We’ll confess. We had been looking for an excuse to take a northbound Van Dyke “road trip” for quite a while. The real reason was to check out The Mulefoot Gastropub — a restaurant that seems like it would fit right in as the latest Corktown or Midtown hot spot.
But it’s not. It’s in Imlay City in Lapeer County — way up there on M-53 in farming country.
Open for more than a year, they’ve built a local and international following based on word-of-mouth and social media.
But we’re not about to drive all the way up there just to eat, right? After all, it’s about a 40-mile jaunt up Van Dyke from the Eight Mile border of Detroit.
So we decided we’d have to make a stop or two, once we cleared the wonders of Warren (and the “heights” of Sterling, too).
First stop, a short detour off M-53 to get to downtown Romeo (take a left on 32 Mile Road). The historical downtown — first incorporated in 1838 — is quaint and filled with stores, including a variety of antique shops.
One of the largest is Town Hall Antiques (205 N. Main St., Romeo; 586-752-5422). This is like a playground for antique super-shoppers, with three floors of treasures spread over 10,000 square feet. Fifty of Michigan’s top dealers scour the country to collect the best antiques.
A sampling of what you’ll find: Art Deco bedroom sets, primitive farm tools, art glass vases, and even bayonets. There’s also an area dedicated to repurposed, “shabby chic” items.
Back in the car. Once you enter Lapeer County, they stop calling them “mile roads,” but around what would be 40 Mile sits another small town called Almont — founded in 1833. It, too, has a quaint downtown with antiques, plus an award-winning fountain park.
It also has a huge food destination called the Country Smoke House (3294 Van Dyke Rd., Almont; 810-798-3064). Started as a deer-processing hobby in a couple’s garage, it’s grown into a huge undertaking, with smoked treats like kielbasa and andouille sausage plus jerky varieties including beef, venison, elk, and buffalo. If only we didn’t have dinner reservations … (But what about some to-go for home or snacks later?)
On to the main event. Four miles up the road is Imlay City. It, too, has a quaint downtown (are you detecting a trend?).
But that’s not where The Mulefoot Gastropub hangs its “pig” shingle so to speak. It’s on the main drag — it’s still M-53, and still called Van Dyke, but it’s also called South Cedar Street. Don’t be confused. (596 S. Cedar St., Imlay City, 810-721-1019).
On the outside it looks like a typical banquet center (which it once was) but on the inside, rustic (animal skulls on the walls and reclaimed barnwood tables) mingles with contemporary in the bright, open space. Glass flasks from chemistry lab are repurposed as flower vases on the tables. In just one of several ways Mulefoot supports the community, local artworks grace the walls.
Farm-to-table cuisine is the trendy thing to do these days but twin chefs Mike and Matt Romine — who between the two of them have worked stints at restaurants around metro Detroit and the U.S. and even haute spot Noma in Copenhagen, Denmark — do more than just talk the talk. They’re not just going to the market and buying local products; they’re raising their namesake pigs, a heritage breed, on their parents’ farm. Mike Romine says 90 percent of the ingredients comes from within 20 miles of the restaurant. Even some of the seafood is from Michigan: There’s a shrimp dish with seafood from an Okemos farm served over hand-rolled spaghetti.
The menu is brief but well composed and celebrates Michigan with accents of different cultures and flavors. There are a couple of beef dishes (a rib-eye and filet mignon), tender trout with perfectly crispy skin over bacon spaetzle, a rabbit marsala, organic chicken, and the Verduran Delight (farro, greens, pickled asparagus, with a fried local egg) for vegetarian diners.
There is a pork cut of the day as well as a market fish special. On the day we went, there was a savory, comforting bowl of pasta with slow-cooked pork. The seafood was an elegant monkfish served over a Johnny cake (OK, the monkfish wasn’t from Michigan. It was still delicious).
The food is presented in creative and fun ways: The smoked trout pâté with grilled sourdough and celery gremolata is served in a mason jar; when diners open it to dig in, smoke billows out.
