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Posted on Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 10 a.m.

Northside Grill is all that jazz

By Jessica Levine


Ann Arbor’s Northside Grill beats like jazz.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

Ann Arbor’s Northside Grill grooves.

Rated one of’s “BestOf” breakfasts, Northside Grill's modus operandi — the way owner Jim Koli and Dining Room Manager David Ruby swing around the dining room with pots of coffee, the smooth moves of the wait staff bearing platters of cheesy browns and oat-rolled cakes, the soft hum of the Tuesday brunch hour — beats like jazz. Breakfast spots like these are controlled, slow and honeyed like Thelonious Monk and French roast.

They echo the sounds and memories of the things we know best: Love, pain and the comforts of home.

Next to Koli himself, Ruby is the guy closest to the heart of Northside. He began as a waiter 16 years ago and hasn’t turned back since. There must be a connection between the food he serves and the man.

“All the women in my family could really show you love with breakfast,” said Ruby. “I also loved that my father and grandfather would cook a great breakfast, even though they didn't cook a lot at other times. And other times, Dad would take my brother and me to the tiny Whitehouse diner in Clare, where I grew up.”


Dining Room Manager David Ruby filling up.

Jessica Levine I Contributor

Though a phrase bandied around the foodie blogosphere, the concept of comfort food — whether sausage and grits or a picnic lunch of tomato, butter and bread — is simple and honest, a stark contrast to the pomp of avant garde kitchens. 

Koli proposes that his restaurant, located on the fringes of polite academia, offers the warm familiarity that chefs grilling up strip streak rare can’t muster. Sashimi, bouillabaisse, lobster bisque — meals you’d find waiting in fine dining kitchen windows — won’t truly be made to order. That would mess with the chef’s vision, their master plan to blow away the palette with meticulous sophistication. Eggs and bacon are a different story.

“People like their hash browns lightly done, well done — it’s all over the map. Because it is comfort food, they’re used to having the food they order be manipulated,” he explained.

“That’s one of the challenges, here. We’re mass-producing food, but people have a preconception of what the food should be like based on how they grew up. You go out for fine dining, and you order steak with Cajun cream sauce — what more do you want to it?”

It is incredibly true. Breakfast is nostalgia. Breakfast out customizes to that nostalgia like no lunch or dinner joint can. For Ann Arbor’s disparate mix of starving students, townies and out-of-town visitors, a place that retrofits to the reminiscences of scrubbed kitchens and toast with jam means a heck of a lot.

Housed in an old dairy on Broadway, “There is some element of a neighborhood sanctuary,” said Ruby. “Our proximity to the University of Michigan Health campus also brings us medical professionals and their patients from all over Michigan.”

While proximity gets customers through the door, it is Koli’s varied and unique menu that keeps ‘em coming back. He offers both traditional favorites — two eggs, hash browns and toast is his number one seller — and dishes unique to stocky Midwestern tastes.

“Whole-bran pancakes work. We have a lot of vegetarian dishes and specialties like our Huevos Rancheros (eggs over a flour tortilla stuffed with refritos) and Morning Eggdition (eggs, diced tomatoes and ham),” said Koli.

“We tried dinner-type meals, and they didn’t sell. We’re known for our breakfast, we’re known for being open from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 363 days a year.”

That is just the way we like it here in the heartland. After night shifts on the ward, before bicycling into work — we are hungry. We’re tired, traveling and seeking respite in runny eggs and stacks of flapjacks. We’re looking for the smells and tastes of something idyllic, maybe even something lost.

“The atmosphere at the Northside is really about a soothing simplicity. It has a general hominess that people seem to like,” said Ruby. “They like the little local touches, like the music from WEMU or our own jazz and classics collection.”

Koli rings out a family at the register, and wraps a slice of homebaked strudel to go. Ruby caps off a regular’s vanilla coffee before banging back through the double doors into the kitchen. Monk’s ballad, “Ruby, My Dear,” fills in the empty bits of din in the dining room, easing customers into well-fed complacency.

“I love the Northside for being more about the people who work and eat there, than the physical space,” Ruby explained. “That's the atmosphere that people seem to care about.”

Jessica Levine profiles the culture and history of Washtenaw County restaurants for Contact her at



Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 2:46 p.m.

Keep writing the great profiles! So refreshing to NOT have a typical restaurant review. I like to decide for myself if I do or don't like a restaurant.


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:02 p.m.

The Northside is a good place, but they seriously need to look into expanding the size of their dining room.


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:42 a.m.

Northside is a great neighborhood spot, and good breakfast places are hard to come by in Ann Arbor. Ignatz, the story kindly says it was rated as "one" of the best in the poll, when it actually came in 7th. Still, a very respectable showing for a place that does dish up a good morning meal. I just wish it wasn't so crowded on weekend mornings -- when I want breakfast, I want it now!


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:24 a.m.

Mr. Ruby is the reason I like going there. He is so friendly and a GREAT server! The food is pretty good and it is comforting which I like alot. @nemo if you read the article again , it says "housed in an old dairy". Perhaps that was more than 50 years ago and before the diner. I hope the landlord or whomever will FIX THE PARKING LOT! Please...I hate the potholes! it has been that way for a long time! Just my 2 cents...:)


Thu, Mar 31, 2011 : 12:47 a.m.

my reading comprehension is just fine, look again


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 7:26 p.m.

The best fresh-squeezed orange juice anywhere , no lie.

David Cahill

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 5:47 p.m.

I love the Northside Grill!


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 4:28 p.m.

"Housed in an old hardware store on Broadway." When was it a hardware store? It was Cloverleaf Diner going back at least 50 years.

Jessica Levine

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 8:32 p.m.

@Nemo-- Thank you for pointing this out. I amended the sentence for accuracy; the building used to house, before it was a diner, a dairy. I misread my interview notes!

Jessica Webster

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:50 p.m.

One of the things I love about Northside is that it has such a great neighborhood feel. That and the fact that they are always playing WEMU overhead. Can't beat that. :)

Bob Martel

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:30 p.m.

This is one of my favorite breakfast and lunch places


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:28 p.m.

It baffles me that they don't offer call-ahead seating. The food is o.k., but not worth a 45 minute wait outside on a cold Sunday morning.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:21 p.m.

I've always been a bit baffled by the raves I hear/see about this place. I've been there more than a few times and have always had good meals and fine service, but to rate it the best in AA? I do like their Huevos Rancheros, but I find other places are just as good, if not better. To be fair, I have been to places far worse.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 4:45 p.m.

It's a popularity contest and the Northside is popular. I've been going to the Northside since before it was the Cloverleaf. The food and service is consistently good.

Marshall Applewhite

Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 3:40 p.m.

Yeah, I was going to post the same thing. I've only been to Northside a couple times, but it was just standard breakfast food. It was tasty, but nothing really outside the norm. It boggles my mind that the place is rated highly. The food at Angelo's is a lot better, in my opinion.


Wed, Mar 30, 2011 : 11:27 a.m.

One of the friendliest restaurants in town! And thanks for the photo slide show--nice touch.