Ann Arbor's Best Cocktail Cuisine
A bar is a beautiful place. It's purpose in life is to give you a place to enjoy drinks among like company, free from teetotalers and strobe lights. Bars care about and make their money from alcohol. Beer, liquor, the occasional rum volcano. But the best bars offer a little something extra to soak up the booze. At worst, a flavor or two of Better Mades clipped to the wall. Maybe peanuts, possibly popcorn, or a cheap snack mix with too many pretzels or too much cheese dust.
And then there are bars that do something special with their food. The ones who know what your stomach needs between the second and third cocktail or between the fourth beer and home, but also what your taste buds want. The establishments help, as Paul Drennan of The Last Word
termed it so beautifully, extend your session. They allow you to stay at the bar without overindulging, while also saving you the stumble down the street for a slice of bad pizza or a street hot dog. And sometimes they do food better than the restaurants. This is the best bar food in Ann Arbor.
German-inspired cuisine from the Old German
It's not the same Old German
your parents took you to as a child. The old Old German was a destination for German cuisine. The new Old German is a destination for German-style beer and German-inspired cuisine. It isn't Metzger's
and it isn't the Heidelberg
. The beer is the show, with nineon tap, including two rotating German-inspired Michigan craft beers, including the opening-night Keller Rotbier and Helles-Bock.
"The original Old German was a big restaurant," says owner Jon Carlson. "We're about half the size."
With his partners Greg Lobdell and Chet Czaplicka, Old German is focused on producing some of the best German-styled craft beers in the state, on par with what's being done in the Frankenmuth and Atwater Breweries. But they haven't forgotten about the food.
Chef Lee Bentley, who also runs the kitchen at Grizzly Peak's, is working from the original Old German recipe book (if you could call it that) which is actually a stack of loose sheets of paper, typewritten and worn by age.
"This is German-inspired food," says Bentley. "We're going the gastropub side. Most of the recipes are mine, but we're using some of the classics, like the famous potato salad."
"Our food is pretty close to what you'd find in an actual German bar," says Czaplicka. "It's not standard bar food."
The menu runs the gamut from beer cheese soup and German potato pancakes to a bacon and beer brat and chicken schnitzel sandwich. Food is prepared in the classic way but updated for a modern palate. The brat is placed on a pretzel roll with spicy mustard and a heap of sauerkraut, while the gigantic schnitzel is twice the size of it's bun, with fresh cabbage, cheese and a hidden layer of arugula. Ingredients are sourced locally, like sausage from the Corridor Sausage Co.
"the coolest meat dudes in Michigan," according to Carlson.
"There are great places in town like Metzger's and the Heidelberg to get a great German meal," says Carlson. "But we're a bar that serves some food. The emphasis is on the beer."
The Last Word on food and cocktails
One of the unintended benefits of Ann Arbor's cocktail boom
are all those wonderful kitchens. Kitchens are an essential component to the creation of true craft cocktails, but they're underutilized, leaving room for food to work its way into the mix.
The Last Word is one of Ann Arbor's premier cocktail bars with a kitchen dedicated to the craft. Food was always in the plan, but it took a little time to work out the kinks so that the menu complimented the real show behind the bar.
Co-owners Robbie Schulz and Paul Drennan come from the food world where they had the leeway to play with the beverage side of things. Now the situation is reversed.
"It's amazing to work with people with such craft experience," says Chef Scott MacInnis, who was sous chef at Logan for three years and runs his own catering company, Tranche de Vie
. "We're different spokes in the same wheel."
The Last Word wanted to give patrons a good reason to spend more time in the bar.
"We knew people couldn't come in and have a proper session without a buffer," Drennan says. "With food, you can spend more time in the bar and enjoy yourself without having to over imbibe. How can we help elongate your evening?"
Chef Scott came aboard in the New Year, designing a menu to compliment the goings-on behind the bar. The menu features appetizers like homemade potato chips and three flavors of twice cooked potatoes (fennel pollen, sea salt and sweet spanish paprika) served with ketchup and raw honey mustard. Then there's more substantial fare, like a delicious oxtail poutine, citrus chipotle tacos, lamb merguez sliders or the new puerco cuban sandwich. Perfect food choices to break up a session of Manhattans or Death in the Afternoon.
Word has started to spread. Food volume is up 120% from the start of the year and the trendline for food is mirroring increases in beverage sales as news travels about this little cocktail bar on Huron. The Last Word is joining the ranks of some of the best and most innovative food and drink establishments in Ann Arbor, drawing word of mouth buzz and visits from restaurateurs after hours.
"Ann Arbor is too small to compete against each other," says Schulz.
"There are too many good food and drink ideas for us to compete against each other," says Drennan, who who names a number of Ann Arbor establishments where the Last Word crew frequents for food and drink.
"People have started calling us and trying to make reservations," says Drennan. "They think we're a restaurant. I take that as a compliment."
The kitchens of Braun Ct.
Before it hosted Mai Tais on the lenai, the space at The Bar at 327 Braun Court
served Japanese fare as the Fuji Restaurant. When Ted Kennedy and Eric Farrell took over in 2011, they didn't plan to use the kitchen for much food preparation due to the small space and staff issues that would go into full service food. The menu evolved from basic snacks to easy to prepare "old man European bar snacks" like meat and cheese plates, small sandwiches and sardines.
"We always wanted something easy to prep and assemble," says Farrell. "Food was more about giving our customers quick snacks than making money."
Farrell started talking with Ji Hye Kim from San Street
("Really Good Asian Street Food") who already operated out of Mark's Carts
but was looking for more, working out an arrangement for San Street to serve food Tuesday nights. Shortly thereafter, Amos Arinda and Sarah Mays, longtime Zingerman's employees who operated Zingerman's pop-up Cafe Memmi came on board to cover Thursdays. In the spring, Central Provisions
brought its fare to Wednesday nights, giving The Bar independent, quality, unique food options three nights a week.
"It's going very well," says Farrell. "Beverage sales have increased from it."
The mixed menus offer something unique each day. San Street covers the Asian spectrum with dishes, Central Provisions does farm fresh fare with seasonal vegetables and hearty meat dishes and Cafe Memmi brings unique tastes from Tunisia.
The Bar doesn't charge the vendors for use of the space, giving entrepreneurs a place to practice their craft and make money in the hopes of one day opening their own brick and mortar restaurants.
"These are interesting people doing interesting things," says Farrell. "The arrangement is mutually beneficial."
Cafe Memmi anchors Thursday night with its unique menu of Tunisian food - a combination of pickled or preserved foods mixed with super fresh ingredients. Couscous, lamb, seafood, citrus and fresh seasonal vegetables form the foundation of the cuisine.
Cafe Memmi produces a typewritten five-item menu each week with regularly rotating dishes. Their most popular items have been frites with homemade mayo, Ojja (eggs poached in a spicy tomato base, served with a baguette) and Tunisian fried chicken, which is actually a centuries-old recipe. The desserts are amazing as well.
"We shop at the farmer's market on Wednesday so we have the freshest ingredients possible on Thursday," says Mays.
"We've been drawing more and more regulars," says Arinda.
"What we're part of here is amazing," says Mays. "Tuesday through Thursday, I think this place has the best late night food in Ann Arbor."
Richard Retyi is the social media manager at Ann Arbor digital marketing firm Fluency Media as well as a freelance writer for various publications. You can follow him on Twitter at @RichRetyi or read his blog at RichRetyi.com.
All photos by Doug Coombe