It doesn’t take the giant "M" on the outside of Michigan Stadium – dubbed The Big House for its capacity to seat more than 111,000 screaming football fans – to understand in what shadow the Michigan city of Ann Arbor sits.
Home to the University of Michigan, one of the University of Wisconsin’s Big 10 sports rivals, Ann Arbor is as close as it comes to being Madison’s unofficial sister city. Although not the seat of state government and smaller than Madison, Ann Arbor also hosts a world-class university with a student population roughly the same size as the UW.
And Ann Arbor, like Madison, was a volatile hotbed of anti-war activity during the Vietnam era – home to the radical Students for a Democratic Society and rock bands The Stooges and The MC5.
And today in Ann Arbor, those familiar with Madison will recognize kindred spirits among its performing arts companies, quirky retail stores, delightful neighborhoods and classy restaurants.
First, some fine dining
The hallmark of any city’s sophistication is its dining scene, and Ann Arbor does not disappoint in terms of its restaurants’ variety, scope and depth of talent.
There is the expected cross-section of ethnic eateries, such the Blue Nile Ethiopian Restaurant and Ayse’s Turkish Café, but that’s just the beginning.
Lena, 226 Main St., offers a pan-Latin American approach to nouvelle dining, with Chef Gabriel Vera drawing primarily on the cuisines of Venezuela, Peru and his native Ecuador for inspiration. A blend of French and Italian country cooking dominates the menu at The Earle, 121 W. Washington St., under the seasoned hand of Chef Shelley Caughey Adams. Chef Brandon Johns’ farm-to-table esthetic guides the creative, sustainable cuisine at Grange Kitchen and Bar, 118 W. Liberty St.
Most interesting of all may be Frita Batidos, 117 W. Washington St., with Chef Eve Aronoff’s nod to Cuban street food. Aronoff’s earlier restaurant, Eve, was a white-tablecloth establishment that helped the Lansing native earn a place on the “Top Chef” TV show. With its noisy ambience and family-style dining, Frita Batidos offers some of the best culinary fun you can have, especially if you enjoy plantains prepared many ways.
Even better microbreweries
Wisconsin is justifiably proud of its craft-brewing scene, but it doesn’t hold a tap handle to Michigan, the self-described “Great Beer State.”
More than 125 breweries and brewpubs dot The Mitten and its upper half, with eight pouring beer in Ann Arbor.
Best known, perhaps, is Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, which brews beer in nearby Dexter to serve at its restaurant at 311 S. Main St. Brewmaster Ron Jeffries is known for his creative cask-conditioned and Belgian-style beers.
At Grizzly Peak Brewing Co., 120 W. Washington Ave., brewmaster Duncan Williams’ beers run the gamut from Steelhead Red to Pure Michigan IPA to Six Tap, a seasonal beer brewed with 25 pounds of candy corn added to the boil.
At Wolverine State Brewing, located near The Big House, brewers Oliver Roberts and Karl Hinbern specialize in lagers, which demand a longer process that they believe results in lighter, more refreshing beer.
At Arbor Brewing Co., 114 E. Washington St., owners Rene and Matt Greff see brewing as an art and an educational opportunity they share with thirsty Michiganders. A UM student from India was so taken with his lessons that upon returning home he convinced his family to bankroll what is thought to be the first Indian microbrewery. This past fall the Greffs helped establish an Arbor Brewing outpost in Bangalore, adapting recipes to local tastes, including what may be the world’s first and only “Chai PA.”
Culture that is non-consumable
Did you know that southern Michigan and northern Indiana were once the center of America’s mastodon population? You would if you visited UM’s Museum of Natural History, 1109 Geddes Ave., where director Amy Harris shares her insights at what is known locally as “the dinosaur museum.”
Not far from there, the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, 434 S. State St., houses a collection of 100,000 objects from ancient Mediterranean cultures. Highlights include a replica room from ancient Pompeii and what is thought to be the only surviving examples of leather tunics worn as armor by the ancient Roman warriors.
Music plays an important role in any college social scene, and Ann Arbor’s best-known spot is The Ark, 316 S. Main St., an acoustic music venue carved from the lingerie department of a former department store. Described by management as “a listening room,” The Ark has hosted John Hiatt, Leo Kottke, Taj Mahal, Lucinda Williams and The Band.
When an artist is too big for The Ark, there is the acoustically perfect Hill Auditorium on the UM campus. With a seating capacity of more than 3,500, it is Michigan’s largest indoor performance venue and host to the UM symphony, choirs and philharmonic orchestra.
And when all else fails, there are the unique stores typical to a university town, including Ten Thousand Villages, 303 S. Main St., a fair trade store featuring arts and crafts from the developing world; and The Vault of Midnight, 219 S. Main St., a comic book store with a whole lot more. But that’s a sentiment that also describes all of Ann Arbor.