What are the healthiest restaurants in Ann Arbor? Hold that thought. Author’s Note: If you’re a twenty-something ‘kid’ who clicked through from Damn-Arbor look away. This doesn’t concern you. You’re young and healthy and indestructible. Your body doesn’t creek. Fuck you and your skinny jeans. Well all right, since you’re here, scroll to the end and respond to my restaurant picks.
If wine is romantic, cocktails are sexy.
I've had an affinity for cocktails since childhood. I'd like to believe I come by it naturally. My maternal grandparents had a daily 4:00 PM Manhattan ritual. When I was lucky enough to visit their house during "cocktail hour" I was served a Cherry Coke, before the modern brand extension, made with grenadine. We would relax on their mid-century mod furniture, listen to the radio and enjoy some creamed herring or Schuller's Cheese on Ritz crackers [insert Wes Allen video cut here]. I couldn't fathom anything more decadent or sophisticated.
As much as I cherish the Manhattan memories, I’ll admit that my personal drinking career started rather humbly with cheap beer, wine coolers and Zima. The only liquor I drank came in the form of a shot, commonly Pepper Stoli served with a pickle (Sveiks!). My idea of a cocktail was actually a mixed drink (gin & tonic).
In my twenties Vince Vaughn and the Movie Swingers introduced me to the Martini. A few years later a buddy grooming his taste for scotch got me into whiskey. We explored the global regions of mash and debated cigar pairings. While I still don't care for "Peaty" scotch the process lead me to Bourbon, my one true love, which in turn brought me back to the Manhattan. Life comes full circle.
In the last 2-3 years the sport of cocktails and the art of mixology have gone from modest fad to full blown social craze. New restaurants can't open without a well-planned cocktail strategy. A host of craft distilleries are cropping up. And most notably, a new breed of artisan bartenders have started opening establishments dedicated to the fine art of mixology. These drink houses are so thoughtful and skilled that referring to them simply as "bars" is naive and limiting.
Which brings me to the purpose of this post. It's been brought to my attention that I am not "A2Whiskeyboy." More than one reader has challenged my opinion of cocktails at local restaurants. In retrospect, using the word “Epic” to describe Lena’s cocktail menu was a bit aspirational.
So what is an Epic Cocktail?
It’s appropriate to share that just as I am not a “Foodie,” I do not consider myself a “Mixologist.” I enjoy good flavor, witty banter and a ‘spirited’ buzz. I enjoy cocktails. Having said that, I do not have the time nor inclination to research twenty versions of bitters, let alone brew my own. When someone turns me on to something great I am forever grateful.
Back to the matter at hand…In an effort to separate genuine artifact from hipster showmanship I decided it was time to do some research on cocktails. As a public service in my on-going campaign to eradicate douche bags everywhere I thought I share what I know.
HISTORY LESSONS & RESEARCH
(fair warning – this section gets dense. If you’re not in the mood for a thick read scroll down to the next section)
For the purpose of this piece, a Cocktail will be defined as an alcoholic mixed drink that contains three or more ingredients—at least one of the ingredients must be a spirit. An alcoholic drink containing only two ingredients (EG Rum & Coke) is simply a “Mixed Drink.”
As you might imagine, there are literally hundreds of “experts” on the topic and even more opportunistic blowhards. Luckily almost every reputable thought leader references two specific tombs. Written nearly one hundred years apart, these two books shape a significant portion of the modern cocktail.
The first, published in 1862, is “The Bartender’s Guide” by Jerry Thomas AKA “the Father of American Mixology.” Many reprints refer to this book as the Bon-Vivant Companion. Mixologists often list this book as a key inspiration and invaluable reference. I dare say the punch revival owes its entire existence to this book. Thomas is also credited with inventing the Tom Collins.
Understand, this book is almost entirely recipes. There are fantastic step-by-step instructions for brewing, blending and concocting tens, if not hundreds of “social drinks.” Given it’s age and command of nineteenth King’s English I can’t help but imagine it as a steam-punk era reality show. And while the recipes are fascinating, I was more entranced by the historical social commentary woven within the Preface.
“In all of the ages of the world, and in all countries, men have indulged in “Social drinks.” They have always possessed themselves of some popular beverage apart from water and those of the breakfast and tea table. Whether it is judicious that mankind should continue to indulge in such things, or whether it would be wiser to abstain from all enjoyments of that character, it is not our province to decide. We leave that question to the moral philosopher. We simply contend that a relish for “social drinks” is universal; that those drinks exist in greater variety in the United States than any other country in the world; and that he, therefore, who proposes to impart o these drink not only the most palatable but the most wholesome characteristics on which they be made susceptible, is a genuine public benefactor. That is exactly our object in introducing this little volume to the public. We do not propose to persuade any man to drink, for instance, a punch, or a julep, or a cocktail, who has never happened to make the acquaintance of those refreshing articles under circumstances calculated to induce more intimate relations; but we do propose to instruct those whose “intimate relations” in question render them somewhat fastidious, in the daintiest fashions thereunto pertaining.
