Take a Staycation, Explore Culinary Hidden Gems in Northern Michigan

You won’t find salt water beaches, palm trees, or coral reefs in northern Michigan – and that’s just the way we like it. Traverse City and its surrounding areas are some of the most scenic and beautiful destinations in the world, and they just might be in the comfort of your own back yard. If you’re a northern Michigander, here’s a roundup of some of the off-the-beaten-path food and culture gems to check out when you want to get away without going far.

First things first- the beer.

Traverse City is home to many breweries, taprooms, and pubs that you can only find when visiting.  You can’t truly call yourself a craft beer connoisseur until you try some of the many, many delicious brews that have made the breweries famous.  Some of the most popular destinations to grab a cold one:

  • Brewery Terra Firma fall-color-tour
    • Brewery Terra Firma is unique in its approach as a brewery and as an agricultural destination. Through the integration of sustainable production methods, environmentally conscious waste management and innovative water recycling/reclamation techniques, they hope to become a model for breweries and agricultural destinations throughout the nation.
  • The Workshop Brewing Company
    • The Workshop Brewing Company exists to preserve Northern Michigan’s spectacular natural environment, to reinforce Traverse City’s warm and vital community, and to honor traditional craft. They do not consider their business to be a success unless they are demonstrably and sustainably doing all three. They express this commitment by using the Trifidelity symbol, which stands for their motto: Nature. Community. Craft.
  • The Filling Station Microbrewery ???????????????????????????????
    • Established in the spring of 2012, The Filling Station Microbrewery is a family owned and operated business, dedicated to providing friendly and knowledgeable service and the highest quality of hand crafted brews and edibles.  Located just off the TART Trail in the historic railroad district, the Filling Station Microbrewery features a rotating list of at least 10 craft beers, which pair perfectly with our wood-fired flatbreads and fresh salads.  Whether on your own, meeting friends or with your family, patrons of all ages feel welcomed in our casual pub-style setting.   You’ll enjoy views of Boardman Lake from inside the pub or out on the patio, live music and the occasional train passing by.
  • Right Brain Brewery
    • Right Brain Brewing is committed to using the best available local ingredients in every small batch of  craft brew. Featuring a rotating right brained beer menu & artwork!
  • Short’s Brewing Company
    • Today Short’s Brewing Company continues its efforts to make the best beer on earth in Northern Michigan. Although Shorts has quickly grown to be one of Michigan’s largest breweries, they still take pride in their hands-on, mom-and-pop approach and the energy they put into the quality of our beer, food, staff, customers and facilities.
  • Stafford’s Noggin Room Pub
    • The Noggin Room Pub’s casual and comfortable atmosphere provides a great place to break from shopping the near-by Gaslight District, meet with friends and enjoy our award winning selection of domestic and imported beers. With personal service from the “Best Staff in Northern Michigan” (as voted by Northern Express), we’re sure you’ll feel right at home.

For those looking to enjoy their favorite node of Traverse City wine, check out these taste rooms and vineyards:

  • Left Foot Charley LeftFootCharly
    • The winery has since grown to around 6000 cases and is located in the former Northern Michigan Asylum for the Insane in Traverse City, Michigan. The urban environment has served to bring the terroir to the people. LFC is a Michigan version of an Austrian Heuriger – a place where aromatic and flavorful wine is an everyday event. Locals and visitors alike have come to realize that the non-traditional setting pairs perfectly with the atypical fruit sourcing and old style winemaking that defines LFC. Left Foot has a committed a focus on white wine varietals, hard cider, and sparkling wine.
  • Blustone Vineyards
    • Bluestone’s story started 20 years ago visiting Leland as a family for the first time. The simplicity and beauty of the “tucked away” secret that is Leelanau has always been what we treasure most about the area. There is a connection to the land found only here amongst the lakes, dunes, hills, and sunlit fields and our dream to start Blustone was born out of that.

