Thanks to its award-winning wines and talented local chefs, Traverse City enjoys an international reputation as a place of surprisingly sophisticated food and drink.
Food writers, chefs and lovers of tasty food have been flocking here to sample the area’s fabled cuisine. For two years in a row, Midwest Living magazine has listed Traverse City among its Five Top Food Towns. Last spring, Livability.com gave it first-place billing among 200 American cities in its Top 10 list of Surprising Foodie Towns, and in September Bon Appetit magazine listed it as one of America’s Top Five Foodie towns.
Impressive stuff, to be sure -- but just what is Traverse City cuisine, anyway? To be blunt, northern Lower Michigan has no dominant ethnic food tradition like the Creole cookery of Louisiana or Wisconsin’s German cuisine. Nor does it have a signature dish, unless you’re counting cherry pie -- there’s no local equivalent of Cincinnati chili, Philadelphia cheese steak or Chicago deep-dish pizza.
Traverse City cuisine is the opposite of traditional: it’s an eclectic, relatively recent movement that borrows freely from other regional styles and relies heavily on imagination, boldness and spunk. But if it has one defining characteristic, that would be a generous use of fresh ingredients from nearby farms, forests, waters and orchards.
From appetizers to dessert, local restaurateurs seem to be on a mission to showcase the best of what the area has to offer. Paul and Amanda Danielson, owners of the fashionable Trattoria Stella restaurant in the Grand Traverse Commons, are leaders in the so-called “slow food” movement, which is all about using fresh local ingredients wherever possible.
Janice Benson, marketing director for Taste the Local Difference, a nonprofit group that serves as a go-between for farmers, restaurants and grocers, says that many chefs now routinely buy from nearby farms and orchards instead of ordering produce that has to be trucked in from hundreds of miles away.
“And this isn’t just folks who look for local strawberries when they’re in season, but who are making a year-round efforts to shop for farm-fresh meat, milk, cheese and other items,” she says. “We have so much wonderful food here that it’s really not hard to do.”
It goes without saying, of course, that many chefs have always relied on the region’s abundance of fresh fruits. Mike and Denise Busley, owners of the Grand Traverse Pie Company, have been featured on the Food Network and earned fans all across the United States, but they know their popular bakery/café wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the fresh ingredients they find all around them.
"We wouldn't be doing this if we had to send to Washington for our apples or cherries," says Mike. "When people come to this area, they want to sample what the locals enjoy, and our job is to deliver that service. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn't use the best, local, fresh cherries or apples in our pies?"
Equally committed to that idea is Dave Denison, owner/chef at Amical, a downtown Traverse City bistro offering French and Italian rustic cooking. Most of the greens, tomatoes, herbs and fruits featured on Amical's menu are supplied by area farmers, while many of the fish that play such a prominent role on the menu are taken from the waters between Charlevoix and Petoskey. Local wines, from northern Michigan's red-hot wine scene are featured prominently, as well.
Chefs Eric Patterson and Jennifer Blakeslee have made fresh local ingredients the mainstay of their tiny restaurant, The Cooks' House, where 90% of the menu is made with local products. The same can be said of other restaurants outside Traverse City, from the Good Harbor Grill in Glen Arbor to Pearl’s in Elk Rapids and The Boathouse and Mission Table at Bower’s Harbor.
Nor is this movement confined strictly to high-end restaurants. Small tavern-style eateries like Art’s Tavern in Glen Arbor and the Lil’ Bo in Traverse City have creative chefs who are enthusiastic about fresh local ingredients, while some of the region’s largest kitchens – like those at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and the Great Wolf Lodge – are among the strongest supporters of the local-food movement.
But there is another side to the story, too: the talented artisans who create delicious foods that you can sample, purchase and enjoy on your own – whether it’s a fresh baked loaf of bread, a warm cherry pie, a glass of crisp Riesling or a string of smoked sausages. So when you finally leave Traverse City, you can take some of that delicious goodness back home to tide you over until your next visit!