…It struck us, then, that a list of all the social drinks – the composite beverages, if we may call the so – of America, would really be one of the curiosities of jovial literature; and that if it was combined with a catalogue of the mixtures common to other nations, and made practically useful by the addition of a concise description of the various process for “brewing” each, it would be a “blessing to mankind.” There would be no excuse for imbibing, with such a book at hand, the “villainous compounds” of bar-keeping Goths and Vandals, who know no more of the amenities of bon-vivant existence than a Hottentot can know of the bouquet of champagne.”
As I’ve mentioned, the book then moves on to recipe after recipe. It’s a wonderful resource for researching ingredients. That said, it lacks context or discussion. For more commentary on the subject I prefer David Embury’s 1948 classic, “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.” Like A2GastroBoy, Embury is not a bartender. He is a discerning patron of the art. This distinction creates a more studied meditation on the topic.
In Embury’s book he outlines a few core tenants that, while not totally without exception, articulate what many may intuitively understand. Like Thomas’ book, this is very much a recipe book, though Embury adds a significant amount of rationale for each section. He opens by defining his six-part criteria for a cocktail. In the absence of a formal governing body, I will adopt these criteria as the definition of a cocktail.
- It must whet the appetite, not dull it
- It should stimulate the mind as well as the appetite
- It must be pleasing to the palate
- It must also please the eye
- It must have sufficient alcoholic flavor to be readily distinguishable from papaya juice, yet must not assault the palate with the force of an atomic bomb
- Finally (and remember I am speaking now of cocktails only and not aperitif wines) it must be well iced
Embury goes on to define three necessary ingredients.
- The Base: “This is the fundamental and distinguishing ingredient of the cocktail and must always comprise more than 50 percent of the entire volume…Strictly speaking, the base must always consist of spirituous liquors – whiskey, gin, rum, brandy, etc.”
- The Modifying Agent: “It is difficult to find a word that exactly describes this ingredient (or group of ingredients) and, for want of a better term, I have called it the modifying agent or modifier. It is the ingredient, in combination with the base spirituous liquor, which characterizes the cocktail. Without this ingredient, the base, no matter how violently shaken and how thoroughly chilled, would still not be a cocktail but would remain merely chilled liquor… in general, modifying agents may be divided into three classes:
- Aromatics, including the aromatic wines such as French and Italian vermouth, Dubonnet, Byrrh, etc.,; bitter of various types and misc. aromatics.
- Fruit Juices with or without sugar
- Miscellaneous “Smoothing” agents – sugar, cream, eggs, etc.
- Special Flavoring and Coloring Agents: There include all the various cordials or liqueurs as well as non-alcoholic fruit syrups. Moreover, the ingredient used as a modified in one cocktail may be used solely for incidental flavoring or coloring in another…Of all the factors involved in the mixing of cocktails, flavoring agents are undoubtedly the most abused. They should never dominate or overpower the flavor of the base. The special flavoring agents should be measured by drops or dashes, not by ponies or jiggers.
The book goes through nearly every conceivable drink category, providing background and offering multiple variations on core recipes. It’s a fascinating read. And while there are likely hundreds of recipes in the book, Embury lays claim that six basic cocktails would satisfy the majority of all drinkers. I’ve listed the six basic cocktails below.
7 parts English gin
1 part French (dry) vermouth
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass, twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with an olive, preferably one stuffed with any kind of nut.
5 parts American whiskey
1 part Italian (sweet) vermouth
dash of Angostura bitters to each drink
Stir with ice, strain into a cocktail glass and serve garnished with a maraschino cherry.
12 parts American whiskey
1 part simple syrup
1-3 dashes Angostura bitters to each drink
In an old-fashioned glass, add bitters to simple syrup and stir. Add about 1 ounce of whiskey and stir again. Add two cubes of cracked, but not crushed, ice and top off with the rest of the whiskey. Twist lemon peel over the top and serve garnished with the lemon peel and a maraschino cherry.
8 parts white Cuban rum
2 parts lime juice
1 part simple syrup
Shake with lots of finely crushed ice and strain well into a chilled cocktail glass.
8 parts Cognac or Armagnac
2 parts lemon juice
1 part Cointreau or triple sec
Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon if desired.
8 parts Applejack
2 parts lemon juice
1 part Grenadine
Shake vigorously with ice and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of lemon if desired.
To fully address the subject of spirits and the craft of cocktails one should study the grain bill for each base, the chemistry of modifying agents and the sensory impact of each coloring and flavor ingredient. That’s too involved for this piece. I will, however, comment on two external attributes of the cocktail.
David Embury makes it clear that a cocktail should be well iced. In whiskey circles there’s a pretty heated debate over whether or not one should use ice to drink a fine whiskey. Purists argue that the melting ice dilutes the subtle flavor notes, thereby undermining the experience. There’s even a line of “whiskey stones” that one can keep in the freezer. You achieve a chill without watering down the flavor. Yes, I know sipping whiskey is a different sport than cocktails. Stay wih me.