If you give a mouse a cookie, they’ll ask for a glass of milk. If you give a tourist a beer, they’ll ask for something to eat.  

Along with famous craft beers, Traverse City is known state and nation wide as a hub for unique and tasty meals from your not-so-typical mom and pop type restaurants.  Whether you’re in the mood for a hearty breakfast, fresh caught walleye, or a mouth watering burger, Traverse City boasts it all.  At the risk of leaving out some hidden gems, here’s a few nibble nooks you won’t want to miss:

  • Bay Bread Co.
    • Specialties: Breakfast and lunch sandwiches and some of the best baked goods you can find!
  • Cherry Republic

    • Celebrating the beauty and spirit of northern Michigan in everything we make and do, Cherry Republic has grown from a t-shirt sold out of the trunk of a car to the world’s largest exclusive retailer of cherry food creations. Along the way, we have turned one man’s vision into a nation of citizens embracing his creed of life, liberty, beaches, and pie.
  • Pepe Nero Kabob
    • PepeNero is a cozy and intimate restaurant snuggled inside the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. Owners Giorgio and Monica Lo Greco are experienced professionals who know how to amaze your palate by preparing simple, genuine Italian food utilizing the gift of fresh seasonal ingredients from local markets and the high quality of imported Italian products.
  • Quay Restaurant and Bar
    • Quay Restaurant + Terrace Bar, pronounced kwā, is located in the beautiful town of Charlevoix, Michigan.  Come enjoy our three story restaurant and bar offering a New American menu along with a comprehensive wine and beer list.
  • Terry’s of Charlevoix
    • With over 35 years in the business since graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, Terry Left, the proprietor, and Paul Bradley, the executive chef, have brought their years of experience to bear in developing exquisite recipes complemented by just the right sauces. Terry’s offers excellent full course dinners in a warm, casual dining atmosphere. Given the close proximity to the Great Lakes, their fish entrées are a fresh and ever-popular selection.
  • City Park Grill
    • In 1997 Bob & Mary Keedy, Dick & Laura Dinon, Chef John Norman, and Patrick Faylor purchased the Park Garden Café and changed the name to City Park Grill. The menu was changed as well to reflect their scratch kitchen and daily/seasonal specials. Since then, the restaurant has been restored to the glory days of the past, serving a wide array of guests from around the world.
  • Twisted Olive Quattro beef_1920x1200
    • A true Northern Michigan gem, Twisted Olive Quattro offers some of the most unique and decadent samplers, entrees, and drinks of anywhere in the mitten.
  • Cafe Sante
    • A casual, European-style bistro serving The Classics—simply and with flair. Featuring wood-fired pizzas, mussels and frites, pastas, Panini, unique breakfasts and casual cuisine from other fine European traditions.

Now that’ you’re good and full, you’re probably wondering what is there to do?

From the Sleeping Bear Dunes, scenic Lake Michigan beaches, and countless trails to explore, there truly isn’t enough time in one day to see it all.  If you’re looking for something a little more relaxing, we encourage you to check out a guided tour or make a stop at one of the local museums.  You can’t go wrong with what you pick to do in TC, but here’s a few of our favorite things to get you started:

