Fleetwood Diner

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.

D’aw.

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.

A la cartoon.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.

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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.

Get 'em while they're hot!

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.

Chili to the bone.I had to put that mustard there, and I wasn’t happy about it.

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?

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3 thoughts on “Fleetwood Diner

  1. Ah, Fleetwood. When I was a student at Michigan, I spent a year on 1st Street, only a few blocks from this fine dining establishment. So, I’ve had my fair share of drunken nighttime feasts and hippie hash breakfasts.

    Although Fleetwood will always have a place in my heart, I agree that it’s nothing special. It’s a solid little diner, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat there. Ann Arbor has a lot more to offer.

    Frita Batidos is only a stone’s throw away from Fleetwood. It is Cuban-style deliciousness.

  2. Do you personally think Ann Arbor has many authentic restaurants left? I always get this sneaking suspicious that the city was whitewashed sometime before I was born.

  3. Oh, yeah. No doubt. The only question is, “how authentic do you want it?” Seoul Garden offers terrifyingly authentic South Korean cuisine: http://aaseoulgarden.com/

    The many neighborhood Indian, Asian and Middle Eastern establishments are also the real deal – and much of the food in A2, especially Kerrytown, serves up fresh food by local farmers from local owners.

    Frita Batidos is my favorite restaurant ever, and it offers Cuban food. I don’t know how “authentic” it is, but then again, there’s not much to compare it to. You don’t see a lot of Cuban food around.

    Mexican options tends to be more chain oriented, but there’s authentic stuff available if you know where to look. Also, the famous Zimmerman’s deli might be a bit trendy, but they truly use nothing but the best ingredients.

    Most of the places on Main Street are overrated, but Ann Arbor is a phenomenal food town.

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