A Taste for Travel

Culinary tourists and locals are finding a wealth of fine dining around Traverse City


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It is a ritual of kinds. Northbound vacationers arrive and pause at the foot of Lake Michigan in Traverse City, like pilgrims arriving at a sacred place — an altar to the Michigan summer season.

Unrushed and orderly, the drivers stop at the light, get a glimpse of the lakefront, and — assured that all remains well with the world — turn left or right and follow the other faithful, snaking their way further north to reopen family summer cottages, launch boats, or take a just-gone-fishing vacation.

Along the way, roadside signs call them to buy fresh-baked pies. Stands laden with just-picked corn, peaches, and tomatoes beckon, too. And invariably, someone will get stuck behind a lumbering, big-wheeled farm tractor with a driver who seems neither to notice nor care much that he has traffic backed up for a half-mile.

Although not much seems to change in and around Traverse City, a closer look tells a different story. Stores selling workers denim and steel-toed boots now share the streetfront with bookstores, fancy clothing shops, the Grand Traverse Pie Company, and an espresso coffee shop with deep armchairs and stray copies of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

And there is serious growth in the number of high-end restaurants in town and elsewhere up and down the Leelanau Peninsula.

For years, there was only one fine dining restaurant in the area, La Bécasse in Burdickville, which opened in the 1980s. Then came Trattoria Stella in downtown Traverse City, but that was just recently. Other than that, there were the traditional Up North steak and grill restaurants, such as Dick’s Pour House in Lake Leelanau, which still serves ever-delicious burgers and fried fresh lake perch.

Today, Traverse City is a different story; things have been changing quietly, notably the arrival of the stupendously great little The Cooks’ House, which is joined by the newer Bistro FouFou on a growing dining circuit.

Call it the Mario Batali factor, the Michael Moore factor, and even a Madonna factor, each of whom made a splash here after the departure of author Jim Harrison (a staple, until he and his literary crowd decamped amid grumbling that the area was changing too much. Harrison now divides his year between Montana and Arizona).

Of the newer crowd, each has certainly left a different mark on the city, the most prominent being Michael Moore whose imprimatur is the Traverse City Film Festival in late July/early August.

As it amps up, summer tan lines meet rope lines in the once languid Cherry Capital and more names from Cannes and Los Angeles turn up to see what’s coming on film in the fall, and risk being ogled by curious crowds.

The Madonna factor is here, too. Several summers ago, the very private Material Girl summered at an isolated beachfront property in Northport, and was spotted in town on occasion. While her own presence remains more felt than seen, her family is very visible here, a big part of the winemaking community.

Madonna’s father, Tony Silvio Ciccone, and stepmother, Joan, along with brother Mario, and sister Paula are the energy behind the successful Ciccone Vineyard & Winery, just outside town, on a lovely property with stunning lake views. It is open to the public.

The most recent new star on the scene is super-chef Batali, who made a splash when he purchased a summer home in Northport, and since then has been singing the praises of Michigan food products, cheeses, breads, and wines.

Northern Michigan foods and wines were a fact long before stardom struck, of course. The wine industry, centered largely in Leelanau and Old Mission, has been growing solidly for decades, recognized and hailed almost more outside the state than in it. Several cheese makers also have set up shop in the area. And, cherry products and the cherry industry have long been the agricultural backbone of the region.

Put it all together and the next natural step is a serious restaurant trade, which Traverse City now certainly has, nestled downtown and the surrounding area.

The choices have become most impressive for the sophistication of their cuisine and the access to and use of the abundance of fresh products grown and made here.

Click through below to see our featured Traverse City eateries.

If there is a new temple of fine dining in Northern Michigan, this is as close as it gets. The Cooks’ House opened in 2008 in a small house on a side street downtown, where owners Jennifer Blakeslee and Eric Patterson “celebrate the bounty of agriculture and artisan-made products that are found in Northern Michigan.” Delicacy and refinement dominate everything that emits from the kitchen of these two well-traveled and experienced chefs. Even the soups have a different ring here: a roasted sunburst kabocha squash with spiced pear. Try the pork belly with roasted cippolini onions, celery root, and stewed plums, or whitefish roasted in grape leaves with white cucumber relish, pea shoots, and baby leeks.

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