Up in the peninsula between Charlevoix and Traverse City sits tiny Bellaire, population 1,100 plus. It may seem just like any of the scenic villages connected by snaking two-track roads that amble through the rolling hills and farm country of Charlevoix County. But it’s not.
At the bridge on the main street, which spans an inlet to a lake, sits the Stone Water Inn, an elegantly restored hotel in blue-gray with white-and-burgundy trim and a double-porch front, up and down, resembling a hotel in an old Western film.
A city block away, you pass the fieldstone community building, a bank of the same age and construction, and the Bellaire Bar, with a white sign and black 1950s-era lettering.
And nestled right in the middle of the block, across from the Bellaire Theatre, is the most modern-looking façade in town, made of yellow brick and large windows, its entrance inset from the sidewalk to accommodate a small patio and seats.
Mostly, what commands attention is the sign that bears its name: Lulu’s Bistro. Step inside and you find yourself in an incongruous addition to Bellaire, a piece of a big-city life, a slice of urban restaurant-dom lifted right out of the Chicago Loop and dropped into town: Bold, sleek, upscale and casual dining with astonishingly good contemporary American food, and a wide-ranging wine list.
For a traveler wandering the back roads on a lazy summer weekend, stumbling onto Lulu’s may be an eye-opener, but when you consider that the village is just over 20 minutes south of Ellsworth, home to the Rowe Inn and Tapawingo, two of the best restaurants in the state, and surrounded by several big resorts, it’s less surprising.
Charlevoix County is also one of the state’s fastest-growing counties. Between 1990 and 2000, it grew by 21.5 percent, more than three times the rate for the entire state and double that of metro Detroit.
Lulu’s is the creation of chef-owner Michael Peterson, 36, a Traverse City native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in New York, who has cooked at the Bowers Harbor Inn on Old Mission Peninsula, and for three years at the Black Bass Hotel in Lumberville, Pa. In 1993, Peterson returned to Michigan and took over the Spencer Creek Landing, a dressy restaurant in nearby Alden. His lease expired seven years later.
“There was a lot of white-linen fine dining around here, and Spencer Creek was one of them,” Peterson says. “But what was missing in the area was something that had casual fine dining without being overly expensive.” The idea for Lulu’s was born.
So, in 2000, Peterson bought the Bellaire building and an empty lot next door, and with a contractor and three helpers, he ripped the place apart, designed an addition, and built and designed every aspect of the interior. The vacant lot now houses the entrance and bar, and the building is now renovated as the main dining room.
Judging by the lines of people waiting to get in during the summer, Peterson has done something right. “It’s remarkable,” said a well-known wine distributor in Detroit, who knows Lulu’s well. “You beg for places this good around Detroit. And where do you find one of the best? In Charlevoix.” When asked why that was so, he said: “It’s the influence of the Chicago trade.”
The décor, all by Peterson, certainly is the first eye-catching aspect when arriving at Lulu’s. As one enters by the glass front door, there’s a large bar with a divider, beyond which is a smaller dining area.
To one side is the main dining room, with a 19-foot-high ceiling. The walls are painted in soothing earth tones, okra green and dark mustard. Old-fashioned white birch veneer paneling sheets line the room at waist level, forming a modern version of wainscoting, and are finished with molding made from wide strips of clear-coated steel affixed to the walls with large metal screws. They give the dining room a modern feel.
The floors are blond maple, which has a pronounced brown and creamy grain, adding warmth and luster to the room.
The ceiling is finished with those traditional large tin squares popular in the early 20th century, except that these are modern, with a crown-molding pattern. Peterson found them in New Jersey and painted them a slightly greenish metallic nickel color.
Tabletops are made of lacquered veneer wood. One central table to the room for large parties of 10 or more is made from a concrete slab. “I ground it and polished it myself,” Peterson says. It’s finished in a high shine and adorned with a metal sculpture for a centerpiece.
The lighting, with long stemmed, small-bulb halogens, wash the walls for maximum effect.
The food is best described as fun takeoffs on classic dishes from several cuisines.
For example, a first course — called tater tots with ketchup — is actually Parmesan risotto cylinders made to look like tater tots and served with a chipotle ketchup made in house.
Likewise, a baked jumbo crabmeat gratin dish is a knockoff of the French Coquilles St. Jacques, but made with crab, sherry double cream sauce and melted white cheddar. Heaven. Another don’t-miss-it first-course dish is whitefish pâté.
At lunch one day, a pizza arrived on the lightest dough I’ve had in months. It came with diced chicken, corn, caramelized onion, a combination of sun-dried and fresh chopped tomatoes, and goat cheese — all common ingredients in a pizza. It’s the subtlety of the preparation and cooking that makes the difference at Lulu’s.
I also tried a corned beef sandwich, which came on multigrain bread from Stone House Breads in Leland, run by former Channel 4 anchor Bob Pisor. Instead of a standard heavy sandwich, this was light, with Creole slaw and melted Gruyère cheese.
At dinner, a chicken breast baked in Japanese panko breadcrumbs was wonderful. The moist meat was stuffed with melted Brie, prosciutto and fresh herbs. It was accompanied by cheddar whipped potatoes and Dijon Mornay. Everything on this simple plate was sharply flavored and distinct.
On Sundays, Lulu’s offers old-fashioned raclette cheese fondues, but with a twist. It’s not just beef and chicken. It includes squares of spicy pork, Calabrese sausage, polenta, potato and other vegetables.
And for dessert, don’t miss the fondue of white and black chocolate with pound cake, strawberries and pineapple chunks.
Peterson’s brother, Bill, handles the wine list. It’s extensive and marked up quite fairly, in places by 50 percent over retail, which is half or less what other restaurants charge. For example, in red wines: 2001 Chateau de Anneraux (Bordeaux, $35), 2000 Chateau Cantenac (Bordeaux, $47), 2002 Girardin Chambolles Musigny (Burgundy, $84), 2004 MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir (California, $26), and 2001 Trefethen Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, $67.)
Everything I tasted across two visits to Lulu’s was remarkable, attributable to Peterson’s skill. Flavors are vibrant and distinct from dish to dish, and even within dishes, as opposed to having a blended and rather flat quality, which happens at most restaurants.
On visits to the area, Lulu’s Bistro is well worth a detour for lunch or dinner.
213 N. Bridge St., Bellaire; 231-533-5252. L & D daily in summer.