Grease and fermentation: two great tastes that taste great together.
This article is not about gourmet bistros that know how to sling their alcohol. Ann Arbor has plenty of $25-a-plate restaurants known for mixing up a mean martini. This article is dedicated to the pubs, joints, and cafes that know how to pair tasty (mostly cheap) alcohol-absorbing grub with their bottomless dedication to the joys of booze.
(burp)BTB Cantina - Best Mexican food in a Mexican bar
BTB makes (arguably) the best Mexican in town. A line stretches out the door at 2 a.m. at their State Street location with the post-saloon crowd seeking the perfect late night food. BTB cut out the middleman and made a place where they can offer the booze and the food in one place. The product is the BTB Cantina.
The Cantina is stocked with tons of Mexican beer, liquor - even a Patron dispenser, but the food holds its own. Their burritos are plump and the base ingredients are solid - fluffy white rice (not cilantro-happy like Chipotle or spiced and tinted yellow like Moe's) mixed with a great wingman of fresh cheese, very green and very fresh lettuce and good beans, all wrapped in a tasty tortilla. Their meat is well spiced, juicy and there aren't many squidgy bits. The grilled chicken deluxe burrito is most popular, served with guacamole and sour cream. Big appetites go for the giant burrito which is about the size of two mortal burritos. Perfect for a long drunken night or the walk home.
The basis of any good Mexican restaurant is the chips and salsa. Cantina passes with flying colors - fresh salsa with a good tomato to green stuff and onion ratio. The chips are nice and salty, but not too salty, and they give you a handful with each order, though you can get a bigger order if you have the hunger. Café Felix - Fanciest (and schmansiest) bar food in town
Café Felix is like a drunken millionaire - think Arthur Bach, the character popularized by Dudley Moore in the 1980s comedy Arthur
. Like Arthur, Café Felix looks incredibly fancy but don't be fooled - it's got an incredibly high BAC. This isn't a bad thing. On the contrary, cheap martini Mondays and half-off wine Wednesdays give upper-crust boozehounds like me an excellent place to tipple and eat real food.
A nice tapas menu will beat the munchies after a few drinks. Try the tabla mixta (prosciutto, melon, strawberries, baked brie, spicy olives, and a baguette) the moules et frites (fancy black mussels with pimento and olives served with French fries) or the chicken turnovers. Every server I speak with swears by the pan fried potatoes. Lightly fried in oil with chopped tomatoes, garlic and fresh parsley - what cowboys would eat if cowboys drove Audis.
It's food like Arthur's mother used to make. It's food like Arthur's mother's chef used to make! Don't let the white table clothes and the framed prints of French people doing French things in Paris throw you off. Look behind the bar. That wine rack is loaded with 67 bottles of wine. Multiple brands of champagne chilling. This is a fancy restaurant with a drinking problem.Conor O’Neill's - Food that'll give you a big drunken hug
Alcohol is a depressant and sometimes after a bad day/week/month/round of video poker, drowning your sorrows will just make you more sorrowful. It's times like this that you need comfort - a hug. Conor O'Neill's is just the place. First, they'll get you well and depressed with their extensive beer and liquor selection and then they'll wrap you up in their gut-busting arms. You can dabble in appetizers, but those are more like handshakes. Go for the Irish stew (big chunks of lamb and potato simmered in Guinness gravy), the corned beef cabbage, or old faithful - the shepherd's pie! Just don't order a salad. Salads don't know how to love.
Maybe you're not sad. Maybe you're looking to mix entertainment with food. Conor's has trivia on Monday nights where they offer an entrée and a beer for eight bucks. A Burger, Reuben sandwich, chicken tenders - good food, cheap, with a big pint of beer. How can you be sad after that? Unless you can't remember the name of the drummer from Rush. (Hint: it's Neil Peart).The Heidelberg - Best place to gorge for $5
The Heidelberg is best known for Das Boot - half-liter and one-liter glass boots of beer - but the best kept secret is the food. I'll gloss over a nice ethnic menu featuring German noodles and knackwurst, as well as a great old U-S-of-A menu with breaded mac and cheese bites, a $3 burger basket and the Heidelberg's fancy take on the Big Mac (the T-Bird) and focus on the main event. All you can eat!
Thursday - BOOM - happy hour taco night. Friday - KERSMASH - happy hour hot wings and cheese nachos night. Wear elastic pants. That's two solid hours (5-7pm) of all-you-can-stuff-in-your-face tacos and hot wings and nachos. There's a two-drink minimum but the drinks are only two bills. For $5 you can eat like the prince of a very crappy country and mix it all in your belly with cheap booze. That's 2,900 calories well earned! Get there early to stake out a booth and be sure to have your vaccinations up to date just in case. A lot of people descend on Thursday and Friday and some of them don't wash their hands. Aut Bar - Best boozy Sunday brunch
Let's cover the liquid portion of brunch first, shall we? Bloody Marys, mimosas (pear, papaya!), tequila sunrise, Bellinis, and raspberry champagne. Hair of the dog or hair of the grizzly?
The food is just as impressive. A menu full of omelets, breakfast burritos, potato dishes, and staples like pancakes and French toast. There are eight Mexican options, including chilaquiles (eggs, corn chips, tomato, jalapeno, peppers and cheese with tortillas) as well. It all comes with solid toast (very important!) and good coffee.
The omelets steal the show. Big, yellow, and fluffy served with fresh fruit and shredded potatoes. The Sonoma (chicken and guacamole) and the chorizo chili cheese omelets are popular, but I'm partial to the turkey and Gouda omelets which hits the spot every time.
Brunch runs from 11am to 2pm and it gets pretty busy a little after noon, so set your alarm or just keep drinking until 11am. You're an adult; you can make these decisions on your own. Circus, 8-Ball Saloon/Blind Pig, Old Town Tavern - Free is a good price
What's better than good food at a bar? Free food at a bar! But let's be real, Ann Arbor is a college town so you're not going to see banquet tables filled with happy hour hors' devours. They'd be hoovered up by students in less time than it takes to say, "Dood, you have to try the stuffed mushroom caps?"
But there are snacks. Tasty, salty, booze-soaking snacks to give you an extra hour or two of tippling before you trudge home to your lonely apartment for a late night Hot Pocket.
The crown jewel of free food is Old Town, offering off-the-menu peanuts free with every beer purchase. They'll bring a nice bowl you can shell at your table and keep the refills coming all night long. Peanuts have the good fat. Eat away.
And if George Washington Carver's favorite legume doesn't hit the spot, there's a respectable menu of bar grub on hand.
The 8-Ball Saloon and Blind Pig have the best free popcorn in town. Massively salted (that's how I like my bar popcorn) but perfect with a cold drink, you can dip your red basket into one of the two popcorn machines all night long. Corn is a vegetable, right? Mom would approve.
Circus has the second-best free popcorn in the city, which is to say it's the only place other than the 8-Ball and Blind Pig where I've had free popcorn. It's not as fresh and not as salty as the champion, but guess what? It's free!
Richard Retyi is Assistant Director for Athletic Media Relations at the University of Michigan. He writes a biweekly(ish) column for AnnArbor.com called "Lie to Your Cats About Santa". His first previous article for Concentrate was Ann Arbor's Video Game LibrarianSend comments or questions here.
All photos by Doug Coombe
Erik serves up a Guiness and Shepherd's Pie at Conner O'Neill's
Dubstep night at BTB Cantina
Gabe and Andrea enjoy Das Boot and tacos at the Heidelberg
You can't beat mimosas in the court yard at the Aut Bar
Misty Lyn at The Old Town
Dawn takes a karaoke break at the Blind Pig