Sidetrack Bar and Grill: Ypsilanti's classic saloon
Jessica Levine I Contributor
Ypsilanti: A college town, a town that is working-class—factory workers in blue button-ups, pizza makers sweating over 500-degree ovens, and hospital orderlies on the graveyard shift. And a town that is familiar with homelessness and decay, as well as a budding scene of artists, musicians and poets, worshippers of anything and everything Kerouac and Urban Outfitters.
Ypsi’s got places like the Chick-Inn Drive-In, Dos Hermanos and Wolverine. Pawn shops like Dave’s Diamonds & Gold. This is a town that’s seen history, blood and fire. It was formerly a train stop, a breather on the way to Ann Arbor.
It is Sidetrack Bar and Grill, a brick and lacquer saloon that runs so close to the Amtrak line in Depot Town that its foundation rocks with the screaming train rails. And it has served up the everyman’s grub for more than 150 years.
“It is what it is,” said current Sidetrack owner Linda French in a recent video produced by Concentrate. “If you look around, it’s the same bar as it was in 1850.” The bar—perfect for wearied elbows and shot glass-sliding—takes up the majority of the dining room. Mounted bears and moose, railroad signs, and pictures and clippings yellowed with age cling to the brick walls. A tarnished mirror hangs over the bathroom sink.
Jessica Levine I Contributor
It is what it is. The story begins in 1860.
Sidetrack’s fate as the Ypsiman’s saloon was decided years before we came to love its famous sweet potato fries. While the space was actually built in 1850, its 1860 occupant, the Pavillion Saloon, began the building’s barman legacy. A year later, the Civil War started. According to historian James Mann, the young soldiers quartered across the street at the Thompson Block, then called the Norris Block, were a raucous bunch up nightly cooking, dancing and playing the fiddle. Before their tours out east, our boys needed stiff whiskey drinks. The nearby Pavillion would have accommodated.
Sidetrack has literally taken its knocks. To this day, the building stands at a distinctive right angle at the corner of Cross and River. The cause: A derailed train car that slammed into its side on Jan. 21, 1929. In a recent MLive.com article, Mann described the scene: “A freight train was passing through Ypsilanti that morning when Michigan Central baggage man Fred Beck saw the truck of a car was off the track,” he writes. “Before the train could be brought to a stop, the car broke its coupling and lurched across the street and crashed into the building.”
Photo courtesy of Ypsilanti Gleanings
The infrastructure of the then-lunch and soda joint owned by Louis Caldwell was badly damaged, as the ceiling hung on its hinges and parts of the wall had caved. But, in its badass mien, the wreckage was cleared and the building was eventually repaired.
Sharing history with the other Motor City
In 20th century Southeast Michigan, cars defined us. The make, the engine, the overall condition—all qualities scrutinized at long red lights and parking meters. Ypsi was the home of some of the best, like Tucker and Apex Motors. Across the street from Sidetrack, then called the Central Bar and Tavern, Carl Miller sold Hudsons and American Motors vehicles. Today, the Ypsilanti Automotive Heritage Museum now occupies the old Miller Motors building. Perhaps in tribute to its comparable place in local history, the museum’s website recommends its visitors to Sidetrack.
Linda French bought the restaurant in 1980. Sidetrack has since been lauded by renowned food writer Alan Richman, who ranked the restaurant’s “Our Famous Burger”—an ultra-thick patty dressed up with the essentials, best paired with those hand-cut sweet potato fries and homemade horseradish—number 19 on GQ’s “The 20 Hamburgers You Must Eat Before You Die.” In addition to standard tavern fare and burgers, house-made chili, and Irish pub eggrolls, Sidetrack offers a wide selection of local drafts and microbrews. For banquets and crowd overflow, French purchased the premises next door in 2000 and dubbed it Frenchie’s.
A Michigan August
Groups of businessmen squeeze in around umbrella’d tables on the oddly angled patio. A cleaning car squeaks by on the rails, its horn halting the steady buzz of August cicadas. Two women at the bar order Bell’s Porter and giggle with the bartender. It’s loud—bar loud—the kind of place where you lean in close to catch only the tail end of your fellows’ monologues. Whether 1860 or today, Sidetrack remains a classic saloon.
Sidetrack is where Ypsi goes. It is where Ypsi has always gone. Because Ypsilanti, like Sidetrack, is what it is.
Jessica Levine profiles the culture and history of Washtenaw County restaurants for AnnArbor.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.