I was going write a scene about George Custer’s life in Monroe as he boldly galloped along the main drag in his many desperate attempts to win the heart of Elizabeth Bacon, daughter of the unimpressed and influential Judge Daniel Bacon. It’s a real touching story. As he moves up the ranks of the U.S. army, he eventually wins the girl, and decades after he dies in the Battle of Little Bighorn, his wife unveils a great, big statue of Custer on Monroe Street in 1910 to celebrate his memory.
But then I went to Fleetwood Diner, a small prefabricated metal Googie double-wide trailer on Ashley Street in downtown Ann Arbor, Michigan, that dates back to the 1949. Suddenly, I forgot all about Custer and his querulous mustache, swept up in a haze of the restaurant’s infamous “hippie hash” and grease. Hash browns loaded with onions, tomatoes, green pepper, broccoli, and mushrooms, topped off with feta cheese and your choice of gyro meat, corned beef, or tempeh? My God, I don’t think there is a better synthesis of everything that is Ann Arbor than this. A decent-sized college town (U of M) with just over 100,000 people, it’s self-consciously liberal, unabashedly indulgent, probably too accepting, and rich as freakin’ hell. I had to write about all this while it was fresh on my tongue.
There’s this popular image, of course, of Ann Arbor as this Birkenstock-wearing, pot-smoking hippie haven, but the last person spotted wearing Birkenstocks in public was reportedly found dead in a dumpster behind American Apparel desperately clutching a moldy hunk of tofurkey and a dog-eared copy of Abbie Hoffman’s Steal This Book way back in 2004. Times have changed.
Hippie hash! With tempeh!
Take the Fleetwood, which ingeniously features loaded hash browns as the star of the menu. When I worked in a diner, the first thing they put me on during the morning rush was hash browns – you have to be extraordinary incompetent to mess up hash browns. We dutifully loaded the hash browns with most of the same stuff you’ll get at Fleetwood and threw butter on the grill with the same reckless abandon, but for some reason no one was beating down our door for the end result. However, throw in Fleetwood’s good location, a clever pun, a staff that’s a little rough around the edges, and never update anything ever, and you have an “authentic” dive that’ll attract late-night drunks like mosquito to an incandescent light bulb. It’s probably more image than substance, but hey, it works. Think of the scars and worn spots on the white counters as the restaurant equivalent of tattoo sleeves. This is cool, man.
That’s not to say the hippie hash isn’t good. The vegetables are generously portioned and fresh, the feta cheese is an inspired touch, and who doesn’t like fried potatoes? Fleetwood also has a good coney dog, a meaty Detroit-style chili slop with only one noticeable flaw: they expect the customer to put on the mustard. Gasp! Shudder! HORROR! That’s like a chef telling you to season his soup for him! Such duties should be left to trusted, consecrated professionals, not the average layman. It’s a shame, because that frank is pretty amazing. So, so juicy.
Still, if you’re ever drunk in Ann Arbor, you could do much, much worse than Fleetwood. Expect to wait a bit for some seats if you’re with a group, though. This place is tiny and, more often than not, packed – that’s part of why it’s so cool. Sure, with the insane money Fleetwood must take in on bar nights, they could build the most modern, spacious and antiseptic diner ever, but who wants that?