Zingermans roadhouse restaurant plate ann arbor food tour

Five Lessons from an Ann Arbor Food Tour

Zingermans deli ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

First, the elephant in the room that is Ann Arbor, Michigan — Zingerman’s Deli. On one hand, this Ann Arbor-based nationally known retail giant has put this small college town on the gastronomic map. On the other, it is challenging to compete with such a successful business on their level, so what else could Ann Arbor offer for foodies except a series of (amazingly tasty and well-curated) Zingerman’s experiences?

As I found out on a trip to the city this December: quite a nice mix of things, actually. The most interesting little finds revealed some key strategies for standing out in the heart of Zingerman’s home turf. (For details on this press trip, see the end of this story.)

ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

1. Just Don’t Care

Perhaps an unexpected approach, but the old-school doughnuts and shakes offered at Washtenaw Dairy (a business that hasn’t bothered to replace its missing sign for 20 years) take you right back to the small town Ann Arbor must once have been.The doughnuts were light but yeasty, classic American breakfast fare, perfectly executed.

Newer on the scene, Ayse‘s Turkish Cafe offers complicated flavors, simply prepared and nicely executed, finished off with Turkish coffee and Middle Eastern desserts. Fresh acid flavors (pomegranate seeds, olives, lemon juice) give its food a zesty kick.

farmers market ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

2. Go Super Local

The Ann Arbor Farmers Market in the Kerrytown neighborhood (above) stands as a local food mecca and also an incubator of new food businesses. Close relationships between businesses make for great innovation — The Brinery, featuring naturally fermented vegetables, is a natural offshoot from local farms (like Tantre Farm), which often have a glut of cabbage or cucumbers perfect for preservation. Brandon Johns, chef / owner of Grange Kitchen and Bar, shops the market, works with local farmers, and serves a nearly unbelievable 90 percent local menu. (For comparison, most serious locally sourced restaurants are striving for a 50-70% local share). Of the collaboration, Johns said, “Now we are a community.” Smart use of local farm ingredients (like a fried pig’s head and popcorn dessert) make Grange stand apart from other high-end restaurants in downtown.

grange restaurant local ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
Frita Batidos restaurant ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

3. Go Simple

Chef / owner Eve Aronoff (above, right) opened Frita Batidos after running a fine dining restaurant for years in Ann Arbor (she was also on season six of Top Chef). The cuisine of Frita Batidos might be best described as Cuban street food, filtered through Miami, and translated to the Midwest. Simple, bright flavors and a casual vibe make this a stand-out restaurant — and it was packed with a mix of students and locals. Guacamole (below) was like tasting fresh, perfectly ripe avocados (in mid-December, mind you). The flavor was simple, pure, unfooled-around-with, and fresh with a little heat.

frita batidos ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table
comet coffee ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Comet Coffee (above) serves serious, world-class coffee, and that is pretty much all they do. Their cappuccino is beautifully full flavored without much acidic bite, leading to a pleasurable sipping experience.

Sweet Gem Confections (below) is making specialty truffles and sweets with many local ingredients.  TeaHaus (also below) features a huge selection of teas, many mixed in house, as well as locally made pastries and jams.

tea haus and sweet gem confections ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

4. Go Complicated

The downtown of Ann Arbor features several high-end dining experiences, including a surprising amount of molecular gastronomy. Case in point: the skirt steak from Vinology (below — top left), which features layers of thinly cut meat bound together with an enzyme, creating a thicker steak, then cooked sous vide and served with porcini powder. A classic meat and potatoes dish in a Midwestern town, but also a well-executed dish that would stand up anywhere.

Several of the dishes at Logan (below — top right) feature a mix of local flavors combined with French-inspired sauces and foams. (Fun fact: Chef Thad Gilies, below, is close friends with our own Stewart Woodman — Logan and Heidi’s take a similar approach to fine dining.)

logan restaurant and vinology restraurant ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

5. Go Alcoholic

That is right: Zingerman’s Deli doesn’t sell alcohol, and in a Midwestern town (and a college one, at that) you will need to find the libations that are right for you. Ann Arbor seems to be on the forefront of the growing sour beer trend. These are beers that bring yeasts into the fermentation process, resulting in an intentionally tart flavor. (Soured Belgian lambics are the style most new drinkers are familiar with). They range in flavors from very acidic (think “drinking vinegar”) to a pleasantly refreshing alternative to hard cider or wine with a meal. Great Ann Arbor examples can be found at the Jolly Pumpkin (their Oro De Calabaza is the New York Times #1 Belgian Golden Ale in the world) and at Arbor Brewing (their Flamboyant Wild Red).