I’m an “on the rocks” kind of guy, and not because I’m low-brow, which I most certainly am, but because I enjoy the evolving experience of a drink with melting ice. I find it pleasant to start the ride by spiking my spirit with the full strength sting of a good Bourbon. As my mood warms and the ice melts, the drink moves from a sipping elixir to a more sizable gulp. It’s a process. That same principle can apply to cocktails.
Recently Ice has become a front line weapon in the arms race of mixology showmanship. It started with large 1.5" square blocks of ice. The theory being, the larger mass retains it's temperature longer thereby slowing the melt and reducing the dilution, still providing a palatable chill. Pretty cool. Very quickly that grew into a fad of flavored ice cubes. The best local examples are at Lena. The execution can be hit or miss. I absolutely loved the peach fruit sphere used to chill a drink. It became a delicious dessert. Conversely, I was unsettled sucking on a spent lce cube that contained lime-mint juice. The “Rad or Fad” jury is till out.
Finally, on a recent trip I was formally introduced to the “ice sphere.” The sphere takes the large block science and add a sense of artistry. Apparently this sport began in Japan where bartenders hand-carve the sphere from square blocks. It’s unthinkable to service an entire bar with hand carving. Check out this video where it takes a well trained bar keep four minutes to make a single sphere [ LINK ]. As you might imagine, there are now plenty of opportunistic marketers ready to sell you pre-fab ice sphere molds. Is this "Rad or Fad?" Discuss.
I could write an entire piece about glassware. It’s an area of total obsessive fascination, further fueled by sky mall catalogs. For now I’ll simply say this…don’t go crazy. Standards of identity exist for a reason. A single splash of champagne to finish a drink does not warrant a flute. And don’t go cheap. The glass matters. Just as wine should be served in Reidel, don't serve my bourbon in Sysco-grade glassware. My final thought on glassware is this… can we all agree that the coupe is utterly emasculating?
LOCAL MIXOLOGISTS / DRINKING IN ANN ARBOR
Thirsty? There’s quite a few fine local establishments ready to make you a cocktail. Here’s just a few. Some are simply Restaurants with tremendous bars, others are dedicated Cocktail Houses. All are worthwhile watering holes.
The Bar at 327 Braun Court: I recently read a piece that referred to the interior as “the living room of the coolest person you know.” Seriously? You need better friends (we love you Eric. Now wash your hair). All joking aside, Bravo to the team at Braun Ct. Not only are they single-handedly leading the fight to brink back punch, they refuse to rest on their laurels. Every few months they reinvent the menu with new ideas and new flavors. Well done.
Raven’s Club: Yes, I’m publicly suggesting that folks visit the Raven’s Club. And no, I didn’t hit my head. It’s clear that the team at 207 South Main are dedicated to continuous improvement. And on a flattering note, there’s rumor of a Pappy Van Winkle bottle on site.
Pacific Rim: Before the renovation that doubled their space I would never consider Pacific Rim a drinking destination. Today it’s a highlight on the Main Street area circuit. Pacific Rim bartenders apply the same meticulous attention to detail that made their dinner menu menu a success. The staff is exceptionally knowledgeable and well skilled.
The Grange: We cried when Bartender Jen left. Luckily her successors have done her proud. If you've never had it you MUST try the GKB Manhattan (Bacon infused Bulleit Bourbon, maple syrup, blood orange bitters, brandied cherries). I'm also a fan of their GGGinger (fresh mint, ginger syrup, lime juice, Tanqueray, ginger beer, crystallized ginger). As a bonus, every time you walk up the stairs you get to pretend you're a pirate (seriously, doesn't the banister remind you of a boat, climbing up to the captains watch?).
The Last Word: The fine lads from Big Ten Burrito fame appear to have successfully revitalized the Good Night Gracy’s space. While I’ve yet to visit, they’re getting high marks for their version of the craft cocktail scene. The "kids" in my office rave.
Café Habana: There’s a healthy debate in town regarding the quality of drink at Habana. Some believe they specialize in exotic Latin-American classics. Some argue they’re watered-down fruit juice. I tend to sway towards the former, though I recognize opportunities. In either case, the space is fabulous and it was the first bar (in it’s former location) to bring the Caprihania to Ann Arbor.
Café Felix: Why, I still remember when they had yet to score a liquor license and only the bourgeois hispter-want-to-bes went to Felix - so they could sit outside smoking and scribbling in their Emo journals. Today there’s a few reasons to like Felix. The latest reason will be its’ familial connection the Detroit’s soon-to-open distillery, Two James.
Bab's Underground Lounge: This choice will likely illicit debate from the craft cocktail elitists, still I think Bab is a fabulous barkeep. Her decision to offer pitchers of booze is a riot. She even broke down and posted a sign. Now all the drunk undergrads who wander off campus can find her.
