When I heard I'd be going to a place called the "Jolly Pumpkin Cafe", my heart sank. I had been punished from someone in the main office for going to too many provocatively-named, minimalist-interior bistros serving carefully manicured salads in the center of large white dishes. My sentence: what was sure to be a trite, cliched family theme restaurant - just replace mid-meal rainforest sounds with Halloween costumes.
"The Jolly Pumpkin". Chew on that name. It's fun. It's playful. It's cute. There's no way it could be in the top 25 restaurants in Ann Arbor according to nearly every list ever published. My fears quelled by a preemptive Google search, I walked in on a standard summer Friday evening with a newfound confidence in everything "Jolly Pumpkin": gone were the Pieces of Flair-inspired nightmares; I had been surprised once so far in this journey and eagerly awaited whatever lay next.
On your left: the enchanting ambiance of craft liquor.
First things first: the entrance to the restaurant is just, well, impressive. Rack after rack of colorful bottles (filled with all manner of liqours, spirits, and the Jolly Pumpkin's own brews) line the vestibule between the door and the hostess stand. At the right time of day, the beautiful glow of sunlit artisanal booze escorts you into the dining room and nearly carries you through the front door. The preceding is one the proudest sentences I've ever written.
The upstairs bar at the Jolly Pumpkin Cafe, Ann Arbor.
I was seated quickly in the "bar" area - an upstairs section filled with high-top tables and wooden furnishings. The Jolly Pumpkin is in many ways both a gastropub and a classic American watering hole: a menu bedecked with lamb burgers and truffle fries is offset by big TV's, a hefty draft beer selection, and the friendly din of careless chatter not usually found in a more "serious" foodie haven. It's like Happy Hour meets Le Cordon Bleu, and absolutely perfect for bringing the kids along. I can think of no place serving remotely equal food that is anywhere as family friendly as the Jolly Pumpkin.
In order to truly crown my gastropub experience, I went for the standard issue tavern order: I got a burger. Not just any burger - the "JP Burger". What's more pub food than the house special cheeseburger? The JP Burger is a far cry from the grease-on-a-bun that phrase brought to mind. Sure, it's a bacon cheeseburger. There's a beef patty, fix-ins, bacon, and cheese on a bun. Now take that mental image, send it to finishing school, and you'll get the following:
Pictured: a proper, "this needs two hands" burger.
This is a JP Burger. A hand-formed beef patty made exclusively with grass-fed beef slathered with melted cambozala cheese, and then topped with crispy applewood smoked bacon and crimini mushrooms. Throw that all on a fluffy brioche roll and you've got the Jolly Pumpkin's claim to fame. Your old bar cheeseburger grew up a bit after high school.
The first bite into my burger inspired the same primal race-against-the-clock reflex that a proper Frita activates: you have damaged the structural integrity of your food by daring to eat it, and gravity is now winning against your grip on what was once whole. The only proper reaction? Bite #2. If you're losing this war against the mouthwatering burger crumbling in your hand, you're gonna go down fighting.
Post-bite: a cross-section of burger paradise.
You know how good every bite is, and there's no way you'd sacrifice a complete bun-bacon-mushroom-cheese-beef-bun experience by daring to set the JP Burger down and watching it collapse into separate, irreconcilable (and certainly not finger food-compatible) parts. A burger is not meant to be eaten with a fork and knife. So you press on, fulfilling your duty to the burger you ordered, pausing between bites to chew, savor, and perhaps even readjust condiments.
Then, suddenly, it's over. There's a bittersweet feeling in knowing that you had the best greasy, savory, meaty, certainly most delicious meal out of anyone at the table - even though you now have to watch them pick at their non-burger entrees at a civilized pace for the rest of the meal while you eat nothing. The old adage is true: a candles that burns twice as bright burns half as long.
The best part? Friday night dinner and drinks for two (with tip) cost just over $40. I don't believe a better value exists anywhere in town.
You literally can't put a JP Burger down. Between mouthfuls, there's no reason I ever wanted to. My excellent meal experience thoroughly humbled me for daring to judge a book by its cover. The JP Burger isn't a bar cheeseburger - it is ground beef and bacon nirvana humbly extended to you at an absolute steal. The Jolly Pumpkin isn't an adorable Sleepy Hollow theme restaurant - it's one of the best restaurants in Ann Arbor.
~Alex R. -Men's Fashion
Wanna check out more Ann Arbor restaurant reviews and recommendations? Check out previous editions of Bivouac Eats as we visit Frita Batidos, Mani Osteria, and Aventura!
Bivouac: Where Outdoor Passion Meets Indoor Fashion.