Downtown Ann Arbor presents dozens of fabulous places to shop,
visit and dine at. If, however, you walk down East Liberty Street
to South Ashley Street, you’ll find something out of the
ordinary.

You’ll see it perched on a sloping corner, the tiny
Fleetwood Diner, a humble, unassuming building with stainless-steel
siding and a striped awning. It’s been here in Ann Arbor for
years, a landmark of greasy-spoon splendor often passed by in favor
of the more trendy, cosmopolitan restaurants. As you walk up the
gray sidewalk, you’ll see green plastic chairs and tables
pushed up against the front of the diner, crowded in with laughing
customers. More often than not there is a slumbering dog tied to
the telephone pole a few feet in front of the door. When you enter
the small space you’re immediately reminded of a ’50s diner;
you almost expect to see girls in poodle skirts and ponytails
sipping milkshakes.

The floor is a scuffed black-and-white tile to match the chairs
and tables. Loud stickers from Found Magazine and local bands cover
the dim front wall. A low counter runs along one half of the diner
where people sit, reading newspapers, boots resting on the raised
floor while they wait for their food. Take a seat on a stool; the
server will offer you a menu. Look around and soak in every image.
Next to you the man in the dark brown shirt pushes his eggs around
his plate. Curlicues of cigarette smoke fade into the fluorescent
lights. The smell of grease and the constant hiss of the griddle
stay low in the background as you observe the different characters
at each table. The old man in the corner talks to his companion,
waving his hands and drawing faces under his old green Army cap
while he smokes his cigarette down to the filter, crushing it in
the ashtray before taking a sip of his coffee. A man looks out the
window, his hair tinted a deep red, wearing sunglasses, a leather
coat and a wistful stare. The cook stays in constant motion, his
spatula screeching across the griddle to flip another patty.
It’s as if time has slowed down.

The young man behind the counter seems too busy to talk, even
though it is only late afternoon. Fleetwood is open 24 hours;
imagine how crowded it must be late at night, bustling with
concertgoers and midnight wanderers looking for a hot cup of
coffee. Take a look at the menu, which proclaims proudly
“Welcome to the Fleetwood. The hippest little diner in the
hippest little town in the Midwest. OK, so Ann Arbor’s not so
little.” You’ll see that Fleetwood’s menu is
nothing but diner food, pure and simple, priced very reasonably.
There’s a specialty, too -— the Hippie Hash, a stack of
homemade hash browns, grilled green peppers, onions, tomato,
broccoli, and mushrooms, topped with melted feta cheese. “I
think the Hippie Hash is great,” says fellow customer Claire
Vanpoperin about the food. “I come here a couple times a
month.”

Sit and watch for a while. Taste the food, sip your drink. Take
your time. When you leave you’ll be back in the real world,
serenaded by cell phones and traffic. But you’ll feel
difference somehow, with a sense of that you’ve stumbled upon
a relic. Not a particularly valuable one, perhaps, but something
with its own gritty charm.

The Fleetwood is anything but serene. It is brash and unashamed,
worn at the edges and a little faded. It still sticks out, though,
bringing some of Ann Arbor’s most unusual clientele. Jason
Jochems, sitting at a table with his hands cradling a cup of
coffee, might put it best. People “just happen to randomly
end up here. It’s just one of those places that makes Ann
Arbor feel like a real college town.”

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