Zingerman's is overrated

There! I've said it. And any minute now, I expect the Ann Arbor cultural committee to come and usher me into silence. When I tell people I'm living in Ann Arbor, anyone who has ever been here before asks, "Have you been to Zingerman's yet?" Anyone who has never been to Ann Arbor is no doubt wondering, "What is a Zingerman's?" Zingerman's is more than just a deli/gourmet food shop/bakehouse/coffee shop/brand name/way of life - it's a veritable Ann Arbor institution. I shall never argue that they do what they do well - and they do a lot. Situated on a diagonal street called Detroit, a few blocks northwest of campus, the "main" Zingerman's is a tiny, cramped deli-cum-gourmet shop selling much-ballyhooed sandwiches along with fresh, house-made cheeses, their own breads and the sort of thing that makes gourmands swoon, like 50 year old balsamic vinegar aged to a syrupy consistency.

Next door is, appropriately enough, Zingerman's Next Door - a coffee house with generous space that does double duty as seating area for deli meals purchased next door. It is not, however, a quiet place as the unfailingly nice and welcoming staff circle at all times, carrying trays loaded down with $10 sandwiches and hollering the names associated with them. That said, I have been there on non-weekends, in non-peak hours and sat in the relative quiet of the upstairs tapping away on their free wireless. It is a nice place where they produce good food - but we're not certain it's fantastic food. Granted, we're spoiled rotten from the low cost of living in St. Louis but even by Ann Arbor standards, Zingerman's seems a bit over-priced for what they deliver. Compared to a New York deli, however, I'm guessing it's par for the course. (I'm just saying that if I pay $11 for a regular-sized sandwich, I want it to change my life somehow....)

The truly interesting part about Zingerman's - which also operates a bakehouse, creamery, mail order service, catering company and bona fide restaurant over on our side of town - is perhaps what you don't see. Or, rather, what you don't realize you see - a truly admirable commitment to customer service. In fact, under the name Zingtrain, the company shares its wisdom and philosophies on organizing and management. It's an unusual - and unusually cool - approach. And so maybe that's not a $5 brownie you're really paying for, but a hat-tip to a workable and respectable business model.

I mention Zingerman's today because we just came from there, among other stops on an overcast afternoon spent wandering around Kerrytown. Chris decided to skip this week's football game and donated his tickets to a group of Fellows who don't have them and we decided to hit the Farmer's Market again. (Seriously, wasn't there a football game just last weekend? How often do you people need to watch this sport?)

Despite the grey skies, it was an ideal way to spend a few hours on a Saturday. As I've mentioned before, the Farmer's Market is not grand in scale, but it's always fun to browse the stalls with their competing styles of heirloom tomatoes, tiny wooden baskets filled with miniature eggplant, painted tin cans threatening to tip under the weight of bunches of giant sunflowers. It feels like an unbelievably civilized way to live, to shop and do business with independent folk among other city dwellers.

And the walking...while my rear is still getting adjusted, can I just say there is a particularly healthy type of thrill living in an area where you can park your car once (or step off the bus) and make your way around wherever you need to go by foot? Last night, for example, Chris and I parked the car centrally in town and walked a few blocks for a sumptuous feast of Ethiopian food at a restaurant called The Blue Nile.

Afterwards, we wandered for a while, walking up and down streets, exploring the neighborhoods, marveling at some truly amazing houses that must have once been the most beautiful private homes - and today stand in various states of disrepair, their innards divided into as many as nine different apartments for student housing.

When we felt we'd earned a respite, we walked down to Amer's and treated ourselves to coffee and dessert and sat doing a crossword puzzle by the window as students made their way past, their night just beginning as ours wound down. Honestly, at this phase in my life, I'm hard-pressed to come up with a more pleasing way to spend an evening. I tell you, people, I'm liking this college town living.