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.
115 Wellington St., Traverse City; 231-946-8700. thecookshouse.net
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.
1200 W. 11th St., Traverse City; 231-929-8989. stellatc.com
Long the go-to fine dining spot in Traverse City owned by Amanda and Paul Danielson, Stella is in the main building of the stately old hospital, which now also houses coffee shops, a winery, and offices — all part of a multiyear preservation and conversion program of the stunning old 1890s complex from the days when they built them like castles. The extensive fine Italian dining menu and wine list show why this has been a premier dining spot for so long.
118 Cass St., Traverse City; 231-421-6583. bistrofoufou.com
This is the second and more casual restaurant of French-born Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux, who also owns the longtime white-linen La Bécasse in Burdickville (see below). His previous stops included working at the Amway Grand in Grand Rapids and Lautrec in Saugatuck. You’ll find one of the best steak tartares around, along with steak frites, seared walleye, and fresh soups — all of it simple bistro fare with a very French accent. Big, noisy, and brassy with an energetic personality.
160 E. Front St., Traverse City; 231-943-2727. thefranklintc.com
The owners of the uber-fine dining spot Stella took a step away to launch something totally different: a more casual atmosphere with a “global” menu that was still being tuned as this issue headed to print. The intention at The Franklin, which opened in May, was to offer food from different areas of the world in the cavernous new street-front casual dining spot, which includes a second-floor patio and indoor dining.
303 N. St. Joseph St., Suttons Bay; 231-271-1175. 9beanrows.com
This new place is an absolute little gem of fine dining in a casual atmosphere. Many worship the lamb burger for either lunch or dinner, but the menu also offers good, serious items: a risotto with butternut squash and roasted mushrooms topped with walnut and apple; pork osso bucco braised in milk and served with kale and borlotti beans; and rabbit braised in white wine and served with herbed farro gremolata and glazed parsnips.
413 N. St. Joseph St., Suttons Bay; 231-271-2344. marthasleelanautable.com
This sweet little restaurant in a red house with an outdoor terrace for summer dining is located on the main street. The menu is deceptively simple, but the cooking is incredibly skilled. At lunch, a Croque Madame came on light fluffy thick-sliced focaccia dotted with fresh thyme and topped with a fried egg. Pastries and desserts are divine. Martha’s serves breakfast and lunch daily and dinner six days a week.
104 W. Main St., Lake Leelanau; 231-994-2400. bellafortunarestaurant.com
Owners Jane Fortune and Robert Hesse divide their time between a home in Florence, Italy, and Leland where they bring the kind of cooking they enjoy on the other continent in their elegant, soothing, little restaurant (with a bocce court outside to work off dinner). As this magazine was going to press, a new chef, Mario Deruda, had been hired.
103 W. Philip St., Lake Leelanau; 231-256-9912. dickspourhouse.com
If you are looking for a throwback to the simple basic traditional fish fry and hamburger place where the locals hang out, it doesn’t get better than this wood-paneled, drop-ceilinged, ever-busy watering hole where the pickup truck and beer on tap still reign. And harried servers deliver plates under the dead-eyed gaze of mounted deer heads and antler plaques for a genuine Up North atmosphere.
302 E. River St., Leland; 231-256-9971. theriverside-inn.com
Arrive by boat or car at this highly popular family style restaurant that has dockside parking, sunny, pretty rooms in the front, and more rustic deck dining out back. The menu includes house-made charcuterie choices — terrines, rillettes, coppa, and a selection of more traditional items: pork chops, whitefish, short ribs with gnocchi, and duck confit with duck breast.
9001 S. Dunns Farm Rd., Maple City; 231-334-3944. restaurantlabecasse.com
The original fine dining restaurant on the peninsula was launched two generations ago and now run for the last decade by Chef Guillaume Hazaël-Massieux. He keeps the menu brief and traditional: seared chicken breast with wild mushrooms, breaded whitefish with a beurre blanc, and duck two ways: a confit and a grilled breast in a demi-glace and sweet potato gratin, all done with style and elegance.
Travel Michigan helps promotes ‘foodie’ vacations ///
Traverse City isn’t the only area of the state that’s benefitting from culinary tourism. Whatever your food passion, there’s a tour to suit your taste — from wine and beer trails to ones that guide you to Upper Peninsula delights such as pasties and whitefish. The Michigan Culinary Tourism Alliance — an organization started by the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council — has received money from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to help boost these types of tours. You can see more than a dozen of them at michigan.org/foodie-tours (it’s part of the Travel Michigan website).
— Steve Wilke