  • Sleeping Bear Dunes tour outdoors_naturepark_dunes
    • You will find a wide variety of activities for every age available to you at the Lakeshore. Climb the Dunes, swim at one of the many beaches, or take a hike through the Maple/Beech forest to some beautiful overlooks. Maybe you will want to spend some time in the museums or tour Port Oneida to learn about the rich history and culture of the area.
  • Music House Museum Tour
    • Recognized by Forbes.com as one of the ten reasons to visit Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the Music House Museum offers a unique collection of instruments that provide guests with a walk through the history, the artistry and the engineering of automated music.
  • Earl Young House Tour
    • This tour will take you around the triangular block bounded by Park Avenue, Grant Street, and Clinton Street.  Here you can see some of the most famous, and most beloved, work of long-time Charlevoix resident, Earl Young, homes he built or remodeled beginning in the late 1930s, and culminating in the construction of the “mushroom house” in the 1950s.
  • Castle Farms Garden Tour kings_grand
    • Northern Michigan’s very own fairy tale castle! With cobblestone courtyards, soaring stone towers, and magnificent sweeping gardens, Castle Farms has earned a reputation as one of Michigan’s premiere historic attractions, as well as a celebrated wedding venue. Whether you’re on a travel adventure, or searching for the perfect site in which to exchange marriage vows, this French Renaissance style castle offers the perfect blend of old-world charm and modern-day elegance for visitors seeking family fun and bridal couples-to-be.
  • Little Traverse History Museum
    • The Little Traverse Historical Socity was established in 1905 and, 1969, it was incorporated as a non- profit organization, “To preserve, advance and disseminate knowledge of the history of the Little Traverse Bay Area.” To this end, and with the support of members and winter and summer residents, they acquired and restored the abandoned Chicago and West Michigan Railroad depot. Originally built in 1892 to accommodate the large influx of summer resorters, the depot now serves the area as The Little Traverse History Museum.  The museum houses the historical society’s archives, long term displays, and an annual new summer display.  It is also the site of ongoing programs.  Currently, the museum is only open during the summer season (Memorial Day – mid October).
  • Cooking demonstration at Fustini’s
    • The company was founded by Jim and Lane Milligan, who lived in Minneapolis/St. Paul and took frequent family vacations to the beautiful resort town of Traverse City, Michigan. Like many others before them, the Milligans fell in love with northern Michigan and hoped to “someday” settle down there.  Flash-forward to today and Fustini’s is a Northern Michigan staple!

With everything there is to eat, drink and do in Northern Michigan, there’s no reason not to plan your staycation!  These are just a few of our own suggestions, however.  For more information on how to plan your own staycation in Northern Michigan or any other #PureMichigan destination, visit michigan.org

Experience Authentic Mexican Flavors at Grand Rapids Restaurant Week

Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids is coming up August 14-24! Today, Kirsetin Morello of Grand Rapids gives us a behind-the-scenes look at one of the participating restaurants. Read from her below and learn more by visiting ExperienceGR.com.

Alambre Especial. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Mercedes Lopez-Duran was a little girl, she imagined she might go to the head of the class when she grew up—as a teacher. Instead, today she’s the head of a thriving, local restaurant. Lopez-Duran is the owner and creative chef at El Granjero, a Grand Rapids restaurant that prides itself on serving delicious, authentic Mexican dishes like grilled cactus, and bright pink, sweet Jamaica (pronounced ha-my-cah) juice made from the Jamaica flower.

Lopez-Duran’s path to restaurant ownership and culinary creativity took a few twists and turns. As a young woman she entered the business world rather than teaching, working as a secretary in an accounting office. She later pursued schooling to become an accountant herself, but married before she embarked on a career filled with numbers and balance sheets. Once married, Lopez-Duran stayed home and it was more than a decade before she returned to the workforce.

Fifth Anniversary ribbon cutting at El Granjero. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

When Lopez-Duran decided to return to work, she ditched the accounting idea and turned to her passion: cooking. She inquired at restaurants in Mexico City, but without restaurant experience was only able to find work as a dishwasher. Her new manager assured her that if she worked hard she could rise through the ranks. Such a roadblock might have dissuaded a less determined person, but not Lopez-Duran. Three days after she began her new dishwashing job, she received her first promotion.

Mercedez Lopez-Duran and her daughter, Paola R. Mendivil. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

In time, Lopez-Duran moved from Mexico City to the United States, and took a job waitressing—her first time serving tables—at Tacos El Ganadero in Grand Rapids.  (At 5’ tall, she didn’t meet the requirement for Mexico City restaurants that waiters be at least 5’ 1”!) When the owner of Tacos El Ganadero decided to close the restaurant and move out of state, Lopez-Duran was concerned about the other employees losing their jobs and decided to buy the restaurant rather than allowing it to close. “Working in the kitchens, my mother always thought about having her own restaurant one day,” says her daughter and El Granjero co-owner, Paola R. Mendivil. “ She just didn’t know it would be so soon!”

