Ann Ar­bor

With a blend of small-town charm and big-city so­phis­ti­ca­tion, the home of the Univer­sity of Michi­gan is a study in at­trac­tive op­po­sites

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY RE­BECCA POW­ERS Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post YOU’RE GO­ING WHERE?

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.


Lo­cal Faves

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.

Guide­book Musts

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.

Guide­book Musts

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.”

Guide­book Musts

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.

Guide­book Must

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.

Guide­book Must

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.

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