Where else? This is by no means a complete list. Where do you drink? What do you drink?
Final Note (AKA Snark attack): While I’ll admit my research is not yet exhausted, I can’t find any pragmatic correlation between armbands and the quality of cocktails. Can anyone help? I’m sure I’m missing something. It can’t truly be a hooky gimmick, right?
Perhaps you’ve seen the hash tag on Twitter. Or maybe you saw the brew-ha-ha-ha on HuffPo when PETA demonstrated at the Washington DC chapter’s event on Friday [ LINK ]. Maybe you’re blissfully oblivious. In any case, I’m here to tell you that Meat Week is REAL!
Here’s the quick history lesson… Eight years ago Florida co-workers, Erni Walker and Chris Cantey, created a week-long event devoted to meat, more specifically, barbecue. Per their site, “Meat Week is a national holiday that started in 2005. Each January, for 8 consecutive [days or] nights [starting the last Sunday on the month], people across the country gather over piles of BBQ. In every participating city, there is a devoted Captain who creates the schedule of restaurants. Each city develops their own traditions, but Meat Week typically focuses on good ol’ American BBQ: Pork, ribs, brisket, barbecued chicken, and anything else you can smoke and smother in sauce.”
Pretty cool, right? I think it’s downright inspired.
I learn about Meat Week shortly after the 2012 festivus. I mourned missing it and vowed to celebrate Meat Week in 2013. Here's the rub. There's no Ann Arbor Meat Week Chapter. And while being a captain does sound like an admiral position, my life is already ridiculously over committed. The last thing I needed was another project. Besides, as a few reads have alleged, I’m anti-social. Luckily the fine folks at Meet Week Headquarters anticipated my predicament and created an option for folks like me…
There are those who walk this earth alone, wandering from town to town, determined to find the best BBQ this land has to offer. One man's Meat Week cannot contain them and they answer to no captain.
They are renegades, Meat Week's lone brethren who saunter into smoke shacks, rest their road-weary rumps, and order up the tallest feast available. They are true pioneers in meat's untamed frontier, too wild to be contained by one city.
These nomads will go unrecognized no longer. This is the outpost for those who courageously celebrate Meat Week without a crowd of faithful followers. This is our tribute to those brave enough to be:
I’m A2GastroBoy and this is my story.
Now, before you start showering me with adoration, let me admit that I did not complete eight nights of BBQ. My crazy, over-committed life makes eight straight days of any personal pursuit impractical. What I did do, however, was spend a significant amount of time obsessing about BBQ, researching BBQ and visiting a few local BBQ joints for investigative lunch runs. There’s some pretty amazing BBQ in our midst. Allow me to elaborate.
First, the learn’n.
It’s said that you should write what you know. In full disclosure, I’m no pit master. There are many men (and women) more qualified than I to write this piece. I do, however, love eating some good ‘Q’. And I aspire to become a pit master. So I did me some read’n to validate and tune the few things I do know. If you’re looking for a graduate level BBQ class move on. If you want to get sloppy sucking on meat, stick around (get your head out of the gutter!).
COOKING METHOD This is where it begins. Every culture has a method for cooking on an open flame. And in some parts of the good ‘ol USA a Webber Grill would pass as a BBQ. Not quite. That’s a grill. A “BBQ” is larger. Think of it as a Meat Alter. And for the purpose of this piece, BBQ specifically refers a method of low heat and long dwell-time. You might refer to this as smoking. I’ll also note that the type of fuel used will significantly alter the flavor of the meat – ie Hickory or Mesquite.
CHOICE OF MEATS Here’s one for debate. By nature, smoking meat lends itself to lesser cuts of meat. The slow, low heat renders tough cuts tender and juicy, IE it can be “pulled” off the bone with a light fork. To that end, most authentic BBQ is pig, arguably the toughest of all meats. There are a few theories about why; it’s low cost, the availability of wild boar in the Carolinas. I’m not inclined to care. Coincidentally, the second most common choice of meat is beef brisket – another “poor man’s” cut. I personally don’t discriminate. I believe a good smoke can make just about any meat glorious. Pick something you like and go to town.
SAUCE Believe it or not, I’ve sat through culinary seminars on regional BBQ flavors. Still, I get confused on the lines of demarcation between mustard and tomato, smoky and hot. Modern day marketing has diluted traditional regions of flavor. I even tried to find a clever info-graphic that would lend insight. No luck. So in the spirit of “necessity is the mother of invention” I made my own.
Most historians agree that “Southern BBQ” originated in the Carolinas. There sauce was made with vinegar, ground black pepper, and hot chili pepper flakes. It was not sweet. The vinegar makes it thin and sharp. It penetrates the meat and cuts the fats in your mouth.