Desserts continue along the creative, Michigan vein. The cheesecake is made with local goat cheese and topped with peach granita. But don’t miss the hay soft serve ice cream served in a waffle cone — it doesn’t get more farm to table than that.
Even though the Mulefoot is a relative newcomer on the local culinary scene, community focus has made it a quick success. Before opening, Mike Romine offered an interesting investment model to boost capital: shares in its CSR program, similar to a community supported agriculture model in which farmers offer a “share” of their goods to consumers, who in return receive seasonal produce throughout the season. In this case, people who bought into the Mulefoot were repaid over time in food and drinks depending on how much they put up front.
Reservations are strongly recommended, unless you like to wait two hours. But if it’s going to be a while before you get a table, the bar is fully stocked to help you pass the time with an impressive wine list and extensive craft beer list (many from Michigan). If you’re more of a cocktail sipper, the bartender will come up with any concoction you can think of, with several locally crafted spirits to choose from.
On their Facebook page, they say they aim to redefine the food culture of the area, and with their passion for local, handcrafted food, they’re putting the Thumb on the culinary map.
Heck. If this keeps up, we might just have to continue north on through Bad Axe and right up until Van Dyke dead ends at the top of the Thumb in Port Austin (where we’ve heard tales of a brewery, winery, and a few choice restaurants). But that would have to be another field trip for another day.
More ‘Field Trips’
How about spending a night “in” the town? There are a lot of swanky newer places (Crowne Plaza Detroit Downtown Riverfront, the Aloft Detroit in the David Whitney Building, etc.), but give strong consideration to The Inn on Ferry Street — a set of fabulously restored Victorian homes off Woodward Avenue (84 E. Ferry St., Detroit; 313-871-6000). Book enough in advance and you’re just steps away from the Detroit Institute of Arts — especially starting in March for the Diego Rivera/Frida Kahlo exhibit. Nearby dinner choices are growing by leaps and bounds. There’s Maccabees at Midtown, and Oakland Art Novelty Company’s Sandy Levine’s new place, Chartreuse Kitchen, plans to open by late spring. Just a bit down Woodward, there’s the elegance of The Whitney, plus Union Street, Grille Midtown, and Addison Eatery. Just off Woodward are Selden Standard, Traffic Jam & Snug, Mario’s, Motor City Brewing Works — you get the picture. Oh, and don’t forget Hopcat for a brew.
Go Out for a Smoke
“Sometimes a cigar is just …” You don’t have to get all Freudian about it, and you don’t have to do the driving on your day trip, either. If you’re planning a bachelor (or bachelorette) party or other occasion that calls for a group road trip, check out this ride. Brian and Jason Maynard turned an old Airstream RV into a traveling cigar lounge called the “Cuban Missile” (248-756-8428 or cubanmissilelounge.com). This sweet ride has wood floors and paneling and a stocked humidor with a rotating selection of cigars — one that should increase now that relations with Cuba are “normalizing.” There’s also an HD TV, big-screen TVs, a fridge, and more. Maybe the ultimate Super Bowl or March Madness party for 12 to 15 of your closest friends? Rentals start at $500.
Put a little magic in your day trip. The relatively little-known American Museum of Magic (107 E. Michigan Ave., Marshall; 269-781-7570) is a hobbyist’s collection that began in the 1930s. It claims to have the largest collection of magic artifacts on display anywhere in the U.S. — a sort of “Smithsonian of American magic.” Marshall has a classic downtown with plenty of shopping and bed and breakfasts. It’s also a National Historic Landmark District that includes 850 structures. While you’re in the area, stop at the Dark Horse Brewing Co. They’re so popular, they even have a reality TV show on the History Channel called Dark Horse Nation. It’s also one of the wildest taprooms on the planet. Really. They once described that it “looks like a garage sale puked within its walls.” Don’t let that scare you. Their top-notch beers are magical.