Casa Dominick’s is a rambling, indoor-outdoor institution embedded within University of Michigan’s leafy Ann Arbor campus. Like spotting the first robin or daffodil poking up through the chilly ground, the opening of Dominick’s is a harbinger of spring—a welcome sign after a long, cold Midwestern winter.
As a college town hangout, Dominick’s follows Michigan’s academic calendar, running from just after spring break through the final football game each fall (there is no central heating—only space heaters for when autumn begins to wax). The nearby Shapiro Undergraduate Library is open 24 hours, but Dominick’s runs a more conservative schedule—closing on Sundays and at 10 p.m. each night.
In the decade-plus that I lived in Ann Arbor, I don’t think I’ve ever said, “Let’s get dinner at Dominick’s.” There’s no table service, so patrons stand in an often long, slow-moving line to place orders, then wait to hear their names called over an uncommonly loud, yet sometimes still inaudible speaker system. The ho-hum pizza and quesadillas aren’t worth the wait in line. But when someone does order them, I can never resist.
Drinks require waiting in line too, but once you’ve scored a hefty Ball jar of homemade sangria, Dominick’s emerges as worth the effort. It’s comfortable like your favorite broken-in college sweatshirt—the rare place that students, townies and nostalgic alumni can agree on.
Richard DeVarti, an A-squared townie (A-Squared is Ann Arborites’ affectionate nickname for their city) is the second-generation owner of Dominick’s. He started working there in fourth grade, and his travels to Spain inspired Dominick’s secret-recipe sangria—one he refuses to divulge.
De Varti’s father, Dominick, served in World War II and attended Michigan on the G.I. Bill after which he remained in Ann Arbor, married his wife Alice, and in 1959, bought a former neighborhood grocery between the law school and the business school. At first a restaurant, Dominick’s didn’t get a liquor license until the 1970s. Around the same time, DeVarti bought the house next door and stitched the two structures together with a large front balcony.
Today, below that second floor porch is the doorman, Silvio, who carefully inspects the IDs of undergrads and even some patrons who’ve clearly been of age since the Clinton administration. Past Silvio is a breezeway with the main bar to the right and an express bar for beverages on the left. A friend of mine who lived in Dominick’s ground-floor apartment beyond the breezeway bar still tells stories of having the run of the place after-hours.
The beauty is in the patchwork of the place—each of its spaces holds nostalgic significance. Perhaps most beloved is the backyard, where customers share picnic tables scattered around an open patio and fountain. On warm days, there’s a boisterous din of conversation and open seats are quickly snapped up.
I spent hours at Dominick’s with my MBA classmates pairing homework with shared jars of sangria and beer. Most of our classes ended just before 10 p.m., so occasionally a few of us would sprint across the street to squeeze in one round before close. And come close, Dominick’s doesn’t shut down at 10ish, allowing remaining patrons to finish at their own pace. Instead it brooms customers out with a loudspeaker announcement as insistent as an air raid siren.
Regardless of where you sit, the history and tradition of a largely unchanged family-owned institution is palpable. A time capsule of Ann Arbor’s significant political and cultural events, the poster-covered walls span from the 1971 John Sinclair Freedom Rally to the early days of the Ann Arbor Film Festival.
After his father died in 2001, Richard DeVarti spruced up the garden and made general repairs. “It was more ramshackle then,” he says, but he took care not to alter the atmosphere. People have suggested installing TVs to watch Michigan football, but he prefers keeping the focus on conversation.
He retains some old-fashioned business practices, too. Dominick’s doesn’t have a website, and if you make a reservation for a big group, forget Open Table—look for your name written in black marker on a round pizza cardboard, tacked up at the doorway. Any business consultant would surely advocate a faster, more efficient way of parting patrons from their money, but DeVarti thinks standing in line is part of the charm.
“There are a lot of ways I could make more money,” he says, “but I probably wouldn’t live as long.”
Dominick experimented with additional revenue streams, including running a white tablecloth restaurant upstairs for a while and opening a second location in nearby Ypsilanti with pizza delivery. In the 1960s, brothers Tom and Jim Monaghan bought the Ypsilanti location and trained with Dominick to learn how to make pizzas. They later changed their location’s name to Domino’s Pizza, the ubiquitous pizza chain that remains based in Ann Arbor.
Richard DeVarti dismisses the notion his family could have gotten rich building a pizza franchise.
“No one ever goes back to Domino’s and says, ‘Hey, I love this place. It means so much to me because this is where we met, we want to have our wedding here.’”
TO DRINK AND DRINK
Be careful, it’s potent: Dominick’s secret-recipe sangria | $4.65 half pint / $8.50 pint / $15.65 quart / $26.85 half gallon
Even more potent: Constant Buzz, a blended strawberry colada with Long Island Iced Tea liquors | available only in a 50 ounce jar for $22.80
Michigan craft beer: You won’t find the national brands here. Taps are focused on Michigan’s own Bell’s, Founders, OddSide, Frankenmuth, Saugatuck and the like. | pints $5.25-6 / quarts $10.25-11.75 / half gallons $19.75-21.75