Now while BBQ may have originated in the Carolinas, it quickly spread through the territories. As it traveled local pit masters began adding their own flavor. The more you study, the more fractured and local the story. I’ll boil it down to these two simple traits, sweet and savory.
The “northern route” adds sugar and tomatoes; attacking the sharp tones of vinegar. In many recipes the sugar is replaced with molasses. In either case, the result is sweet and red. The “southern route” embraces the vinegar base and simply adds flavor. Depending on where you land, the flavor is more peppery-heat or more savory flavors. In addition to sweet and savory there’s a third element I’ll call smoke – or smokey. Smokey tones have been found in both sweet and savory, but I’ll put a pin in the map and call this Memphis style. Finally, for those of you who are asking, Mustard is a South-Carolina specialty. I’ve let to find a good explanation for why it came to be. I’m just glad it did.
AUTHOR’S NOTE ON SMOKE: Anyone found to use “Liquid Smoke” to gets serious demerit points. It’s a horribly artificial substitute for real smoke.
One last thought about sauce, this one practical. Sauce is used to baste the meat while cooking as well as a condiment while eating. They key word there is “condiment.” Don’t smother your meat in sauce. It masks too much of the wonderful smokey flavor that comes from hours on the pit. I tend to eat me BBQ dry. Let the diner decide how much, if any, to put on.
SIDES Perhaps the greatest gift the South has given the culinary community, beyond BBQ, is the “Meat and Three.” While the center of the plate will always be protein, you can’t have a full BBQ experience with some amazing sides. And frankly, this is where the real angst lives. I can never choose. They’re all awesome. I’m talking about beans, slaw, green, potato salad and the best southern vegetable – Mac-n-Cheese. And don’t forget a big ‘ol square of cornbread.
BBQ in A2
Back to my Meat Week adventure… As I mentioned, I didn’t have time to visit eight joints in eight days. I wish I had. It took no time at all to think of more than eight restaurants known for good BBQ. Luckily I chose well and the three I did visit were proud Meat Week contenders.
THE NEWBIE: R.U.B. BBQ Here’s proof that you don’t need to grow up in the south to make great BBQ. Ann Arbor’s newest contender is R.U.B. BBQ on Packard, AKA Real Urban Barbeque BBQ – yes, it’s redundant. Who cares. RUB was founded by a Chaldean family in Detroit. This is their third location. They’ve successfully revitalized a space that’s languished since ERC gave up the lease over ten years ago. The proximity to U of M’s sports campus is sure to help make this stop a game day favorite. I pray the lack of parking won’t undermine their business on non-game days. As this was my first and only visit, I’ll be brief on my thoughts about the food. I will say that the brisket was more than promising. A buddy has been three times and can’t stop talking about the pulled pork. Welcome to town RUB.
THE TOWNIE: Satchel’s I once wrote about Satchel’s. You can read about it here [ LINK ]. I’ll save you the full play-by-play and simply say that I love this place. First of all, you can’t help but like the owner and pit-master, Hugh Morgan. His eight-foot tall congenial smile smacks of good -ol-boy in a trust-worthy, I-wish-he-was-my-neighbor kind of way. I also relish in the fact that he quit a “respectable” day job to pursue his BBQ passion. Good on you Hugh. Everything at Satchel’s is great. That said, this is the place to try pulled chicken. It’s masterful. I also think Hugh makes one of the best collard greens in town. You can also hire Satchel’s to bring the smoke to your events. Next summer block-off the street and let the Satchel’s wagon cook you a party.
THE BONE DADDY: Chef Chris’ Boogie Woogie BBQ As I stared asking around it became clear that Boogie Woogie BBQ was a moral imperative. Yes, I did the unthinkable, I drove to Livingston County. And yes, Barnstormers is still closed, but there’s a fancy new DQ Grill & Chill in Hamburg. All the “red-state” Livingston politics aside, when you get to Chef Chris’s place you realize why everyone is raving. Chef Chris, I want to party with you.
Chris celebrates the natural marriage of music and food. His lobby is a shrine of sorts to Boogie-Woogie southern blues music – something he also knows more than a bit about. In the middle of the day the smoker was billowing out free smells and laughing at the falling snow. Inside friendly folks were prepping colossal batches of good eat’n. This may now be my favorite brisket. My only regret was that I couldn’t crack a beer and scream Bocephus.
For the record, there are MANY great BBQ joints in and around Ann Arbor. Should you have the time, here’s a few others to consider.
- Ron’s Roadside BBQ (Pontiac Trail)
- West Texas BBQ (Jackson)
- Zingerman’s Roadhouse
- Blue Tractor (can anyone confirm that they actually smoke their own meats?)
- Red Rock (Ypsilanti)
PS: If you suggest Damon’s you’re banned from the site
Before I go I want to share another BBQ confession. I’m thinking about joining a cult. No, I’m not talking about NorthRidge Church, I’m talking about the Big Green Egg. For a few years now I’ve been listening to a buddy and my brother-in-law go on-and-on about the splendors of cooking on their big green eggs. At first I thought it was puffery, a feel-good campaign to justify the hefty price tag. Not that there’s anything wrong with that – I’m an impractical gadget hound too. I’m crazy enough to own four life-changing Sonos units. I know puffery.
