With a blend of small-town charm and big-city sophistication, the home of the University of Michigan is a study in attractive opposites
A-squared, as locals call it, is a city on the cusp, like a student ready to graduate from classroom to cubicle. The mellow cousin to bigger, burlier Detroit — 50 miles to the east — Ann Arbor is the birthplace of Students for a Democratic Society and home of the annual Hash Bash. The Michigan burg’s blend of old-school and new, small-town and city, makes for constant contrasts. Not far from a stretch of solar-powered parking meters, chickens strut about the front yard of an old house with timber framework. Its lawn, awash in tiny blue squills, ends where new condominium construction begins. On a nearby corner, parents and toddlers line up outside an ice-cream shop where the flavors include blackberry Riesling, Vietnamese cinnamon and basil vanilla. While they wait, a caped man pedals past on a BMX bicycle, drumsticks in hand, beating a rhythm on the handlebars and singing “Give Peace a Chance.” Here, in the home of one of the country’s top-ranked public universities, just visiting is a double major in the classics and modernism.
In late May and early June, 1 Nichols Arboretum bursts into a swoon-worthy display of 300 peony plants. The annual pastel pageant — first opened to the public in 1927 — is North America’s largest public display of heirloom peonies. Visitors circulate among the ruffled blooms with a sort of reverence, appearing to bow as they bend to breathe in the sweet scent. Although the sprawling University of Michigan medical complex is close by, a visit to this 100-plus-acre tract of meadow, prairie, woods and gardens seems a natural prescription for good health.
The 2 Argo Canoe Livery offers the chance to fulfill my physical-education requirement, which is necessary after a weekend course of cafes, bars and bakeries. In season, the livery rents canoes, kayaks, rafts, tubes and stand-up paddleboards for use in the Huron River and Argo Pond. Hiking the linear, 22-acre park brings glimpses of wildflowers, waterfowl and happily wet dogs.
3 The Ark lobby smells of popcorn and its hallways are a photographic gallery of greats who have played this intimate club that evokes Ann Arbor’s folkie roots. We sit just 10 feet from the stage for the Ben Daniels Band. (Ben is the son of actor Jeff Daniels, who lives and runs a regional theater company 22 miles west in Chelsea.) “Welcome to the best listening room in North America,” a staffer says as the house lights go down. Ken Yates opens the show, which includes an easy back-and-forth with the audience. Since 1965 (and through three locations), this nonprofit house — supported by members, donors and volunteers — has welcomed the likes of Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie.
Steps away from the Gothic beauty of the UM Law Quadrangle and Frisbeetossing students are the bronze doors of the pillared main entrance to the 4 UM Museum of Art. The museum, which underwent a major expansion and restoration in 2009, is one of the oldest university collections in the country. Among its wide-ranging holdings is a significant collection of Central African pieces. In the airy Grand Hall, I’m struck by a large-format painting that hangs in poignant contrast to the surrounding context of higher learning. “The Attack on an Emigrant Train,” an 1856 work by Charles Ferdinand Wimar, depicts a violent clash between Native Americans and pioneers — a still-relevant history lesson in oil.
Eat Local Faves
5 Spencer owners Abby Olitzky, a San Francisco native, and Steve Hall, a local, offer a seasonal menu and a small wine-and-cheese pantry that is like a high-quality home kitchen. Arriving between lunch and dinner, we opted for chardonnay and a shared ploughman’s lunch board of cheese and charcuterie. I make a note to return for the more substantial menu items, such as rainbow trout with fennel salsa verde and chrysanthemum panna cotta. In summer months, Spencer supplies takeout picnic baskets.
The parking lot of 6 Knight’s Steakhouse begins filling up before 5 p.m. The Knight family’s food business dates to the 1952 opening of a small Ann Arbor market, which still operates in its original location. The steakhouse interior reflects the year it opened (1984), and oversize photographs depicting UM sports venues leave no doubt that you’re in “Go Blue” territory. Old-school is the rule, and seeing cottage cheese on the menu as a side dish is somehow deeply comforting. As I crunch an iceberg wedge with chopped bacon and blue cheese, I admire passing plates of steaks and French-dip sandwiches — along with Knight’s trademark stiff drinks.
7 The Last Word Bar’s cultivated air of mystery begins with the lack of a sign. Only a subtle wall plaque and red entry door mark the spot. The dark, below-street-level interior also lends a cloak of privacy. I’m a wine drinker, but a concoction called the Heist — gin, amaro, fresh lemon and honey syrup — was refreshing after a day of wandering. The food here is an unexpected treat. The tapenade trio and harissa-spiced lamb sliders are a sophisticated departure from typical bar fare. Look for live house jazz on Thursday nights.
When Olympic swimming great Michael Phelps was at UM, he reportedly fed his training appetite at 8 Angelo’s, where the breakfast of champions regularly draws a sidewalk queue. At this family-owned spot, in business since 1956, I resist the french toast and briefly feel smug for my self-restraint. But then the tower of house-made toasted raisin bread arrives with my eggs, and I happily coat the warm, buttered slices with the cinnamon sugar provided in shakers on every table.
At 9 Zingerman’s Delicatessen, along its brick street, the 1902 building and its classic awning and neon window sign are enticing. Once inside, the interior doesn’t disappoint. A wall of bread greets visitors. “Try anything you want,” says an affable guy standing beside the display of variously shaped loaves. So begins the sensory-overload path to the order counter. I sample the olive-oil bar and accept a proffered graham cracker topped with a dollop of lime curd. After ordering a grilled Reuben, I do manage to resist two appealing coffeehouse cakes: lemon sponge with caramelized meringue frosting and the traditional southern hummingbird.
