Ann Arbor’s most adored greasy spoon, the Fleetwood Diner, is at the intersection of Ashley and Liberty Streets on the edge of downtown. Last March, tiny Fleetwood celebrated its mammoth existence: 60 years of sassy excellence.
What keeps Fleetwood’s colorful clientele coming back isn’t the service, the food (delicious but, on the whole, standard) or the fact that it’s open 24/7. The appeal is the rolling together of all these aspects and the people who go there into one. In short, it’s the Fleetwood experience that calls patrons in.
Fleetwood’s seedy charm and standing-room-only ambiance provide the perfect avenue for the unexpected. The tin-tackle box exterior is unassuming, looking more like an old trailer than an emblem of the American past.
Inside, the walls are stickered, stamped and shellacked with so many fliers for upcoming concerts that you would think you had stumbled into CBGB in the 1980s. If the black-and-white-checkered floor doesn’t make you feel like you’re at a punk show, the lack of breathing room on any Friday or Saturday surely will. Talking with strangers is completely unavoidable, overhearing bizarre conversations is a must and a violation of personal space should be anticipated. The chances of a fight breaking out are high.
Fleetwood satisfies the same set of unshakable requirements necessary for any space to accurately call itself a modern diner. Sinfully greasy food? Check. Staunch resistance and disdain toward anti-tobacco legislation? Check. An eerie trend of longevity among staff members with either a) tattooed-on face make-up, b) jeans that don’t fit, c) life long struggle to quit smoking greatly inhibited by choice of employment or d) willingness to discuss personal issues with strangers like weight gain or loss, nasty ex-boyfriend situations or childhood memories? Quadruple check.
But what makes a diner emblematic of its home town is not the presence of these elements, but the minutiae — those eccentric characteristics that separate it from the rest of the pack. Fleetwood has plenty of quirks. For one thing, the standout dish Hippie Hash violates the mold of traditional hash browns, branding the beloved American side with a distinctly Ann Arbor flavor. In addition to the usual potato shavings and the healthy helping of oil, you’ll get peppers, broccoli, onions, mushrooms, tomatoes and feta cheese, making it a solid enough choice to stand solo. (P.S. It’s the bomb. )
If you can surmount the series of challenges thrown at you in your quest for deliciousness, perhaps you’ll get to sample this innovative delight. Of course, that would require that you’ve found a table — a difficult task. Next, the waitress: She’ll greet you with contempt, vacancy or perhaps, if it’s early enough, spunk. You’ll overcome this, asking politely then waiting patiently as it takes 35 minutes to get your order. It’s worth every second of the inordinately long wait. And I advise you to go for the whole Hippie breakfast (two eggs any style with hippie hash and toast), because once it gets there you’ll be much hungrier than you first thought.
Another anomaly at Fleetwood is the halal meat. I’ve seen it in Greek and Middle Eastern restaurants, but never in another diner. Fleetwood employs it in its meaty hippie hash and gyros, but don’t worry vegans — there’s also a seitan version of the hash for all your late night needs.
Some will complain about Fleetwood’s dirtiness and the incessant smoking of its patrons. I say a diner is not a real diner if it’s not a baby’s breath away from the lowest health and sanitation limits, the final relic of our Upton Sinclair past. My only misgiving with Fleetwood is its lack of milkshakes. I mean, get it together guys. What’s my order of greasy fries without a huge chocolaty or vanilla treat to wash it down with? Clearly, in my mind, my own lactose intolerance does not exist after 3 a.m. I feel strongly that Fleetwood should be there to support me in my bad decision.