Living It Up in Lexington
The once-quiet beach town shores up its image with a wave of new businesses
Photograph by Chris Arace for Pure Michigan
The guy at the gorgeous wooden bar has just been served an organic English ale in an apothecary-style glass container. Another patron has just been handed a cosmo in a bubbling cauldron of a martini glass. The bartender has affixed a small piece of dry ice to the bottom of the glass with a cocktail glue made of sugar and water, which allows the drink to not only burble like a pink Harry Potter-esque potion, but also keeps the drink arctic-cold.
The nattily dressed crew behind the bar is talking up a new microbrew just added to the taps. Across the way, dining-room windows look out on a plaza and fountain where the tables are packed, many with diners waiting to head next door for a concert in a lush little theater.
Things have changed in Lexington.
Long known as a beautiful but rather sleepy perch on Michigan’s Thumb, Lexington is undergoing a transformation as dramatic for its timing as for its scale. The Lake Huron beach town has long billed itself as “The First Resort North,” but downstaters seldom include it in Up North conversations, which tend to focus on Petoskey, Charlevoix, and Traverse City. While the Huron shore can hold its own against the sunset side of the state, the Thumb is a good bit rougher around the edges than, say, Bay Harbor, which is exactly the quality that endears it to its devotees.
But the guy with the crazy blond hair has something else in mind. Adam Buschbacher is the force behind Lexington’s “Smackwater Block.” His hair flies straight back from his face, as if he’s seated in a speeding convertible. It’s fitting, because he’s taking downtown Lexington on a thrill ride.
Smackwater is his empire, and it now includes a brewpub, deli, gourmet foods shop, home décor gallery, the Smackwater Grille restaurant, with its hip bar, and the Lexington Music Theatre — and that’s just for now.
“There’s still so much I want to do,” Buschbacher says, his eyes scanning the beautiful woodwork that he designed and built in his cavernous basement woodworking shop. “The only way I could afford to make it look the way I wanted was to build it myself,” he says.
Nearly everything he’s done has happened with one eye on the future and the other looking back, making sure his plans are in keeping with Lexington’s past.
“Around the world, tourists seek quaint, historic destinations and a sense of community, which may not exist in the big cities they reside in,” he says.
Before you shake your head at the apparent wrong-headedness of someone pouring time and money into anything right now, just know that Buschbacher seems to have a knack for money and timing. After growing up in Lexington, he moved to Detroit and started buying pay phones. (Pay phones?) He sold them all just ahead of the cell-phone craze, packed up his profits, went home to Lexington, and started to build.
Of course, elegance is not completely new to Lexington. Just a few doors up from the Smackwater businesses, a boutique named Weekends lures shoppers with its upscale array of home and kitchen goods. Farther up Huron Avenue, across M-25, in a building that dates back to 1882, Noble sells an array of goods from furniture to gourmet pancake mix. Gatherings antique store, on M-25, merits a visit for its garden alone.
Buschbacher’s Smackwater moves are putting pressure on other Lexington businesses to move up a weight class. Recently, a dollar store left to make room for a gift-and-travel shop called The Irish Rose. A local vineyard is making plans to move a full-blown winery into one of the oldest buildings in Lexington’s business district.
And to the mix of food, gifts, and wine, Buschbacher is adding the sound of music. The 400-seat Lexington Music Theatre is quickly gaining a reputation among concertgoers and artists alike. As a former musician, Buschbacher made sure to create a venue with near-perfect acoustics. (After playing at the theater, Rare Earth returned the following summer to record a live album.) The theater’s performance schedule has spanned the musical spectrum, from Dave Mason to Junior Brown.
Buschbacher has occasionally overshot the runway. The Smackwater Grille, for example, was formerly called The Vintage. That iteration of the restaurant included staffers who had done stints at Tribute in Farmington Hills. Its menu was, shall we say, “ambitious.”
“It became an anniversary and birthday kind of restaurant,” Buschbacher says. He wanted a place that patrons would visit all the time. So he reined in the menu (and the prices) and changed the name, and it has been bustling ever since.
Somehow, the recession seems to blow across Buschbacher and the Smackwater Block with scant impact. In fact, he believes the economy has worked in his favor because his mantra has become “convenient tourist destination.”
The popularity of “staycations” has increased the appeal of driving to the Thumb for a day at the beach. When the economy recovers, Buschbacher figures Lexington’s 100-mile distance from Detroit will continue to offer an enticing alternative to the five-hour cattle drive up I-75.
Elements of the comfy little beach town still remain. There are T-shirt shops along Huron Avenue, sloppy sliders at Wimpy’s Place, and motorists can still get a frosty mug of root beer served car side at the A&W.
But there’s a new luster in Lexington. And, so far, it’s getting an enthusiastic Thumbs up.