Although it’s quite a leap from waitress to owner and cook, Lopez-Duran was undaunted. By that time, she’d worked in restaurants for 15 years and she understood how to run the kitchen. “All the time I was working,” she says, “I was learning.”

Lopez-Duran and Mendivil changed the restaurant’s name to El Granjero, which means “the farmer” in Spanish, to reflect their desire to have farm fresh ingredients on the menu. Lopez-Duran’s creativity didn’t stop with her initial menu overhaul: she still seeks inspiration for new dishes today. On a recent trip to the Mexico City region, she found exciting, new, authentic dishes to try, including quesadillas made with Jamaica flower.

Customers can try her inspired creations during Restaurant Week in Grand Rapids, which runs from 8/14/13 – 8/24/13. For just $25, two people will be able to sample several different tastes during a 3-course authentic Mexican dinner that includes a shared appetizer, two main dishes (one selection includes the quesadilla with Jamaica flower), and two delectable desserts

Molcajete. Photo courtesy of El Granjero Mexican Grill

For a sweet treat, try their Fresas con Crema, which showcases Michigan strawberries (it’s similar to strawberries and cream, but with a slightly different sweet sauce). The Fresas con Crema is Mendivil’s favorite dessert but Lopez-Duran favors the Chongos Zamoranos, a sort of sweet, curdled milk made with whole milk, sugar, and cinnamon. During Restaurant Week, you can try either, or both—or try the third dessert option, a Mexican-style gelatin that made with spiked eggnog, called Gelatina con Rompope.

Whichever option you choose, you can’t lose at El Granjero. With a farm-fresh focus and customer-oriented service, you’ll be sure to enjoy an authentic meal from the Mexico City region, right here in Grand Rapids. And don’t be surprised if Lopez-Duran herself takes your order—she’s as likely to wait and clean tables as she is to cook and create dishes in the kitchen. “I like doing everything,” she says. “I don’t like things to be the same all the time. I like to be moving.”

El Granjero shared this Fresh Cactus Salad recipe for our readers:

El Granjero's Fresh Cactus Salad recipe. Click to enlarge.

Click here to find a list of all the restaurants participating in Restaurant Week, along with the special menus they’ll be offering.

Other profiles in our Restaurant Week series:

Pat Wise, Executive Chef at Grove

For more things to do in Grand Rapids, visit michigan.org.

Kirsetin Morello is a writer, author, and blogger who’s called Grand Rapids home for more than a decade. She’s enthusiastic about yoga, basketball and travel, and is a reluctant runner. Kirsetin, her husband, and their three children love to explore everything West Michigan has to offer. You can find her online at www.KirsetinMorello.com.

Ann Arbor Restaurant Week 2013 – Michigan’s Largest Restaurant Week – Starts Sunday

With a record 55 restaurants participating, Ann Arbor’s Restaurant Week is the largest in the state of Michigan, taking place January 20 – 25. This is the prime time to try some new flavors and make the trip to Ann Arbor for some of the great food the area is known for. To prepare, we decided to talk to some of the rock stars of restaurant week in Ann Arbor. See what they had to say below and let us know which restaurant(s) you’ll be visiting next week!

Chef Duc Tang: Pacific Rim by Kana

Cuisine/Cooking style: I would describe our cuisine as ‘contemporary Pan-Asian’.  The menu reflects my interpretation of various Asian cuisines that I grew up eating.  

Fun Fact:  I have a masters degree in theology.  

Career highlight: I am proud of our great staff and of the fact that they consider Pacific Rim the best restaurant to work for.  