Sour Beer ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

Starting a specialty food store in Ann Arbor seems fraught with comparisons, but Morgan & York features a well-curated cheese and meat department, houses local candy maker Sweet Gem Confections, and boasts a great selection of wines.

Morgan York specialty store ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

This is what makes Zingerman’s so killer: They foster and spread innovation. Their sisterhood of businesses (creamery cheese plant, roadhouse restaurant, bakehouse bakery, mail order, etc.) have all sprung organically out of the needs and interests of the Zingerman’s Deli staff and have created a community of independent but interrelated businesses that grow and innovate alongside each other.

A meal at Zingerman’s Roadhouse (head chef and managing partner Alex Young, below, won the 2011 James Beard Foundation’s Award for Best Chef in the Great Lakes Region) makes you feel like you are returning to the the front porch of your Southern grandmother’s cottage for a home-cooked meal complete with grits (from South Carolina heirloom grain purveyor Anson Mills), house-made BBQ ribs, fried chicken, and house-made butterscotch pudding.

Zingermans roadhouse restaurant ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table

All the meats (with the exception of the chicken and short ribs) are from locally raised animals, many from the farm of Chef Young. In fact, when we visited, Chef Young’s wife had just purchased a herd of milking goats. In time, the goat milk may even be sold to Zingerman’s Creamery, to be made into cheese sold by Zingerman’s Deli through Zingerman’s Mail Order.

*Geiger & Associates and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau planned and guided my four-day itinerary, and arranged for the donation or purchase of my round-trip ticket to Ann Arbor, lodging, and meals.

Zingermans roadhouse restaurant plate ann arbor food tour
Becca Dilley / Heavy Table


  1. SarahinMpls

    Good that you disclosed who paid for the trip. My added guess is that Zingerman’s is a heavy contributor to the Anne Arbor Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

    Either / both of which make reading this “review” a complete waste of my time.

  2. Eno

    This should have been classified as one of your “sponsored” stories. Were you really going to write critical things on a trip that you didn’t pay for?

  3. Eric

    Yeah, cuz in reality, Zingerman’s totally sucks. I hear that a lot.

    Oh, wait. Actually: I’ve never ever heard that.

  4. Walt

    The disclaimer should’ve been at the top and you should’ve followed the style used for other sponsored pieces. (though looking back at previous sponsored articles, I don’t think you’re doing enough to distinguish those from regular articles either.) You also need to explain who Geiger & Associates is representing here. Did they write the article as well?

  5. Eric

    Geez, people, lighten up. First off, Heavy Table is not primarily a reviewing site. They do some reviews, but as much stuff that’s just informative. Second of all, the reason we get to enjoy this site FOR FREE is because they’re able to find some sources of revenue. And last, this article is about ANN ARBOR. If you end up going there, I’m sure you can find some thoroughly non-sponsored info about places there (say, Chowhound or Yelp, though of course no one on there is likely to disclose THEIR conflicts of interest)….

  6. SarahinMpls

    In my view, this is an important point to clear up. Generally The Heavy Table is fun reading. And I’m a good capitalist. I definitely do not mind sponsored material. BUT that sponsorship should have been clearly written before the text. If it was at the top, by the way, I would have skipped the story. And maybe that was the point.

    There are now an infinite number of great food blogs (albeit very few local good ones). As a general rule, I read the ones where the writer has no skin in the game, unless (1) I like the sponsored product and want to use it; or (2) I plan on visiting the place that’s the focus in the near future.

    Finally, in the interest of what I sincerely do intend as well-intentioned criticism. A lengthy blog post with lovely photos about Ann Arbor seems to me be beyond the mission of this web site, which is thoughtful thinking, reporting, writing and reviewing MN’s food scene.

    In my own business I learned: When you start deviating from your mission you dilute your brand.

    In retrospect, when I saw the title in my RSS feeder, I should have just blown past this post.

  7. Jill

    This is not the first time one of us has participated in a media tour. James Norton did one in Columbus in 2010 (https://heavytable.com/should-you-find-yourself-in-columbus-ohio/) and I did one in Wisconsin in November (https://heavytable.com/five-things-i-learned-about-wisconsin-cheese/). Like with this article, we disclosed each time that the trip was paid for by the sponsoring agency. However, participating in such a tour does not obligate us to write anything at all, and if we do write about it, the tour sponsor cannot dictate content to us, so no, a story about the tour is not the same as a sponsored post. Becca’s positive remarks about Ann Arbor’s food scene are a genuine reflection of her experience – nothing more.

