It’s a restaurant. It’s a bar. It’s – what, exactly?
The BTB Cantina question
In a town where your weekend watering hole is a mark of your identity, the opening of a new bar means self-evaluation.
This is especially true for Ann Arbor’s most recent personality test, the opening of the much-hyped BTB Cantina last month.
The cantina has been a campus talking point from its conception. It was an innovative idea. The people who brought campus a classic drunk food, the BTB burrito, were going to cut out the middleman and get customers drunk themselves.
Now that the cantina is open, though, students making exploratory first visits don’t quite know what to make of it.
Is it fast food? Is it a bar? What time should you go? Should you go at all?
Ann Arbor has nothing like the cantina, a place where cheap, quick grub is coupled with an imported-beer-and-tequila bar that offers a $230 shot. And the idea of a BTB location with chic leather couches, or even various seating options, must also boggle a few minds.
Walking into the cantina, located in a nicely sized space above Good Time Charley’s, customers are greeted with bright lighting and up-tempo Mexican music. On a weekend night, the atmosphere is festive, but not too loud. There are plenty of people, but also available seats. The bar is accessible, and some of the bartenders conspicuously red-eyed and cheerful.
But something is a little off. It seems like the cantina’s customers, employees and even owners are confused about how things are supposed to work. People don’t know where to stand in line, when to show ID and whether or not they’re supposed to bus themselves.
“Customers are still trying to figure out where to form the line,” BTB co-owner Adam Lowenstein said. “They’re trying to figure it out. We’re still trying to figure it out.”
Since the cantina is a late-night restaurant, minors are allowed in anytime. And it shows. Besides Scorekeeper’s, BTB Cantina might be the only bar where it’s safe to bet that 30 percent of the clientele is underage. But at least the freshmen at Scorekeeper’s are savvy enough to own fake IDs.
Although legal drinkers are supposed to receive wristbands at the cantina’s entrance after showing identification, many students said they’ve gotten in without even seeing a doorman.
Despite what may be a younger crowd, the cantina still draws customers of all ages who simply love BTB.
Dustin Locke, Rackham graduate student and BTB devotee, accompanied his friend Heather Lowe on her first visit to the cantina last Sunday afternoon.
Locke said he latched onto the idea of the cantina because a Mexican-flavored hangout reminds him of places near his home in Dallas.
“I really like how they managed to make it consistent with the other BTB, but kind of nicer, trendier,” Locke said.
Lowe also approved of the atmosphere, calling the cantina’s margaritas the “perfect post-exam drink.”
“It’s sort of like the perfect college hangout – cheap food, you can get drinks, across from the school, basically,” Lowe said.
For Locke and Lowe, the cantina is a source for cheap meals and acceptable mid-day drinking. Both said they don’t plan to patronize the cantina after dark.
“We might be a little out of the age-range to be on South U at night,” Locke said.
The most enigmatic aspect of the cantina is when to go.
Even the cantina’s owners are unsure about its identity in that respect. Lowenstein said he had imagined the cantina would be mainly a pit stop for before or after going out, but initial attendance rates might suggest otherwise.
“It’s not necessarily a destination place – maybe it could be, who knows?” he said. “It’s been more of a bar scene than we expected.”
Lowenstein said he has encountered some customers who’ve been put back by the concept of the cantina.
Common issues, he said, are people who try to buy alcohol after 2 a.m. or who buy several drinks at last call only to have them thrown out by BTB employees at 2:15 a.m.
“At 1:45 a.m., if they want to buy 10 drinks and have 8 of them taken, that’s their prerogative,” he said.
Lowenstein said complaints about the cantina’s limited bar partly stem from people’s unfamiliarity with tequila. It’s a foreign notion for students who associate the alcohol with Spring Break blunders and licking salt off their arms, but top-shelf tequilas are meant to be sipped and savored.
Tequila has only become a gourmet alcohol in the last 20 years, when new aging and mixing techniques brought about a wide breadth of tequila flavors, Lowenstein said.
Two of those tequilas are 1800 Coleccion, priced on the cantina’s menu at $230 for a shot, and Gran Patron Bordeos, priced at $85 per shot.
A few customers have tried the Gran Patron Bordeos, a tequila that absorbs flavor from barrels that were used to age Bordeaux wines, but the cantina is still waiting on a bottle of the rare 1800 Coleccion. When the order finally comes in, the cantina will be the only restaurant in Michigan to offer the tequila, Lowenstein said.
A distinguished liquor shelf might put the cantina above the typical college dive, but it hasn’t quite mastered the Dominick’s-style dine and drink experience.
LSA sophomore Kelsey Bensch regrets taking her mother there for lunch a few weeks ago.
“There was no one there, but the music was disproportionately loud. And bad,” Bensch said.
She said the blaring 90’s pop that assaulted her and her mother made her think the cantina doesn’t easily transition from night to day.
“It’s in limbo between being a restaurant and a bar,” she said.
Bensch is a fan of the bar aspect, though. As a repeat patron, she said she enjoys the cantina’s laidback atmosphere and ample seating.
“The biggest appeal is I can go there and just sit and talk and not feel I have to be grinding up on someone,” she said.