How Steve Hall and Abby Olitzky, the husband-and-wife team behind Ann Arbor’s Spencer, are elevating the ‘neighborhood restaurant’ concept
By Markham Heid
Photography by Cat Carty Buswell
Nestled among the shops and eateries on East Liberty Street in downtown Ann Arbor is a small, well-lit restaurant with shelves of wine braced against one wall and just enough space for a handful of tables. Inside, the vibe feels warm and easy. You can smell good things cooking somewhere in back. Pre-pandemic, you would see diners sharing dishes of pasta or pierogi or whatever vegetables are in season. These days, the same foods come wrapped up and ready for you to take home. Now, as before, the people here seem happy. You are at Spencer.
“From the beginning, we wanted to be a neighborhood restaurant where people could come and share food and feel relaxed,” says Abby Olitzky, 33, Spencer’s head chef and co-owner. “We wanted to be part of the community.” Adds Steve Hall, 33, Olitzky’s spouse and partner, “We always admired restaurants that seemed like a part of someone’s routine — a place you can engage with and spend time at.”
Olitzky says she drew inspiration for Spencer from a neighborhood pizza place that she visited as a kid growing up in San Francisco. “[It] felt so unfussed, not like there were architects planning every element, and I loved that,” she says. Spencer takes that cozy, come-as-you-are vibe and pairs it with ethically sourced and expertly prepared foods. It’s the kind of spot that restaurant critics eat at when they’re paying their own tab — the type that serves award-worthy but affordable dishes that would normally come dressed in flashier digs and trailed by a wallet-emptying tab. (Speaking of critics, the restaurant drew raves in a 2016 write-up in the New York Times.)
The couple opened Spencer in October of 2015 after relocating from San Francisco to Ann Arbor. (The restaurant’s name comes from the archaic English term for someone who tends a pantry.) Hall is an Ann Arbor native, but after college he moved out west and ended up working at a cheese shop in San Francisco’s Mission District. Olitzky, a culinary-school grad, was working as a chef at a nearby restaurant. They met when Olitzky came into the cheese shop and bonded over their love of food. “I courted her not with flowers but with a loaf of rye bread,” says Hall. “She brought me a jar of jam that she’d made with pink pearl apples.”
Eventually, the two decided they wanted to open their own place — somewhere else. They decided to give Hall’s home state a try, though initially they figured they’d end up in Detroit. Their plans changed after they spent some time in Ann Arbor. “We started doing some pop-ups and stuff like that around town, and the response was really great,” says Olitzky, adding that Ann Arbor reminded her of Northern California, especially the college town of Berkeley. “It felt familiar to me.”
From the start, their plan for Spencer was based more on a feeling and an ethos than on the kinds of “concepts” that rule most new restaurants. “I wanted to make my own space, and because it felt so much like me, my beliefs came with it,” says Olitzky. Step one was abandoning the hierarchies and assembly-line processes that govern most kitchens. The waitstaff at Spencer are also the chefs, and rather than work at kitchen “stations” preparing single components of different dishes, they each tend to complete a full dish before moving on to the next. “When you make a dish from start to finish, and then you box it up or take it out to the guest yourself, that makes you really accountable,” she says.
Asked how she would describe the food at Spencer, Olitzky struggles to come up with a concise answer. “Our menu has always been rooted in vegetables,” she says, then laughs at her unplanned pun. “I’d say that we’re inspired by the California farm-to-table movement, but through the lens of being here in Michigan.” (They source mostly from Michigan growers, and primarily from a handful of small farms in and around Ann Arbor.)
What’s more, Spencer has never been the type of restaurant that serves the same dishes or cuisines day after day. “I wanted to explore other cultures through their food, and share in that exploration with our guests,” she says, ticking off different cuisines they’ve featured: German, Vietnamese, pub food. “Since we opened five years ago, Abby has created more than 2,000 unique dishes,” says Hall. “So she’s not using the word ‘explore’ lightly.”