Menu Recommendation: For the winter weather, I recommend our hearty Asian-braised lamb shanks with coconut-sweet potato puree.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar.

Chef Brandon Johns: The Grange Kitchen & Bar

Cuisine/Cooking style: Straight-forward, seasonal cooking; we are known for our serious and thorough commitment to local sourcing, use of quality products, our whole animal, nose-to-tail cooking approach, and our talented pastry Chef, Melissa Richards. 

Fun Fact: The kitchen stays open until 1am on weekends.   

Career Highlight: We have won the Edible WOW Local Hero award twice for our dedication and contributions to the local food movement.

Menu Recommendation: The chicken and spicy chicken sausage hash.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar or Mercy’s Restaurant at the Bell Tower.

Chef Brendan McCall: Isalita (and Mani Osteria & Bar)

Cuisine/Cooking style: I am a flavor first chef.  I want flavors to be punchy and upfront while keeping the food approachable.  Then we work in a twist or little surprise that adds a layer of discovery to each dish.

Fun Fact: Many of the dishes at Isalita were inspired by a trip that Adam Baru (co-owner) and I took to Mexico City this past summer.

Career Highlight: I’m most proud of the staff culture that we’ve created at Mani Osteria and have continued in Isalita.  Creating great food is only one ingredient to a successful restaurant.  

Menu Recommendation: We are launching petite enchiladas during restaurant week that will become a permanent part of the Isalita menu from then on.  One is a coconut braised chicken in red chili sauce and the other is a shrimp and crab enchilada in roasted salsa verde.  

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Pacific Rim has been a long time favorite of mine since I moved to Ann Arbor 13 years ago.  However, Raven’s Club has recently made major menu changes that, in my opinion, place it at the forefront of the growing restaurant culture in Ann Arbor.

Chef Eve Aronoff: Frita Batidos

Cuisine/Cooking style: My style is full flavored with a lot of textures and contrasts – while still maintaining balance and harmony of the flavors.  I am based in French philosophy and technique, but am influenced from cuisines around the world – N. African, W. African, Cuban, and Vietnamese.  I’m committed to Slow Food Movement – working with local farmers and purveyors, following the seasons, making food from scratch and encouraging the warmth and conviviality of cooking and dining.

Fun Fact: There are actually a lot of ‘light’ dishes on the menu!

Career Highlight: Being invited to go to the James Beard Foundation to create a multi-course menu for the foundation members, as well as being selected to represent the Huron Valley Slow Food Movement to go to Terra Madre.

Menu Recommendation: I’d recommend trying the ‘Eve’ menu we are creating. This will include some of the favorite dishes from Eve (her previous Ann Arbor restaurant).  ‘Inspired Nachos’, Pots de Creme  - as well as a dish which was extremely beloved but extremely labor intensive so we made it for special occasions – Seafood and Prosciutto Lasagna.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? Mani Osteria & Bar or Pacific Rim.

Chef John Fischer: Gratzi

Cuisine/Cooking style: Our focus is regional Italian cuisine with emphasis on the north. 

Fun Fact: We’ve featured different regions of Italy as our culinary focus each month for the past 10 years.

Career Highlights: At Gratzi, we’ve won numerous awards over the years, including ‘Best Italian’ in AnnArbor.com’s reader poll for three out of the four years, as well as Open Table awards for two years running. We also have five wine spectator awards of excellence.

Menu Recommendation: For the first time during restaurant week we are offering regional preparations instead of regular menu items. I hope folks take advantage and try something new.

Where would you eat for Restaurant Week if you weren’t cooking? I’m always way too busy to go out during restaurant week, but Downtown Ann Arbor has so many choices for dining it’s hard not to find something to like.

Set restaurant week prices are $15 for lunch and $28 for dinner (if you’re on a budget, over half of these restaurants offer 2 for 1 deals with at these price points). Peruse the menus at www.annarborrestaurantweek.com, and make your reservations early!