Shop Local Faves
Jazz sets a cool vibe while about two-dozen shoppers — from backpackers to graybeards — flip through albums at
10 Encore Records. Amid the customer questions about this or that recording, I overhear a conversation about the Oxford comma. This space has been a record shop since the 1960s and has operated under the name of Encore since the late ’80s. Rolling Stone magazine named it a top-25 U.S. record store in 2010; parts of “Standing in the Shadows of Motown” were filmed here. Groups playing Ann Arbor stop by — most recently, the Jayhawks.
I’m admiring the sock display at 11 Sam’s when a man walks in and runs his hand along a pair of pinwale corduroy Levi’s and says with a hint of reverence, “They still make these?” Sales clerk Lauren Hauser says people mostly come in for the jeans, including classic 501 Levi’s. A wide selection of Converse All Stars (Chucks) is also a draw. Sam’s, in business since 1946, wears its throwback status proudly. Beside a display case of Swiss Army knives and Timex watches, Hauser mans an old-school cash register. “We even have $2 bills,” she says, “because we still have a slot for that.”
12 Literati’s narrow interior hugs customers like a good wingback chair. Shelf displays are personalized with cards offering handwritten staff recommendations. “This book is a love note to humanity,” Claire says of Max Porter’s “Grief is the Thing with Feathers.” On the second floor, tall, narrow windows illuminate the children’s books corner, and at the cafe counter, a barista helpfully divulges the name of the local pastry chef (Frankie) who supplies their carrot cake. Speaker events showcase newcomers and big names — Margaret Atwood and David Sedaris among them.
At 13 the Treasure Mart, a 57-year old, second-generation, family-owned trove, I score four vintage, flower-print Tom Collins glasses and reluctantly leave a stack of Spode Rosebud Chintz bread plates behind. Inside the onetime planing mill (circa 1860s), shoppers fan out over three floors crammed with china, serveware, midcentury-modern furniture, vintage linens, art, fine and custom jewelry, sterling flatware and, yes, tchotchkes.
Stay Local Fave
Mathematical equations scrawled in chalk on lobby columns briefly give me solving-for-X flashbacks at 14 The Graduate Ann Arbor Hotel, where the Midwestern university decor is anything but minimal. In appearance, academics are part of the equation. Look up, and there is bookshelf-patterned wallpaper on the ceiling. Walls at check-in are paneled in wooden yardsticks. Inside the main-floor Allen Rumsey Supper Club (named for Ann Arbor’s founders), an intimate eightseat bar invites conversation, and we find ourselves chatting about the U.S. Olympic ski team. Sports is an apt topic here, where vintage athletic photos include a Michigan-uniformed Gerald Ford, who graduated from Wolverines football MVP to vice president and president of the United States.
Being greeted by the sight of students studying in wood-paneled nooks rather than a phalanx of ready bellhops makes me feel as if I am arriving for my dorm assignment rather than a room for the night. But on the fourth floor of the university’s 15 Inn at the League, there are, indeed, guest accommodations. My room has stucco walls and a view of the Albert Kahn-designed Burton Memorial Bell Tower (a 1936 campus landmark). The lobby level of this 1929 building is the star, with finishes of polished slate, Detroit-made Pewabic tiles and oak-and-walnut paneling, as well as a large stained-glass window in the stairwell.
Explore Local Fave
Ann Arbor is a regular on annual lists of most-livable U.S. cities, publicity that makes residents protective of neighborhoods such as the 16 Old West Side, which has German roots dating to the 1840s and is designated a National Historic District. Its near-downtown streets are a front-porch world of brightly painted wood siding and diverse architecture (from Victorian and Stick style to American Picturesque). The Washtenaw Dairy, founded in 1934, is a corner hot spot for ice cream, newspapers and doughnuts. (It delivers.) We take our treats to a corner booth beneath a TV tuned to “Good Times” and watch locals — from toddlers to old-timers — gab over some hand-scooped hardpack.
Boutiques, restaurants, bars and the Farmers Market populate the 17 Kerrytown District. Paul Tinkerhess, a folk singer who, with his wife, owns Fourth Ave Birkenstock, likes to talk up the locally owned businesses here, such as the longtime People’s Food Co-op — often run by hippie-era stalwarts and peace activists. Also here is Braun Court, a tiny enclave that includes Aut Bar, popular for its Mexican-themed Sunday brunch. At Kerrytown Market & Shops, inside a linked cluster of three buildings — the oldest dating to 1874 — are a vegan restaurant and shops offering women’s apparel and home decor. At Hollander’s, which sells decorative papers and bookbinding supplies, my affection for stationery and all things graphic meets its match and I want to get locked inside for the night.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: University of Michigan classmates enjoy dinner at Spencer in Ann Arbor, Mich.; the interior of the University of Michigan Museum of Art; the grilled wild halibut filet at Knights Steakhouse; Heather Hennrick, 27, of Ypsilanti, Mich., reclines at Nichols Arboretum.
TOP: A couple enjoys a sunny day on the lawn at the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Mich. The 100-plus-acre site offers a conservatory, trails and North America’s largest public display of heirloom peonies, set to bloom soon.
ABOVE: Even little kids can get a pair of Chucks in their color at Sam’s, which specializes in the classic Converse footwear. The store, which dates back to 1946, also has an array of Swiss Army knives.