Angelo's Restaurant: Defining the Michigan breakfast
Framed by the culinary behemoths of the American coasts, it would be easy to lose our distinctive Midwestern identity in the grist — one wrought from the rusted tangles of industry and expanses of lakes and farmland. Too easy.
Many in the chattering class consider this region a cultural purgatory, a tilled canvas between America’s densely populated poles connected only by fading byways and highways. As for me, I’m an advocate of the unadorned open spaces. The land and food on the way to over-exposed America is America at its very heart: Land that’s big and green, and food that’s served in places like Ann Arbor’s own Angelo’s Restaurant on East Catherine.
Angelo's offers food iconic of the Midwestern diner. Especially in southeast Michigan, the diner exists among a special breed in gastronomy developed by Greek immigrants with a penchant for chili, hot dogs and breakfast stuffs.
Breakfast is where I begin my latest quest.
Starting with Angelo’s, my upcoming series will examine the food typically associated with the diner breakfast — eggs, potatoes, bacon, ham, pancakes, toast, donuts, the works.
You will hear from the gurus who’ve made it their life’s mission to promote the joys of these road food treats. And, you will get a few answers, a more complete understanding of our hometown’s place in contemporary American dining — one that is proudly unpretentious, and one that defies hackneyed stereotypes.
Angelo’s reputation as a diner comes on good authority. In a recent conversation with Michael Stern — a former Ann Arborite, co-webmaster of “Roadfood.com” and author of numerous food guides and cookbooks — he explained why he ranked the restaurant among the “Best of the U.S.” in his magazine, “Popular Plates: Quick Eats.”
Jessica Levine I Contributor
“Angelo’s has a personality. It’s got character and food that’s actually made by hand,” said Stern, speaking highly of its baked-daily bread that comes in white and raisin varieties. “Those things are ever rarer in the world, and that’s why we really treasure it.”
Whereas it is not a sleek, neon-dressed building off of Route 66, Stern believes that Angelo’s epitomizes the definition of diner. He warned me that we would get flak for the definition.
“To a lot of people, a diner is more about architecture and dÃ©cor than it is anything else. To me — while I love the look of a classic diner — what’s more important is the food that’s served, the attitude with which it’s served and the attitude that people have when they come to it,” he said.
“The casualness, the relative inexpensiveness, the unpretentiousness of the food — those to me are the qualities that define a diner.”
Interestingly, Michigan’s diner culture has been largely shaped by immigrants from Greece, including entrepreneurs like Angelo Vangelatos who have merged traditional flavors and temperaments from the homeland with contemporary tastes.
The result, inexpensive meals and wanderlust: I can personally attest to Americans’ affinity for the open road and the food that jogs alongside it. Even to the most seasoned of travelers like Stern, however, the history of Greek influence is ambiguous.
“What’s interesting about so many of the Greek restaurants is that most of them don’t serve traditional Greek food,” he explained. “An argument can be made that the chili they use has a lot of Greek flavoring in it. However, you don’t find Greek dishes — sometimes you’ll see gyros, baklava and souvlaki. But, those are token Greek dishes. The bulk of the menu of so many of these places is burgers, salads, steaks and chops. It’s a mystery.”
Yet, what is clear at Angelo’s is its sense of community. Tom Kimball, a friend and resident of Dexter, frequents Angelo’s with his family and would attest to its welcoming familiarity. For him, it is a breakfast tradition that he began after hearing local singer-songwriter Dick Siegel's tune "Angelo's" on weekend radio. His enthusiasm is complete.
“An intangible sense of delight is created when a restaurant gets it right,” said Kimball. “Angelo’s has that elusive mix of well-trained, kind and sincere employees; great food with some unique and special menu items; and a comfortable ambiance favorable for sharing with someone you love.”
It’s Saturday morning, and the dining room is packed. Order tickets flank the kitchen window, as harried waiters dart from behind the counter to the crashing din of the dining room. Single-serve boxes of Special K and Fruit Loops lean against an original Angelo’s sign advertising its homemade bread — a mark of the quintessential diner.
Starting with eggs over easy, hash browns and toast, let the breakfast ventures begin. This is neither food nor culture you’ll want to miss. Pass the syrup, please.