By Angela Madaras
Like many people, I find myself on a tight budget when it comes to eating out. While I desire to eat organic, whole, and clean foods, I tend to seek out restaurants where I can either have breakfast, lunch, or “happy hour” for around ten dollars. Because of this dilemma, I eat out less and prepare more meals from food we have raised and grown ourselves. But when I do want to dine out, I now understand my grandparent’s penchant for the “Early Bird Special.”
The greater Ann Arbor region is home to a plethora of choices from which to pluck a savory meal thanks in large part to the University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University’s hungry student population. Chelsea, on the other hand, possesses a large retiree population mixed with young families, and thusly caters to those demographics. Downtown Ann Arbor is home to more “high-end” eateries intermingled with college joints. Ypsilanti boasts affordable, ethnic, and funky eateries, and bars. I challenged myself to find and write about some of the spots in our area where I can eat well while sticking to a tight budget. To up the ante, I further decided to sample from a few higher end restaurants to see if I could stay on task monetarily while splurging a bit in the gastronomic department. In this first installment of my thrifty explorations, I want to share with you my go-to spots for uncompromising American fare.
The Common Grill, Chelsea’s anchor restaurant, which opened in 1990 by owner and executive chef Craig Common, is one of my much loved winter spots for lunch. The large windows fill the space with natural light. They primarily serve up beautiful seafood flown in regularly, salads, fresh baked yeast rolls, pasta, and inspired American cuisine. My favorite budget lunch at The Common Grill is a bowl of savory tomato-based chowder with huge chunks of shrimp, scallops, and fish. It comes with two yeast rolls and butter; all for only five dollars. It was filling and comforting on the cold Michigan winter day when I last dined here. When I go alone I sit at their open bar and watch the kitchen pump out food. I do love the buzz of a well-greased kitchen. They also sell their uncooked pasta (including gluten-free options), house-made sauces, and hot rolls for folks who want to prepare a chef-inspired meal in the comfort of their own kitchen.
Morgan and York is heaven for a Midwesterner like me. With their wide selection of cured meats, olives, cheese, and liver pâté, my cravings can always be satiated. However, on one particular cold and rainy day I arrived wanting a whole sandwich and hot nurturing soup. Sadly, I was a wee bit early, or they a little late getting the soup ready for the lunch crowd. No worries for me, as I asked if I could make up my own sandwich and the answer was “yes, of course.”(I later found out this is actually an item on their menu). I pursued this by purchasing a hunk of baguette, sliced and toasted, with a one inch slice of braunshweiger (a type of liverwurst), a smear of Dijon mustard, and a thin slice of red onion. It was just like my grandmother used to make. With this, I ordered a cup of hot herbal tea to wash it down. I spent ten dollars, with a dash added to the tip jar. Morgan and York is a gourmet specialty food and wine shop with ample amounts of seating to dine in. They even have old-fashioned candies by the pound. Additionally, they serve breakfast and lunch during limited hours with expected standard items such as bagels, pastries, soups, salads, and their signature sandwiches, called bocatas, which are traditional Spanish-style sandwiches on locally baked, crusty organic bread with all sorts of creative fillings. It may be high-end gourmet, but you can dine here on any budget and be well-fed.
Monahan’s Seafood Market is a local treasure and fairly famous in the food biz. Anthony Bourdain visited in 2010, promoting the release of his book, Medium Raw: a bloody valentine to the world of food and the people who cook. This is where I buy seafood because I trust their sources and it is completely fresh. You order at their counter and tell them where you’ll be sitting. It usually takes ten to fifteen minutes for lunch to be made per order. You can order any fish out of the counter at market price to be prepared as desired with a choice of their signature sauces, rice, and vegetable of the day. Or they also offer sandwiches, daily specials, a raw bar, and chowder. On this one particular day, my lunch was their daily special: Salmon Sandwich with slaw on the side. It was very tasty and filling with just enough pizzazz in the patty. Lining the table area is an extremely wide variety of condiments from which to choose. I could have added sides or soup but the amount was perfect. Had I more space, I likely would have gone with either their hand-cut fries or the sautéed lemon-garlic spinach. A final thought in a setting like Monahan’s – always tip the counter help; they bring your food and serve you water, plus they are some of nicest people you will meet.
The Lunch Room Restaurant and Bar
is pleasantly located in a ground level corner space within Kerrytown Shops, in downtown Ann Arbor. They have a second smaller location near U-M North Campus, featuring a bakery and café, but the downtown locale is convenient to parking and lovely on a warm day. The seating extends to the garden atrium where one can sit in the shade of trees with little road noise. I have ordered several items from their all-vegan menu, but the one I feel most drawn to in the moment is the Powerup Bowl for an even ten dollars. It is full of fresh vegetables like kale, carrots, red peppers, avocado, rice, walnuts, and tofu. It is served with a sweet and savory maple Dijon sauce and they have other condiments such as Clancy’s Fancy Hot Sauce and Sriracha. The Lunch Room’s non-dairy and non meat menu items are made fresh with local ingredients that, when possible, are also organic. You can leave knowing you ate a very clean, healthy, protein-filled meal at budget. And if you still have space left, it’s worth noting they also bake all sorts of goodies, including gluten-free options.
I did say something about happy hour. The Last Word Bar is kind of a speakeasy, essentially located in the basement of LIVE Nightclub but with its own entrance. There are no signs on the darkly lit side door off W. Huron Street, just west of First Street. They open at 5 p.m. sharp. The ambiance is seductive and reminds me of an old hunting lodge. Lighting is low and they have plenty of seating in booths, at tables, or around the bar. My table of four sat in a good-sized booth with a lot of privacy, and romantic candles dotting the table. The space smelled intoxicating too — in an earthy kind of way, with high notes of cypress and juniper. I later learned they infuse their cocktails with smoke and other essences or aromas of the natural world. I was invited by a couple of family friends with my father as my date. Our friend paid the tab like a sly fox, but I stayed on my budget mission none-the-less. Well, I am slightly telling the truth….I did go over because I had a happy hour cocktail. The small plate menu on offer consisted of snacks and small prepared dishes. The combinations were provocative, slightly trendy, and mostly locally sourced. My pick was their Game Pot Pie, made of local rabbit, veggies, and cream sauce, all in a housemade tart with microgreens for exactly ten sheckles. It was yummy and comforting on a day with wind chills below zero. My dad opted for pork tacos, which were very sweet and three per order, so he added one extra so we could each sample. Another friend had Goat Poutine, which came in a large bowl with Sparrow Market goat, gravy, and cheese curds. Our other friend had a snack of Shishito Peppers blistered in truffle salt, sporting a gentle fragrance. All dishes were reasonably priced and brimming with flavor. In this way, they do have the last word.
It is impossible to list all my favorite Americana eateries where I can “bargain dine” in our area, but this is a sampling of some of my picks. Truly, you can dine almost anywhere for five bucks by simply ordering a cup of soup. In the next issue, I will take you to a selection of more globally inspired eateries. Until then, enjoy! Life is too short to compromise flavor and pleasure.