Then I spent a weekend in Atlanta visiting one of these eggs. We spent two days sipping off the kegerator and cooking on the egg. I was in awe. It was decided, I’m getting an egg. Now that the kegerator buzz has worn off I’m questioning my decision. Will I actually use it or will it become a dusty ornament of opulence (Sonos anyone)? I only cook one night a week at best. Should I take the plunge? I’m asking because I need advice. Guide me Obi-Wan.
“Assholes and Opinions – everybody has one” (my snark-driven mindset) or “Data Are Sexy” (my wonky attempt at research humor).
What makes a restaurant popular? What dictates popular? Can you be successful without being popular? Can you be considered good, even great, without being popular? For two years I’ve conducted an annual restaurant survey. And while I appreciate the longitudinal insight of repetitive surveys, the survey results were not dramatically different to prior years (though there were changes!) and the idea of writing this year’s results post was seriously boring me. I needed a hook – a reason to care. To find a reason I purchased a premium account from Survey Monkey and started cutting the data five ways to Sunday. I even petitioned a pretty cool brainiac to plug the data into statistical software ‘R’. I came at the data from every angle looking for some insight.
At this point I'll remind readers of a quote credited to Mark Twain, “There are three types of lies: Lies. Damn Lies and Statistics.” This survey is 100% crap. The respondent screening process is arbitrary at best. There is zero oversight in my reporting. I have no formal training in research and my only tool is a survey monkey account and Microsoft Excel. That said, nearly 200 fine folks took time of their busy days to indulge my curiosity. The following is based on their answers.
Historically the survey is comprised of six contextual probes and the final “question 7” where respondents rate a list of restaurants. This year’s survey includes 65 local eateries. To be considered for the A2GastroBoy survey said establishment must possess a liquor license, be open for more than 30 days at the time of research and be located within a “reasonable” distance from downtown Ann Arbor. I intentiaonlly include some outliers. The list is by no means exhaustive and the almighty survey administrator reserves the right to add or subtract restaurants as he sees fit. This year we added two additional questions to probe reader’s interest in future dining concepts. No animals were harmed in the making of this survey.
And the winner is…
Here’s where I jump the rails. In prior years my focus was the rating from question 7… “On a scale of 1 to 5, with one being the worst and five the best, rate your overall opinion in each of the following Ann Arbor Restaurants.” But here’s the rub, question 7 has another option… “If you have never been a restaurant, please select 6) Don't Know / Never Been.”
As I reviewed this year’s results I noticed a pattern. The restaurants with the highest ratings had some of the smallest attendance scores. Logan, a fine establishment, scores a 4.3 on a scale of 5. Still, only 37% of the survey respondents reported having eaten at Logan. Is it appropriate to include Logan in the ranks of Ann Arbor’s best? In fact, of the top ten scoring restaurants the average attendance rating was only 56%.
To investigate a different perspective I decided to index the overall liking score against the attendance score. The results were jarring. Only four of the top ten rated restaurant remain in the top ten. And even more curious, Seva (the Liberty Hippie joint, not the State St. adolescent Diva joint) made the top ten. Seriously? The process also resulted in Mani losing the crown to Zingerman’s Roadhouse…perhaps the only scenario involving Mani losing the crown that I could stomach.
At this point the heat was on. I became pretty interested in looking at the results based on different contextual attributes. First I took the top 5 raw scores and separated them by the average amount spent per respondent. Keeping our focus on Logan, their score once indexed to attendance was 1.6. That rating drops below 1.0 for folks who normally spend $10-20 per person at each meal. But that score more than doubles for folks who normally spend over $30 per person on meals.
The phenomenon works conversely as well. While many restaurants rating improve with affluent diners, some drop. Both Jolly Pumpkin and Arbor Brewing score worse with more affluent diners.
Now consider this…only 13% of respondents spend $30 or more per-person per dining experience. Should ABC care about them? Who should care about them? Now are you starting to appreciate Mark Twain’s line about Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics? When I find that elusive free time I’ll also cut the data based on dining frequency.
It warms my heart to know that a full quarter of A2GastroBoy readers would like to see more Banana Stands in Ann Arbor (For the record, NetFlix has finally announced that the next season of Arrested Development will be released in May 2013). This year’s survey included two additional questions probing reader’s ideas about the future opportunity in Ann Arbor. And while the city administrators show no signs of making this easily accomplished, the most highly desired food trend in Ann Arbor is more food trucks and street vendors.
This question also included an open ended space for folks to list ideas not included in the standard answer options. Without boring you with the entire list, here’s a summary of what folks requested.
- Inexpensive, ethnic, healthy and/or vegan (WHAT!!!)
- As it relates to ethnic, there was a spectrum of answers, but by far the most common were Asian, specifically regional Chinese, better Thai, Vietnamese, Pho and Indian
- “A bar that is not an undergrad dive, that is cheaper than the ‘the bar’ that could maybe be a regular hang out”
- And finally, my favorite two responses…”Places that aren't slightly modified versions of the sad slate of the already tired establishments” – or – “We have more than we can banana Stand.”
I love my readers.
The last question of this year’s survey sought to identify the geographically underserved. I asked folks, “where would you most like to see that missing link established?” Curiously Downtown was #1. Apparently there’s no such thing as saturation of good taste. Folks also want more food options in Kerrytown. Given the spotty survival rate for Kerrytown restaurants I find that score aspirational at best. I was also intrigued by the Westside (Stadium Corridor) dominance over North, East and South.
Would your interpretation of those results change if you knew that half of the respondents live in 48103? They do. My guess is that there are plenty of folks who would love a new Banana Stand on the Northside. They just didn’t take my survey. Again I say, “Lies. Damn Lies and Statistics.”
So there it is, the 2012 GastroBoy Restaurant Survey Results. What’s your favorite? Do you agree with my readers? Do you think I’m full of shit? Hit comment below and get prolific.
BONUS VIEW For those of you who love data, here's your moment of Zen. The following image is the original output fron 'R.' Enjoy.
Holy Fornication we need to talk. Where to start…where to start…
First of all, Happy New Year. I hope you and yours had a good holiday. I also hope you’re off to a good 2013. This morning I read that the majority of resolutions fail within ten days. Today is lucky 13. Here’s hoping you beat the odds.
Confession time: Deep down, in the bowls of my soul, I’m a cynic. I play a good game, smiles and happy talk, but more often that not I find fault eons before seeing the good. Case-and-point: When I heard that Peter Roumanis, son of John Roumanis (Mediterrano, Carlyle Grille), was opening a restaurant on Main Street I laughed. I called his father’s establishments “one chromosome ahead of the Olive Garden;” a mean spirited comment that I’ve since redacted. I failed to recognize that Peter, albeit young and natively Midwestern, has traveled the world. He’s studied at Cornell, apprenticed in France and dined across the globe. He’s literally spent his entire life in foodservice and I failed to consider that he may posses the ability to birth a fabulous restaurant. Hold that thought.
Fast forward to today…
Greetings from San Antonio. I'm coming to you from the Historic Pearl Brewery, home the new southwest CIA campus. that’s Culinary Institute of America – not the home of former intelligence Director H. W. Bush. Suddenly San Antonio is more than just the Alamo. Once again my day job affords me the opportunity to pursue some Gastro tourism. I’ve spent the last week planning my meals and strategizing expense reports. I just had a great fish taco while sitting outside and watching foot traffic along the riverwalk. It's sunny and 70. Life is good.
And while this is a perfect vista, my mind is on the Ann Arbor restaurant scene. It’s been 16 days since I posted a new blog and my self-imposed guilt is throbbing like a belligerent canker sore. Three new restaurants have opened in the last two weeks and Juicy Kitchen opens Monday. I’m knee-deep in data from the recent restaurant survey and I’m trying to plan the Ann Arbor Chapter of Meat Week. I want to get wide on Shiner Bocks and Tequilla but I need to be writing.
Whatsmore, just before flying out I stopped in to one of these new restaurants for a quick investigative preview. The experience was shocking and provocative. It challenged and engaged my inner restuarant critic in a way I didn't expect. I've been obsessing on a few memories for 24 hours. It doesn't hurt that one of my travel companions is another Ann Arbor gastro-enthusiast willing to indildge my mania. In either case, I've resolved to put the survey data off for another week and spend my free time this evening typing about Vellum.
Preamble: A Fly-Over State
Let’s face it…this is not 1950. Michigan is no longer the center of cultural or industrial enterprise. The majority of my contemporaries have fled the state in search of greener pastures. I spend more energy than I care to admit defending my decision to retain residence in the Great Lakes State. I often argue that Ann Arbor is the most livable city in the Rust Belt. That’s almost like defending the tallest midget – and you know how I feel about midgets little people. A visiting friend who hadn’t carefully considered his words once said, “Wow – I had no idea. Ann Arbor is great. It’s almost like a real city.”
So as much as I consider Ann Arbor a rust-belt haven, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that this town lacks some of the amenities accustomed to coastal states. Our definition of “fine dining” clearly lags the expectations of diners in New York or LA. We cheer when a tremendous chef launches a fabulous menu in a dining room with "opportunity"(*cough-Grange*cough) or a mediocre menu is served by amatueur waiters in a beautiful dining room (cough*Vinology*cough). I’ve come to assume each new restaurant will be great at one, but not all attributes of hospitality. Which will Vellum inhabit? Did they go hog wild on the space only to disappoint on the menu, or did they focus on food only to leave me empty on atmosphere?
