Traverse City, Michigan, is an enticing year-round destination due to its advantageous position on the shores of Lake Michigan. But it’s also incredibly delicious. For years, the lakeshore resort town has boasted a dynamic dining scene to match its status as a premier wine destination. In more recent times, however, the food and drink options in Traverse City have expanded and evolved into something quite exciting. As is usually the case when I visit Traverse City, I ate and drank extremely well on my most recent visit earlier this year. At the same time, I discovered a whole slew of new (to me) establishments. They’re what makes up my newest list of where to eat and drink in Traverse City, Michigan.
Rare Bird Brewpub
Rare Bird brews all of its own beers while offering other beers, wines, ciders, and spirits from around Michigan and beyond. While the availability of their house brews changes throughout the year, at any given time you can find 35 craft beers on tap, including 6 of Rare Bird’s. I sampled only the house brews and especially enjoyed Sugar Bits, a Double Rice IPA. As alluring as the beer is, so is Rare Bird’s food. The menu features sandwiches, burgers, and tacos, with most of the ingredients sourced locally. I was told to try the pork belly nachos so that’s what I did, and I was not disappointed. I’m also glad I opted for the half-order!
The Filling Station
Beer and train enthusiasts alike will enjoy The Filling Station. With its tagline “Ales By The Rails”, The Filling Station is housed in a vintage train depot overlooking Boardman Lake in Traverse City’s historic railroad district. The beer is served from “tracks”, not taps, and the flights are presented in custom-made locomotive trays. The Filling Station is also appealing to families, one reason being that most kids are nuts about trains. To add to it, the atmosphere is pretty laid-back and the flatbreads that make up most of the food menu are crowd pleasers. There is a small kids’ menu, as well. As for the beer, I tried several and really enjoyed the Marienplatz Marzen. Coming in close second was the mainstay, Walla Walla IPA.
Stop in Mama Lu’s for a round of tacos inspired by authentic Mexican street food. The small taco shop on Front Street packs one mighty delicious punch and everyone wants a part of it. Go during off-peak dining times for a better chance of grabbing a seat. That’s what I did, landing a spot at the bar. The street tacos are on the smaller side but it’s so diners can order a whole bunch for a variety of flavors and ingredients. Again, that’s what I did, starting with an order of STREET CORN (elotes) and two tacos: POLLO (chicken mole, pickled red onion, queso fresco, toasted sesame crisp, cilantro); and another with pork belly that I can’t seem to locate on the current menu. (I am 100% sure it was pork belly because I visited Mama Lu’s the day after I was at Rare Bird where I had the pork belly nachos. I laughed to myself thinking, I’ve never had this much pork belly in my life!) Well, that pork belly taco was so outstanding that I ordered another one. And then I ordered one more. I washed it all down with the most delightful Paloma ever crafted.
A breakfast restaurant and catering kitchen, Sugar2Salt is tucked away in an outlying building on the grounds of the old Northern Michigan Asylum (known today as The Village at Grand Traverse Commons). You kind of have to know where to look for the restaurant, and it is so worth it once you find it. The menu at Sugar2Salt changes constantly, sometimes even daily, based on available local ingredients and the chefs’ inspiration. I totally loved the design and atmosphere at Sugar2Salt, as well. The interior has a very open feel with abundant natural light, making my breakfast a very relaxing and comfortable experience. If you go to Sugar2Salt and chicken toast is on the menu, you should order it. With smoked chicken breast, chicken sausage, egg, feta cheese, basil, and smoked butter, it stands as one of the most unusual but delicious breakfast dishes I’ve ever opted for.
French bistros really aren’t my thing but the exterior of Patisserie Amie was so cute and it lured me right in. I visited on a Friday, late morning, and the bistro was bustling. I took a seat at the bar and was promptly greeted by the bartender/barista. Patisserie Amie serves breakfast and lunch; since I was there for breakfast, I focused my attention on les oeufs (eggs). I decided on Oeufs Norwegian, a benedict served with gravlax, hollandaise, and cucumber. I asked to substitute sourdough bread for the English muffin (I’m so not a fan) and the staff gladly obliged. It was perfect. I was going to order just a regular coffee but then the barista mentioned something about a Nutella latte. Naturally, I had to have it!
Iron Fish Distillery
Located less than an hour from Traverse City, Iron Fish Distillery in Thompsonville is Michigan’s first working farm dedicated solely to creating small-batch craft spirits. And they are craft spirits with a conscience: Iron Fish grows much of its own grains, sourcing the rest from fellow Michigan farmers who are dedicated to respecting the health of nearby watersheds. Every step in the distilling process is done by hand at Iron Fish, creating a true “soil-to-spirit” finished product. I sampled a few of their spirits but was most intrigued by one of their non-spirit products: maple syrup. Iron Fish sources pure maple syrup from a nearby farm and then ages it in bourbon barrels. When I heard that, I could not think of a more heavenly combination. And heavenly it is. I had a small sample at the distillery and promptly purchased a large bottle to bring home (along with a bottle of their exceptional gin). Editors note: As Thompsonville is a bit of a distance from Traverse City, visitors must drive to get to Iron Fish. PLEASE drink responsibly and, even better, select a designated driver.
The artisan distillery and spirit house Ethanology is about a half hour from Traverse City in the town of Elk Rapids. There are two significant points that make Ethanology remarkable:
- The owners, Geri and Nick Lefebre, were very deliberate in choosing the location of their distillery. They knew that in order to create high-quality spirits, they would need a high-quality water source. So there, in Elk Rapids, where the Elk River and Lake Michigan converge, is a glacial aquifer. The Lefebres have their own well from which they draw water for their spirits, and they do not alter the water at all.
- The Lefebres began planning for their distillery while still in college. They figured it would be something for them to do when they retired. Being highly ambitious and not willing to wait, the young Lefebres committed to working hard and pursuing their passion. Geri became the first female head distiller in the state of Michigan and – even more remarkable – is 100% self-taught.
Furthermore, every single ingredient in Ethanology’s spirits is locally sourced. The Lefebres even put the farmers’ names on the bottles of spirits which contain their crops. The spirit house is gorgeously rustic, and the upstairs loft is especially cozy. Be sure to free up an afternoon to spend at Ethanology and select a designated driver. You will want to try every single one of their unique cocktails.
I told you Traverse City is delicious!
Heartfelt thanks to Traverse City Tourism for hosting my booze-and-food-filled experience. It was not my first trip to Traverse City and it will not be my last. I love the area and will gush about it for the rest of my life, hosted or not. Needless to say, all opinions contained here are, as always, 100% my own.