When people think of Michigan, they think of economic decay: Detroit, Flint and the long, slow downfall of an industrial stronghold. But four hours north of Detroit by car is Traverse City — locals affectionately call it T.C. — a small town known as much for its cherries as it is for its lakes. Lately T.C. has become a global destination for local food and drink.
It’s not just in downtown Traverse City either. Take a cruise northeast along the shores of Lake Michigan to Petoskey (where Hemingway spent summers on Walloon Lake) or northwest to Leland (Mario Batali likes to have a Bloody Mary at The Cove). Or enjoy the sunset and various vineyards along Old Mission Peninsula, the 22-mile finger of land flanked on each side by East and West Grand Traverse Bay, where the unsalted waters look like the Caribbean (but are considerably colder).
Traverse City gets its culinary identity from the surrounding lakes and farmlands, from freshwater fish to cherry pie. Local comes naturally to the inhabitants of these sleepy beach towns. You won’t have to ask where the special came from; odds are it was that morning’s catch or freshly picked from a neighbor’s farm.
(EAT) The Little Fleet
After starting a successful Brooklyn restaurant, Allison McDowell and Gary Jonas relocated to Traverse City to open a full-service bar and parking lot with room for five food trucks called The Little Fleet. One truck, Roaming Harvest, is a locally sourced farm-to-table joint on wheels with a constantly rotating menu — think pulled-pork tacos with purple cabbage slaw and chimichurri. Anchor Station sells more typical snacks, like burgers and falafel. EZ Cheesy chef Kim Ryan’s bright-yellow truck churns out locally sourced grilled cheese sandwiches. If you have kids or picky eaters in tow, spring for the Throwback: Velveeta on classic white bread.
(EAT) The Cook’s House
When Eric Patterson opened The Cooks’ House with co-chef and co-owner Jennifer Blakeslee in 2008, he’d never heard of the farm-to-table movement. His customers, though, couldn’t stop talking about it. “It just made sense as a chef to use product that is locally and sustainably grown,” he says. There are loads of places to source ingredients here, from the lakes and rivers to the farms. Patterson says he works directly with farmers and spends two hours each day shopping. Overall, the restaurant’s food is about 98 percent local. Patterson defines local as being from Michigan, though he says many of his ingredients come from just 3 or 4 miles away. “There’s a terroir to local products,” Patterson says. “It allows you to form a cuisine around the region you are in.”
(STAY) The Tesoro Inn
The Tesoro Inn is a small bed and breakfast on a 5-acre plot straddled by orchards and vineyards. Les Hagaman, a former professional chef, and his wife, Jane, opened their doors in the fall of 2009. The Tesoro Inn sources local when possible. Got a food allergy? Let the Hagamans know ahead of time, and they’ll rework the menu accordingly.
(EAT) Bare Knuckle Farm
Bare Knuckle Farm has a stand at the Traverse City farmers market on Wednesdays and one at the Suttons Bay farmers market on Saturdays. “But if you want the true Bare Knuckle experience, come to Northport on Friday,” co-founder Jess Piskor says. “It’s closest to the community where we grow our stuff.” They specialize in baby greens, beets, tomatoes, potatoes and peas.