While that exploration was fun and educational, Olitzky says that she’s come to reconsider her globetrotting culinary approach. Part of that, she says, is due to her growing discomfort with the idea of borrowing too heavily from cultures that are not her own. “I’ve thought a lot about who gets to profit off of other people’s foods,” she says. “I have both a Jewish, Eastern-European side and a grandfather who came from Italy, and now I’m leaning in that kind of direction more than I used to.” She also says that, over time, her cooking has gravitated toward “comfort foods.” A recent menu included a remarkably juicy chicken schnitzel served with pickled slaw and mustard, a cauliflower-and-white-bean salad, and winter squash topped with an eastern European pesto sauce.
While Olitzky manages the kitchen, Hall runs the front of the house and also directs Spencer’s cheese and wine programs. “My background is in cheese, and I was fortunate to be in San Francisco right when attention was shifting to natural wine,” he says. (While natural wine is still a poorly defined category — and one that many people aren’t familiar with — Hall says it’s best described as wines from small, independent operators who tend to grow their own grapes and make wines using sustainable methods.) Spencer is one of few spots in Michigan that specializes in natural wines, and it’s open five days a week as a retail wine shop.
“Abby’s approach to working with seasonal ingredients and their minutiae — teaching me that a winter carrot doesn’t taste the same as a summer carrot — that made me interested in natural wine,” says Hall. The bottles he carries are of a piece with the foods that Spencer serves; every ingredient is traceable to a specific time and place, and also to the farmers or ranchers or growers who produced them. “We want the whole meal and experience to be something that feels alive,” he adds.
Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has been a challenge for Spencer. Last March, Olitzky and Hall pivoted to carry-out and delivery services, and they’ve devoted more of their space to wine sales. But unlike many restaurants, they’ve declined to partner with DoorDash or other third-party delivery services. “We’re paying our people in part to be drivers, which has allowed us to keep wages high,” says Hall, adding that they haven’t had to cut anyone’s pay or hours so far.
As for working with her spouse — something others may find tricky — Olitzky says she wouldn’t want it any other way. “It’s not without its challenges, mostly in terms of constructing boundaries about work and home,” she says. “But I feel very fortunate to get to work with someone who inspires me personally and believes in me like no other could.”
Recipe: Herbed Sesame Flatbread
Makes 8 servings
This easy recipe makes soft, savory flatbreads that are an ideal partner for roasted vegetables or grilled meats.
– 2 ¼ cups all-purpose flour
– 1 cup chopped fresh herbs (Olitzky recommends dill, parsley, cilantro, and mint)
– ¼ cup toasted white sesame seeds
– 1 teaspoon salt
– 3 tablespoons yogurt
– 2 tablespoons melted butter
– 1 cup warm (not hot) milk
– 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
– 1 teaspoon sugar
– 1 tablespoon flaky sea salt (for finishing)
In a bowl, add the sugar and yeast to the warm milk. Whisk to dissolve the yeast and then let it sit for 5 min or until some bubbles form.
Mix the melted butter into the yogurt and then add it to the bowl of milk. Add the flour, toasted sesame seeds, chopped herbs, and salt. Mix with a wooden spoon until combined. (If it’s too hard to mix with a spoon, take out the partly mixed dough and knead it for 5 minutes on a well-floured surface.)
Place the dough in an oiled bowl and cover with a lid or dish cloth. Let the dough rise at room temperature until it’s doubled in size. This should take about 45 minutes.
Divide the dough into 8 portions. Roll them into balls and let them sit for 10 minutes. Using a rolling pin, roll out the balls into circular flatbreads approximately ¼-inch thick.
Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat for 3 minutes. Add a tablespoon of canola or olive oil. Swirl the oil around, then add a flatbread and cover. Cook for 2 minutes or until bottom side is golden brown. Remove the lid and delicately flip the flatbread. Put the lid back on and cook for 2 more minutes.
Remove from heat and sprinkle with sea salt. Repeat with remaining portions. Enjoy!