Beauty in the Unexpected: Asylum Turned Dining Destination

Michigan’s The Village at Grand Traverse Commons is the kind of pleasant dining surprise that makes traveling beautiful

Photo Sasabune Omakase Modified: Flickr/erin/CC 4.0

The traveler in me always loves finding restaurants in unexpected places.

The traveler in me always loves finding restaurants in unexpected places. My favorite find of the past few months? The Village at Grand Traverse Commons. This historic building in Traverse City, Michigan, is a mental hospital turned retail and dining destination. Sound, er, interesting? Its past is most certainly that, but the beauty is captivating.  The centerpiece of this multi-building campus is a large main building composed of a creamy, beige brick, like the kind you’d find on one of the most beautiful college campus in America. . The asylum was nearly torn down in early 2000, but now it thrives as a gathering place for locals and visitors alike.  

“It would be easy simply to say that the Commons is our ‘Central Park’ not just a place where Traverse City residents and visitors shop and dine, but a vibrant urban forest where we hike, stroll, cycle and relax. But the truth is deeper than that,” says Mike Norton, media relations director at Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The Commons gives us a depth – historically and culturally—that many resort communities lack. It’s not simply the town’s most distinguished architectural treasure; it’s also a vital reminder of a history that we nearly forgot.”

And while the historical property is  quite modern, it also maintains a charming, old school style to it.

One highlight of the grounds is urban winery Left Foot Charley. Left Foot Charley is a gorgeous, free-standing building just steps from the main building that was the former laundry of the asylum. Guests can eat alfresco on the patio or dine in a light-filled main room complete with a bar and a handful of tables. The winery hosted me and a few other travel writers early this summer, and we tasted some of their finest goods in the back of brewery. This spot works with 18 Northern Michigan wineries to produce wines that showcase what the area has to offer. You’ll want to have a white wine—even if you don’t want to make the trip out to a winery—when you’re in Northern Michigan as the offerings are exceptional. The Rieslings I had were all very good, but if sweet vino isn’t your thing, opt for a Pinot Gris or Pinot Blanc. If wine isn’t your thing, try the hard cider. One notable blend here is the Cinnamon Girl Hard Cider. This was a little too strong for my tastes, but might be a perfect beverage to help drinkers usher in fall. Diners here can enjoy small bites like sandwiches here too.

Next up, we were escorted to a restaurant located inside the Commons after a brief tour of the building. If I lived in Traverse City, this would be one of my favorite places. The Commons has gorgeous communal spaces that are used for weddings or receptions in addition to small shops that are somewhat underground. Italian restaurant Pepenero hosted us for the night. And I fell I love with this spot. It’s all brick and decked out with black and white photos of old-school Italian films like La Dolce Vita. I bet this restaurant sees plenty of proposals; it’s that classy. 

The ultra fresh caprese salad was beautifully plated and even drizzled with balsamic that spelled out the name of the restaurant.  My four cheese ravioli was hearty and topped with a spicy mushroom ragu. At five pieces, it was just filling enough. To cap off this perfect meal, I had an affogato that was so good I wish I was still tasting it. The creamy whipped cream was topped with espresso beans and layered on top of bitter espresso balanced out by cool vanilla gelati. It was dreamy. 

Teresa K. Tobat is a travel writer and editor based out of the Washington, D.C. area. View her website at Follow her tweets @ttobat88.

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