I avoid the southwest side of Ann Arbor as much as possible. The plastic shopping centers, theme restaurants, SUV-choked traffic, and sprawling sprawl nearly give me an anxiety attack every time I encounter them. I could say that the stores and homes keep springing up like mushrooms, but that would be an insult to fungi.
So I should have known better when I agreed to accompany my seafood-loving husband on a visit to Joeís Crab Shack (3020 Lohr Road). I certainly had no plans to write about it in this column, as I have little interest in profiling chain restaurants when Ann Arbor is blessed with so many independently envisioned, owned, and operated food establishments worthy of attention. But, even though the food at Joeís was actually pretty good, I had such a bad experience, such a sense of culture shock (this is my culture?), that I had to write about it if only to try to make sense of my own feelings.
Let me begin by describing our arrival. It was a Tuesday night, about 8:30ólate for dinner, but it was during the heat wave, so people were thronging to air conditioned restaurants for late meals, Jeff and me included. When we walked in the door, someone was talking through a PA system, announcing that one of the patrons was celebrating some special event. Before we knew it, the restaurant was darkened except for colored flashing lights, and "Macarena" began playing at a deafening volume. Waiters and waitresses stood on chairs, demonstrating the various moves of the "macarena" dance, while one employee called out the moves over the loud speaker (from a card he was reading). I guess people sitting at the tables were joining in, but I didnít really notice, because I was wondering how we were supposed to be shown to a table in the middle of all this.
The fact was, we werenít. Several other couples arrived while the song played, and none of us could be seated until it was over. Itís a long, monotonous song, and it took about five minutes before the lights came back up and an employee noticed us. Now, Iím not a demanding diner, really. Iím easily pleased by simple food, and I try to be patient and encouraging with harried wait staff. But I come to a restaurant to sit down and to eat, and I quickly learned that these are not high priorities at Joeís Crab Shack.
Drinking, however, appears to be very important. The menu of colorful, goofy mixed drinks that donít taste like alcohol fills two pages. The dining roomís cement floors seem designed for easy puke clean-up. Maybe the raucous "entertainment" is funny when youíve got a buzz going. Maybe you donít mind that the 80s music is so loud your waitress canít hear your order:
"Iíll have the grilled shrimp," I screamed.
"Okay, then, the chicken," she shouted back, writing it down.
"What beer do you have on tap?" Jeff yelled.
"Sure, Iíll get you some tap water," she replied.
After a prolonged shouting match, she walked away with some version of our order, wearing her "Peace, Love, and Crabs" tie-dyed T-shirt. The PA was playing "I Will Survive" at 120 decibels. I questioned whether I would.
We witnessed two birthday celebrations during our meal, but singing "Happy Birthday" wasnít enough for the guests and staff at Joeís. Each of the young birthday boys was dressed by his waiter in a feather boa and football helmet and told to walk around the restaurant with a stuffed blue heron between his legs. The PA announced it was time for another "dork on a stork" as each boy took turns agreeing to this demeaning attention. Now, these boys were too young to drink, but they seemed willing to submit to being a spectacle for the other cheering patrons. Maybe they even asked their parents to take them to Joeís Crab Shack for just this kind of party.
And this is where I began to feel queasy about the popularity of this restaurant and the version of American culture it represents. What was this suburban nightmare I had to endure just to eat dinner? And why didnít anyone else seem bothered by it? There are Joeís Crab Shacks all over the country now (though it originated in Texas, the source of so many fine American influences), and these other locations presumably have the same repertoire of song-and-dance breaks, same offensive birthday routines, same 60s counter-culture symbols as meaningless decoration, and same T-shirts and signs making venereal disease puns. And people are flocking to them. When Jeff and I tried to go back on another night (in order to prepare to write this piece), there was a 55 minute wait for a table. We left. I simply couldnít brave the scene that long.
I can see why people might want to come here to eat. When we finally got our orders, they were surprisingly tasty. Jeff was very pleased with the "Steampot" for thirteen bucksóa pile of crawfish, shrimp, crab legs, mussels, redskins, onions, and greens, all steamed together. I got three skewers of tender grilled shrimp. We also tried a hot plate of rich crab dip, melted with cheese, which was great on crackers, but lousy with the stale chips that came with it. The best dish was the seafood gumbo, with a succulent spicy broth, and tons of fish and shrimp, peppers and onions.
Itís just too bad you canít get the food without the fluff. "Smoking or non-smoking?" "Loud, obnoxious, orchestrated fun or quiet table for two?"
Maybe you think Iím just being a whiner, that I donít know how to have a good time, that Iím just getting too old for my own good. Maybe youíre right. But I do like loud music and dancing in other contexts. And I do enjoy drunken revelry now and then, but I like mine to be spontaneous, the result of friends getting a little wild together, not a synthetic, predigested party atmosphere cooked up by some corporate office in Houston and taught to minimum-wage wait staff as a requirement for their continued employment. Maybe the problem is that suburban America doesnít know how to have a good time anymore, unless theyíre spoon-fed it by the malls and restaurants they frequent.
Anyway, I learned my lesson. Iím sticking to my old low-key, family-friendly restaurant favorites, where Iím happy to give my money to hard-working local owners. And if you wonít find it too boring just to eat a good meal, I suggest you do the same.
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