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Posted on Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 6:30 a.m.

Sidetrack Bar and Grill: Ypsilanti's classic saloon

By Jessica Levine


Sidetrack Bar and Grill reflects 150 years of Ypsilanti history.

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.

The beginning
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.

Train wreck
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 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.”


Sidetrack after the train wreck of 1929.

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.

Sidetrack today
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’sThe 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 Contact her at



Wed, Aug 18, 2010 : 9:21 a.m.

The menu is superb, the beverage menu interesting (in a good way), and the atmosphere authentic. Linda created a jewel!


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 2:19 p.m.

Speaking of Depot Town and classic Ypsi, here's the latest on the status of the Thompson Block:


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 11:07 a.m.

I love Sidetrack. I think the food is great. I agree with other's comments about the service. Our experience has been not to take your kids to this restaurant/bar as they are not kid friendly at all. We usually go to Aubree's across the street instead as they are extremely kid friendly and the food is great there also. Just our opinion.


Mon, Aug 16, 2010 : 8:08 a.m.

The food is awesome! I have been going to Sidetrack for years and although I do not go as as often as I would like I have always been thoroughly satisfied. Turnover is high because Linda demands excellence and our young people today cannot deliver and move on to other scenes where they do not have to deliver perfection! Keep up the expectations as that is why it is so successful! If you cannot hang go to delivering pizza!

Ypsi Gizmo

Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 9:13 a.m.

Sidetrack is our neighborhood bar. We're there at least once a week for good food and beer. There's always an eclectic group -- neighborhood folks, students & others just passing through. While the burgers are to die for, many of their other selections are also top-notch. Linda's Big Spring Salad is lovely, especially when you add the well marinated tempeh. And the chili? YUM!


Sun, Aug 15, 2010 : 8:42 a.m.

I like Sidetracks...but PLEASE FIX YOUR FRYER! The oil is never at the correct temperature and the deep fried items are, 98% of the time, not good. The oil is too cold and turns what should be hot, crisp fries into soggy, leaden gut-bombs, onion-rings into nightmares, and pickles into lethal torpedos wilting in pools of excess oil in their sad basket. So much going on, great owners, nice staff, cute location...fix the fryer please? I know at least 2 dozen people who've complained about the same thing.

Jessica Levine

Sat, Aug 14, 2010 : 12:59 p.m.

Thank you, all, for reading! :-)


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 12:28 p.m.

Sidetrack does have wonderful burgers and atmosphere. Unfortunately, their service is spotty - at best. Some nights it is downright horrible, and they seem to have very high turnover.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 6:58 a.m.

Sidetrack is one of my favorite places... it has character, good food and an awesome beer selection.


Fri, Aug 13, 2010 : 5:36 a.m.

Ypsilanti has some of the most interesting restaurants in the County, and I'm so glad you wrote about one of my favorites! Gotta love the mounted bear.