    SarahinMpls – the mission of this website is to cover the food scene of the Upper Midwest, not exclusively Minnesota. Since most of our regular contributors are based here, the majority of our content is about Minnesota, but we frequently write about food in Wisconsin and Iowa and have ventured to Ohio, Kansas and the Dakotas on the occasion. Like most of our readers, we enjoy getting out of town once in a while!

  8. yeahyeahyeah

    Wow, people are genuinely upset about this? Wish my life was so easy that I could get all riled up about such arbitrary things.

  9. geoff

    I won’t hate on HT for expanded coverage (A2 isn’t quite Upper Midwest), and don’t hate on A2 for a progressive understanding of modern restaurant marketing.

    My parents live in A2, and so I’m there 2-3x per year. You would be hard pressed to find another American city of the same size that offers as many great diverse dining options. A large number of foreign students, lots of moneyed out-of-state students (my intro to obnoxious NYers was late 80’s A2 house parties), and the fact that the large nearby population center has bled a ton of its cultural gravitas to Ann Arbor made it possible. But, despite his propensity for douchebaggery, Ari Weinzweig of Zingermans deserves a lot of credit for seeing the possibilites and is a food visionary and game changer in terms of making A2 food what it is today.

    BTW, some other spots to try (I could do this for days):

    Jerusalem Garden / Ali Baba / Haifa Falafel
    Seva and/or Earthen Jar for Vegetarian
    Pizza Bob’s, Hello Faz Pizza, Back Room Pizza
    Blimpie Burger and Casey’s for burgers
    Maru / Broadway / Seoul Street / Rod’s for Korean
    Zola / Angelo’s for breakfast

    I could go on for days. Suffice to say that it’s an amazing food town given its relatively small size.

  10. Jaen

    The Ann Arbor food scene, particularly Zingerman’s, is worth knowing about for sure, especially by those who believe the sun rises and sets on Wisconsin.

    But why you would define your coverage boundaries so broadly if you lack the money to pay to cover those places without receiving a grant from the chamber of commerce? That’s kind of embarrassing, right? Why advertise so blatantly you’re just a hobby farm?

    And it’s one thing to take the freebie, but it’s another thing to let a PR company plan the itinerary and lead you about. Who knows what good things you missed that weren’t on the Chamber’s membership list?

    I agree with the other commenters. This item was “sponsored” and it would have been a lot less damaging to your reputation had you just labeled it that way.

  11. Tom

    I’m glad that Geiger & Associates and the Ann Arbor Area Convention and Visitors Bureau are willing to pay for the Heavy Table; I doubt many of the commenters on this story are.

  12. harmony

    i have to say…….zingerman’s deli is THE BEST JOB I’VE EVER HAD! they treat you like you matter and it has GREAT benefits! and the reason the deli doesn’t serve alcohol is because just FEET away is a high school!!!! IT’S AGAINST THE LAW TO SERVE ALCOHOL NEXT TO A SCHOOL!!!!!!!!!!!! :P
    nice pictures of the deli and other places in ann arbor though!

  13. The Hedonist

    I’m a food and drink blogger who resides in Ann Arbor and I can tell you that the article is pretty accurate in terms of the highlights here in town. Z’s, Frita Batidos, the farmers market, and especially Jolly Pumpkin are all excellent. When I entertain out of town guests, those would probably be the places I’d take them to. And I would agree that Zingerman’s played a big role in all of this.

    The dark side is this – Everything costs WAY too much. Deli sandwiches at Z’s are $12-15. Lunch for two at Frita Batidos – a street food inspired place – cost me $35 (and didn’t fill me up). A recent dinner with wife and three small kids reached $350.

    Ann Arbor is the only area in Michigan that’s doing well economically and residents are taking a strong Buy Local/Keep Ann Arbor Weird stance. So people are more than willing to overpay and restaurants here are more than happy to overcharge.

    PS – Jolly Pumpkin beers are worth every penny and then some. Same with Blimpie Burger (although you won’t need that many pennies)

  14. Aaron

    “These are beers that bring yeasts into the fermentation process, resulting in an intentionally tart flavor.” Don’t you mean wild yeasts? Yeasts, by default are what causes fermentation in beer. You can’t have beer without yeast.

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