people hadn’t even heard of… and it was popular in the seventies. It was on South University. It was just a little counter hole-in-the-wall family run place.
Holdship: And then the Village Bell which was a cousin of the Pretzel Bell.
Offen: So that’s right. That was the cousin of that. And the thing I put in there, they brag about how stiffly they poured their drinks, which is maybe why they went out of business. Or that was a cousin of the Pretzel Bell. And also down the street there, a lot of people remember Bicycle Jim’s which was upstairs and was really famous for their fried mushrooms and their Yosemite Sa m sandwich. And that was another iconic place where people would gather and drink. There’s a lot of bars the people iconically went to. And one of those I wanted also mention was Blind Pig. It used to be this place where you could go in the space with its very smoky basement, and you could listen to these wonderful blues players. I mean, really nationally renowned people, but the interesting thing about the food there was they didn’t have a real kitchen. The woman who was the chef there went on to start al-dente pasta which is a very famous pasta in Whitmore Lane, its internationally Monique de Shane. And she would turn out these gourmet European dishes. And all she had was a hot plate, and a toaster oven. And she would make all this stuff on it because there wasn’t even a kitchen!
Offen: And that, to us, was really iconic. You just think about a smoky place, an old blues player sitting at the piano, and it’s one of the first places in Ann Arbor that served espresso. So they had a very, very cool European kind of vibe. When people came from places that didn’t have what we call “ethnic restaurants: nowadays. When I mentioned the thing about Korea and there was also Connet which was a little hole in the wall Korean restaurant which started out up on the hill over by the hospital. So maybe people came from cities where or little towns where they didn’t have an Indian restaurant, a Korean restaurant, even a Chinese restaurant. So here they are, coming to Ann Arbor and they’re tasting these foods for the first time. Even German food! Ann Arbor was really… again there’s still German restaurants here because it was a huge part of Ann Arbor’s heritage. And so this was maybe exciting for people who never had this kind of food before.
Holdship: You have a lot of great photography in the book as well.
Offen: The Hatcher Library with Jan Longone lent us a lot of the pictures in the book, and Susan Weinberg whose collection is at the Burden lends us a lot of that as well. And then some of them we got from the Ann Arbor News. So we got them from all over, but they don’t even have to be exotic When you look at a place like Delong’s Barbecue Pit which was really iconic for a lot of people because it was one of the few places that delivered really late at night for students, and a lot of people talk about that. That was from 1964 and it went on for 37 years. Well and then, of course Pizza Bob’s, which you know I used to make triple thick milk shakes for stoners at two in the morning. I’m still so proud of that.
It’s interesting the restaurants are just a peg on which you’ve hung this bigger story. This connection and this love for Ann Arbor in the University of Michigan. And I hope that this book will encourage people to make that trip back to Ann Arbor and go back to some of these places and be pleasantly surprised, and be able to relive some of these things again.
Holdship: Ok, the pressure’s on! Where are you going to go when you return to town? Gail would love to hear. So go to facebook.com/annarborrestaurants. And if you’d like to heat other episodes of “Listen In, Michigan,” go to the Michigan Today homepage, michigantoday.umich.edu. They can also be found at Tune-In and iTunes just look for “Listen-In, Michigan.” Alright, thanks so much for listening. We’ll see you next month. As always go blue, and congratulations to the class of 2017. I’m outta here, I’m going to Pizza Bob’s.
Memories are made of this
Gail Offen, BGS ’78, knew it was a bold move titling her book Iconic Restaurants of Ann Arbor (Arcadia Publishing, 2016).
After all, “my iconic may not be your iconic,” she says.
That said, few readers — student, professor, traveler, or townie — could dispute the “iconic” status of the establishments Offen and co-author Jon Milan present in their 96-page ode to the tastes of the town they love.
The book is filled with rare photographs, advertisements, menus, and other ephemera culled from numerous sources, most notably the Janice Bluestein-Longone Culinary Archive in U-M’s Special Collections Library in the Hatcher Graduate Library.
Listen in, as Offen serves up a menu of memories sure to get you salivating. Sadly, one no longer can savor the limeade at the long-shuttered Drake’s, the Sicilian pizza at Thano’s Lamplighter, or the Detburger at Del Rio (named for cook Bob Detweiler).
But fear not! You can still dive into the hippie hash at Fleetwood Diner, spoon up some lobster bisque at Le Dog, or grab a coveted bran muffin (yes, you read that correctly) at Afternoon Delight Cafe. In fact, you may even be able to afford the Gandy Dancer now…
Which of Ann Arbor’s most beloved diners, dives, pubs, and joints do you still hold dear?