Shock & Awe…the answer jusy may be both.
Author’s Warning: I’ve only spent one brief encounter at Vellum (to those who read Craigslist, no, not that kind of encounter). It’s impossible to establish a solid opinion on one experience. That said, I was imprssed. The following are only initial thoughts.
SPACE | Reference Point
I am intimately familiar with the Vellum space. “Back in the Day” Wednesday was pool night. Me and the fallas would visit the One-Eyed Moose religiously. We’d get wide on $4 drafts and play pool till our pockets ran dry. This was before incessient texts began interrupting the art of conversations so we'd actually talk to one another. I remember marveling at the space and discussing what could be if someone with vision and a few dollars would convince Andy to renovate. It's no small challenge. If new tennants, in this case Vellum who are also now owners, simply present a pool hall sans pool tables we'll all be let down.
SPACE | Result
Fist and foremost, Bravo. Well played Peter. Team Roumanis has done a spectacular job at creating an intimate and enveloping dining room with a sense of space. They retain the patina of the building's age while simultaneously instigated a vision of new. The front lounge works seamlessly. The dining tables, including their rich arched booth-backs, extend the sight-line to a new and regal staircase. It presents like a grand foyer. The century-old wood floor is carefully balanced with dark tones of leather and newly stained trim. Note, the second floor lags slightly in glamor. There is a promising cellar room and well appointed restrooms, however the choice for carpets in the larger second floor dining room undermines the atmosphere... in my humble opinion.
From a grape perspective, Vellum has amassed a respectable cellar. I spent more time with the cocktail menu. There appears to be a few well crafted drinks that lend fresh perspective to common themes. Be aware, not every ingredient is listed on the menu. It's an intentional slight-of-hand. I'm still meditating on whether that's acceptable or if I consider it a mis-directed ploy acted out by insecurity and paranoia. In either case, be sure to clarify the whole of what you're ordering.
It would be extremely premature for me to say anything about the menu other than to say it is very french in technique, continnental in flavor and miticulously choreographed. This is 'fine' dining. There is a significant emphasis placed on the tasting menu as apposed to independent entrees. I personally enjoy the shared experieince of a pre-fix menu. I encourage diners to seriously consider that option. And while my working class father would laugh at the idea, I think it's competitvely priced. Again, it's too early for me to speak with authority on the food. I will simply say that of the few things I did taste, everything was superb.
SERVICE | "Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing."
Here's the doozy. Remember that notion of a "fly-over" state? There are many things that I consider 'refined' in New York that may be seen as 'douchy' in Ann Arbor. In that vein, team Vellum have jumped off the Summer's Eve cliff of douchbagery. Now hear me out...I actually applaud the effort. It takes serious cojones to attempt the level of service for which Vellum aspires. And to be frank, that level of poise takes practice. This is brand new venture. It will take a few months before every last aspect feels natural. There are MANY attributes of servce at Vellum that may be perceived, by a lesser diner, as cheeky, arrogant or just plain silly. Stay the course my friends. (PS: How's that for Snark control? You are now witnessing the newer, more mature GastroBoy. The old Gastroby would have noted that a few of the skinny-jean wearing hispter waitors need to see a tailor and get their blazers fitted).
Cheeky Service Example: Special Happy Endings (again, not that kind!)
Confession time - I'm an ex-smoker. Yes, I know it's a horrible, rotten, filthy habbit that may someday kill me. That said, it's a gloriously sensual vise that instantly sooths me. And let's not forget that it looks cool. Year's after quitting I still fight frequent urges to smoke. So now imagine this...while sitting at the bar I noticed a staffer take out a laerge silver service tray. Resting on the tray was a mound of what could only be tobacco or tea leaves. Next comes a zig-zag roller, not that I would know what a zig-zag roller looks like. This person proceeds to hand-roll custom cigarettes, filter and all. The concept was so counter to practical thought that my brain seized in confusion. I immediately asked for an explainination.
"It's our signaute tobacco service."
"What? Do you mean you can smoke here? It is 2013, right?"
"Well no, you can't smoke inside. But when as we see people step out or leave for the evening we presnt them with our house tobacco."
Holy Fornication. At the surface, the idea is rediculously pretentious, impractical and obscenely French (not a compliment in my Italian psyche). A the same time, it's inspired, brave, and down-right thrilling. The explaination was genuine. There was no pretence or arrogance. They simply beleive that finishing a fabulous meal with an equally fabulous tobacco is pleasant. Bravo. Now granted, this is the Rust Belt, and it is 2013. This charming charade will clealry be received in polarizing opinion. Many folks will not, like me, find it charming. That's ok - they can always go accross the street to the Mongolian BBQ where the expereince is void of any risk or character.
So there you have it. My early shot accross the bow for Vellum. Ann Arbor continues to grow. We no longer hide our fabulous resturants on the side streets. It appears we may now have something amazing right out in the open on Main Street. Check it out and share your thoughts.