Traverse City, Michigan is a city that loves its secrets — secrets like sweet temptations and tart confections, all of which have been simmering like a slow-cooked stew in and around the downtown area of the city. And, until recently, the residents of this expanding food-loving town were content with keeping it a well-kept local and regional secret.
Located on Grand Traverse Bay, a long deep inlet of Lake Michigan, Traverse City’s once hidden buzz surrounding its eclectic mix of eateries is now out in the open. Part of the exposure came from well-known culinary publications like Bon Appetite, who listed it as one of America’s Top Five Foodie towns and Liveability.com, who gave it similar top billing among 200 American cities.
I justified my visit and the extra pounds I might pack on in the interest of foodie science. So, let the tour begin:
My wife and I arrived in the late afternoon and took a stroll downtown on Front Street. Our first stop was the Grand Traverse Pie Company, where we sampled their number one seller, the sumptuous cherry crumb pie made with Northern Michigan Montmorency tart cherries. Ours came hot from the oven and had the perfect blend of tartness and crunch. There are 27 varieties of pies as well as hearty soups and entrees like shepherd’s pie.
At Simply Cupcakes everything is made from scratch and each moist cupcake is topped with a light Italian buttercream. The names alone are enough to make you salivate — banana cream, for instance, uses sour cream cake and fresh bananas topped off white chocolate ganache.
Unlike some towns, Traverse City doesn’t lay claim to a single dominant ethnic food tradition. Here, the scene is more eclectic. Speaking of eclectic, at Fustini’s Oils and Vinegars you can taste a wide variety of white and red balsamic vinegars and olive oils from all over the world. The most popular is an 18-year-old balsamic vinegar paired with garlic olive oil.
With as many as 160 restaurants in the area, Traverse City is one of the sweetest places you will ever visit. But be forewarned, if you do come here, you will likely be seeing red — cherry red that is, because Traverse City is known as the Cherry Capital of the World. Even the airport and some of the taxis have adopted the cherry as their logo. They’ve also extended their tart geographic influence in the form of a store called Cherry Republic.
Started by a guy who sold t-shirts out of his car in 1989, the Republic has grown into a full-fledged cherry extravaganza selling and shipping 250 cherry products all over the world. They have cherry juice, barbecue sauce, dried cherries, root beer, salsa, and a huge cookie known as the Boomchunka that’s loaded with oatmeal, white chocolate and, of course, cherries. What’s even better is that they will ship anything as a gift for a flat rate of only $5.
A Traverse City tradition, Cousin Jenny’s Cornish Pasties serves some of the tastiest pasties this side of Cornwall. The owners, Nick and Jerilyn DeBoer, create handmade, self-contained meals using the freshest ingredients. Their most popular is the Traditional with steak, potatoes, rutabaga, and onions. Others fillings include vegetable, chicken, steak, and cheddar and a variety of breakfast pasties as well. We found these to be tasty, filling, and reasonably priced — just the ticket for keeping our stomachs happy on a blustery, fall day.
Across the street from the pastie shop is House of Doggs. Owner Nick McAllister has two loves: music and hot dogs. He combined these by adorning his walls with his musical collection and then set out to serve the finest natural casing hot dog. The result has been a thriving success and he has been rated the #1 Dog in town for 3 years.
Voted the Best Ice Cream Shop in America by the viewers of Good Morning America, Moomers Ice Cream is located just outside of town and worth the drive. Started by a first grade teacher, this family business now serves more than 120 flavors and has lines queuing up in the summertime for their cold, creamy concoctions. My favorite was the Cherries Moobilee, made with black cherry ice cream, chocolate fudge, cherries, and bits of chocolate brownie — not the most calorie-conscious I admit, but then again, I am a professional…
One of the more notable historical buildings in Traverse City is the Grand Traverse Commons, previously known as the Northern Michigan Asylum. This sprawling complex is unique in its spacious design, Victorian architecture, and bright colors as well as the humane way they treated their former occupants, many of whom worked in the facility.
Today, the space is being reclaimed and transformed into trendy shops, galleries, boutiques, apartments, and restaurants. A stroll through their subterranean mercato is a must, and while there, you should also see how they have put to good use some of the other buildings on campus. For instance, The Pleasanton Brick Oven Bakery starts with a natural leavening process and Michigan-grown organic grains fired in a brick oven to make mouth-watering baked sensations that will spoil you for any other type of bread.
Since my diet was put on hold for this trip, I figured one more amazing meal wouldn’t hurt and went all-out at the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa on East Traverse Bay. This is one of the finest full-service resorts in the Midwest with nearly 600 rooms, suites, and condominiums. Located on the 16th floor is the Aerie Restaurant & Lounge. Serving regional American cuisine with their own version of Northern Michigan flair, the large glass windows offer spectacular panoramic views of the bay and rolling countryside. The service here is impeccable, as is the extensive wine list and seasonal menu selections. I had a filet mignon that was juicy, seasoned to perfection, and fork tender.
As we watched the sun set over the bay and the sky turn pinkish-orange, we realized that we had just scratched the culinary surface of Traverse City. Venturing into the county and outlying areas also offers delicious delights, including a burgeoning wine tasting industry that is only now just being discovered. Located just a short 45-minute plane flight from Chicago-O’Hare, Traverse City is easy to get to but hard to leave once you learn why locals were happy to keep their town a well-kept secret.