A Taste Of History
Gail Offen grew up in Southfield but regularly ate at Ann Arbor restaurants — sometimes more than one in a day. She was introduced to the college town’s culinary fare by her late uncle Morton Lesser, a foodie who liked lots of mealtime company.
Early on, Offen sampled eggrolls at Kosmo in Kerrytown, chowder at Monahan’s, barbecue at DeLong’s, the salad bar at Afternoon Delight, a limeade and grilled pecan roll at Drake’s — all generally topped off with an ice cream cone at Miller’s.
Devotion to the city’s restaurants remained fun when Offen attended the University of Michigan and worked at Pizza Bob’s in the late 1970s, then a hippie hangout with loud music and staff-customer banter. She got into the act as new pie combos and sandwiches were invented and given funny names.
These days, Offen hopes to become known for her new book, Iconic Restaurants of Ann Arbor (Arcadia Publishing; $22.99), written with Jon Milan, a friend and co-author of an earlier collaboration, Grand River Avenue: From Detroit to Lake Michigan.
There are 107 restaurants referenced and joined with 120 pictures — all introduced by Ari Weinzweig, an owner and founder of Zingerman’s, a purveyor of Jewish style-dishes that have left fans salivating across the country.
The book can serve up background for foodies getting ready to indulge during Ann Arbor Restaurant Week, Jan. 15-20. There will be bargains for diners and proceeds for Food Gatherers, which provides needed staples in Washtenaw County. There also will be a book presentation Jan. 19 by the authors visiting Literati Bookstore.
“I was looking for information on Drake’s, a wonderful comfort food place, but couldn’t find a book covering it,” Offen explains about the impetus for her culinary project. “While thinking somebody should write that book about Drake’s, I found the idea snowballing into the notion that somebody should write about a lot of these restaurants in Ann Arbor.”
Offen, nominating herself, asked Milan to join in. They compiled a list of restaurants and divided them up for research and recall before editing each other’s work in a year-long process. With narrative and pictures, they organized chapters around eateries that have been legendary, forgotten, student standbys, novelties and much more. One reminder is of Boesky’s, a kosher-style favorite.
Although they found no restaurants precisely following Jewish dietary laws, there were Jewish culinary historians guiding the research and able to point out vegetarian specialists.
“Jan Langone, who turned over a collection of restaurant materials to establish the Jan Bluestone Langone Culinary Archive at the Hatcher Graduate Library at the University of Michigan, got us pictures and menus,” explains Offen, a Hartland resident who is a senior vice president and creative director at Doner in Southfield.
“Susan Wineberg, another local food historian whose collection is at the Bentley Historical Library at Eastern Michigan University, also helped us in finding pictures and menus. Phil Zaret, active in the Culinary Historians of Ann Arbor, put us in touch with someone we had been looking for.
“Ruth Reichl, the former editor of Gourmet magazine, made herself available to talk about being a waitress at La Seine, an extravagant French restaurant that only lasted for a year in the ’60s. She recalled making a dollar an hour from the restaurant but $25 a night in tips while learning a lot about food during her student years.”
Offen was inspired to write by her late father, Sam Offen, who took his family to Ann Arbor restaurants during summers at Horseshoe Lake and who wrote — and spoke to groups about — his memoir, When Hope Prevails: The Personal Triumph of a Holocaust Survivor.
Milan, a journalist and musician as well as historian living in Westland, has dined around Ann Arbor working as a pianist and planning two other Arcadia publications, Old Chicago Road and Detroit: Ragtime and the Jazz Age.
Grab-and-go choices fit in with his lifestyle — maybe a club sandwich at the Full Moon, perhaps Polish sausage from Le Dog. When really hungry and ready for eat-in choices, he has ordered filets at Knight’s and prime ribs at Weber’s.
If Offen had her choices for a progressive restaurant dinner, she would likely include mushroom and wild rice soup from Le Dog, mujaddara from Jerusalem Garden, fried Brussels sprouts from Slurping Turtle, lox from Monahan’s Seafood Market, branzino from Gratzi and a magic brownie from Zingerman’s.
“My parents gave my husband and me a 25th wedding-anniversary brunch at the wonderful Gandy Dancer, which is in a train station from the late 1800s,” Offen recalls. “It became a Chuck Muer restaurant in the 1970s and still is a place to celebrate many events. People continue to applaud when the train goes by! Remembering that brunch, on a beautiful summer day, makes me smile every time I see the Gandy Dancer.” *
The authors of Iconic Restaurants of Ann Arbor included many novel facts about restaurants in their book, such as:
In her student years, Madonna danced with friends in between bites at the Rubaiyat.
The Pretzel Bell (1934-1984) served many famous guests — President Gerald Ford, Tiger Charlie Gehringer, actress Ethel Barrymore and pianist Arthur Rubenstein, among others.
Maude’s, now Cafe Zola, was known for its Martini Salad (vermouth and gin with cut-up vegetables) and employed a number of people who came to own or work at Zingerman’s.
Leo Ping’s was Ann Arbor’s first Chinese eatery.
Le Dog, creating new soups, has reached almost 430 varieties with scheduled days for serving each one.
The authors recently introduced their book at the Jewish community centers in Ann Arbor and West Bloomfield and learned about personal recollections of Ann Arbor restaurants:
A couple told about meeting and dating for many years in the jazzy, underground seclusion of the Earle — a story that somewhat parallels that of Ann Arbor educators and authors Susan Wineberg and Lars Bjorn, who did the same at the Del Rio.
A man talked about still missing the unforgettably light crepes he used to get at Chez Crepe.
A lady remembered Bimbo’s and the friendly presence of founder Matt Chutich.
More than one individual asked about the Central Cafe, a short-lived, late-night place on Main Street. It was around in the late ’70s and early ’80s and became a favorite spot for cab drivers.
Ann Arbor Restaurant Week runs Jan. 15-20. To get information about participants and bargains, call (734) 668-7112 or visit annarborrestaurantweek.com.
Gail Offen and Jon Milan will discuss their book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor. (734) 585-5567; literatibookstore.com. Have a story of your own about an Ann Arbor restaurant? Share it with the authors on their Facebook page (facebook.com/AnnArborRestaurants).
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer