A Taste of Traverse City: More Than Just Wine

treats at L. Mawby
treats at L. Mawby

All photos by Dorothy Hernandez.

Just a four-hour drive (or more, if there’s traffic – it is the Motor City after all) away from Detroit is a culinary and drink paradise. Much has been said about Traverse City’s wine scene (riesling expert Stuart Pigott’s book Best White Wine on Earth: The Riesling Story was the catalyst for the City of Riesling festival held in town in July) but it’s also home to great beer and craft cocktails.

And it’s becoming quite the destination. In 2009, TripAdvisor named Traverse City the No. 2 small-town travel destination in the United States.

Traverse City is the type of town where everyone – wine lovers, beer aficionados, and craft cocktail enthusiasts – can all find something to enjoy.

The Franklin

One of the top restaurants in town is Trattoria Stella, which specializes in farm-to-table fare; when we went a couple of years ago, we enjoyed squash blossoms for starters and risotto with local trout for dinner. There’s also well-made cocktails – you can’t go wrong with a well-balanced mojito. The downside is the price tag can be hefty. So when the proprietors opened The Franklin a few months ago, we rejoiced. The space is modern with a communal table in the middle. The menu has accents of global flavors and fun, updated twists on gastropub fare, such as disco fries (fingerling potatoes generously slathered with gravy and topped with scallions and bacon). There’s flatbread, sandwiches, and pastas, as well as a selection of larger plates -- we tried scallops with orzo and an Asian-style spare rib. But the drink, wine, and beer menus are the real draw here. There’s a wide range of spirits as well as extensive wine lists that feature local and global winemakers. For a cocktail, try tequila with the chili water juice drink to spice things up.

L. Mawby

No trip to Traverse City would be complete without at least one wine stop. This Suttons Bay winery is the mecca for sparkling wine lovers. There are always two wines for tasting free of charge and then after you’ve worked up an appetite for more bubbly, there are flights with small bites of food (on the day we went, we got smoked whitefish pate, a must when you’re up north in Michigan.) During the summer, there’s the Tent Bar to enjoy the vineyard views. Next door is the bigLITTLE tasting room, which opened in 2013. The winemakers there branched out from L. Mawby, and the wine titles are fun: c3Pinot and Mixtape, for example, which pay tribute to the winemakers’ childhood.

grand traverse
grand traverse

Grand Traverse Distillery

Starting with a recipe from a Polish family member, Kent Rabish founded Grand Traverse Distillery in his goal to “end dependence on foreign alcohol.” This award-winning distillery, which is Michigan’s oldest and largest “grain to bottle” and certified “craft” microdistillery, produces about 10,000 cases a year, making unique vodkas including True North, What Vodka, True North Cherry, and Chocolate Vodka. There’s also Peninsula Gin and rum in the works, as well as whiskey. The Corn Whiskey is a must-try – it tastes like a corn field in summer. Tours are offered on the weekends and it includes a shot glass and tasting. Start or end your tour with a reasonably priced cocktail in the tasting room. It may sound too simple but don’t miss the Peninsula Gin and Tonic, made with their flavorful gin and artisanal tonic. We also had a refreshing Vodka and Cucumber: True North Rye or Wheat Vodka with quince and apple, lime and cucumber syrup over ice.

Right Brain Brewery

This brewery is known for its cutting-edge, culinary-focused brews. There’s the Cool Hand Cuke, a cucumber saison; the Thai Peanut, which tastes like the popular soup; and the most interesting one, a Mangalista Pig Porter, brewed with a smoked pig’s head. The tasting room features plenty of space and board games, and flights are available.


North Peak Brewing Company

Popular brewpub North Peak is located in a historical building that was formerly a candy factory. Its flagship beer is the Diabolical IPA, an aggressively hopped IPA balanced with a caramel sweetness. Other popular picks include Siren Amber Ale, a malty classic with a slight dry finish, and Peak Raspberry Ale, brewed with Michigan honey with Pacific northwest raspberry added during the brew and secondary fermentation.

The Low Bar

Always do sober what you say you’d do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut. This quote from Ernest Hemingway is featured prominently on the menu at the Low Bar, a speakeasy-style joint where we capped off a long day of drinks. No vodka tonics here – the extensive menu features pages of “Concoctions” (we tried the Russian Bride – vodka, Hendricks gin, kaffir simple syrup, grapefruit juice and bitters) and classic drinks, including an Old Fashioned, Side Car, and Negroni. Beer lovers should head upstairs to 7 Monks Taproom, which boasts a glorious 40-plus beers on tap, including local breweries such as Short’s as well as national brands like Lagunitas and Southern Tier.

sauv blanc left foot charley
sauv blanc left foot charley

Left Foot Charley

Located in a former hospital complex now populated with cafes, restaurants, and shops, Left Foot Charley is the region’s first urban winery. This stylish spot serves red and white wines, but they draw people in with their ciders. We tried Cinnamon Girl, which tasted like apple pie in a glass, and the Volunteer, an effervescent, crisp, and refreshing cider. They also offer snacks such as pretzels and the Ploughman’s Lunch, which includes cured meats, hand-picked cheeses, fresh fruits, preserves, and other locally made items.

One final tip

When you’re in Traverse City, you have to find time to get on the water. We sailed into the sunset thanks to Two Brothers Sailing, headed by Capt. Jake, who took us for a ride on his vessel Miss Alexandra. And don’t forget to bring a bottle (or two) of your favorite beverage that you inevitably picked up during the day because wine, beer, or a cocktail is always a good idea on a boat (of course if you’re not driving). This is what it means to summer (or fall) up north, as we Michiganders like to say.