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One of the best restaurants in Traverse City, located inside the Grand Traverse Resort, on the sixteenth floor of the Tower, is Aerie Restaurant. Their floor-to-ceiling windows wrap around the tower, featuring stunning views to complete your dining experience.
The restaurant felt like a place for celebrations, with white tablecloths and stemware.
They use local ingredients so that you have a taste of northern Michigan. The Aerie salad started with organic field greens and continued with cucumbers, pickled red onion, and Gorgonzola cheese. Then, they added candied pecans for crunch and dressed with a cherry vinaigrette made from Traverse City tart cherries. While it was a house salad, it showcased Michigan.
I enjoyed the steaks at Aerie, where the six-ounce filet cooked to order came topped with a green peppercorn Bordelaise sauce. The dish featured diced potato, candied bacon, and roasted onion. My favorite was the blackened and braised salmon. Chimichurri, vinegar, chive fried potatoes, smoked tomato jam, and charred lemon accompanied the dish.
Traverse City is the Cherry Capital of the World, so look for something with cherries for dessert. When I ate at Aerie, the Traverse City cherry toffee pudding cake topped with toffee sauce and candied cherries stood out.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Find out when the sun sets on the day of your visit. Then, make reservations early enough to enjoy the view of Grand Traverse Bay and end your meal at sunset.
Located on Traverse City’s East Front Street, overlooking West Grand Traverse Bay, the black and white awnings at Amical beckon you in. Then, the host stand, a bakery case of desserts, requests that you stay long enough for dessert. The eclectic eatery serves European cuisine.
As the name implies, Amical is a friendly restaurant. The venue is upscale, with black and white checked tablecloths, exposed brick, and modern art. You can eat in their cozy dining room or the street-side patio during the warmer months. Chefs donning white chef coats prepare your meal in an open kitchen.
While they don’t have a dress code, you’ll find people in business casual to elegant casual dress.
On their standard dinner menu, try one of their preparations of whitefish, a northern Michigan favorite. They have the Smoked Whitefish Pâté as an appetizer with light cream cheese, scallions, and capers served with house-made pickles and crackers. As an entrée, their fresh whitefish comes in a choice of preparations—Parmesan, fresh herb, nut-crusted, or blackened, served with Jasmine rice and broccolini.
While I love their standard menu, the Cookbook Dinner Series at Amical is unique. Each month, they choose a cookbook to create a menu from. They have that menu available for one week in the month, and then the next month, they select another menu from another cookbook. So far, they’ve featured over 1,000 recipes from 100 cookbooks over 30 years of the Cookbook Dinner Series. I’ve never heard of another restaurant doing this, and it makes for an interesting and exciting way to get variety in their menus, not only for the diners but also for the chefs. Check their website for the week each month featuring their Cookbook Dinner Series.
I was lucky enough to visit during the Cookbook Dinner Series when the cookbook was Flavors of the Sun by Christine Sahadi Whelan. The cookbook is a guide to understanding Middle Eastern Flavors, like sumac, urfa pepper, halvah, preserved lemons, and one of my favorites pomegranate molasses.
One thing that makes this particularly fun is if you loved a dish you had at the restaurant, you can buy the cookbook and try to make the dish at home. Their website even provides the page number of the recipe in the cookbook, so there’s no mystery.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Amical opens at 4:00 p.m. for dinner service. Although walk-ins are welcome, I suggest you make reservations.
Common Good Bakery
Common Good Bakery is more than a bakery. It’s also a restaurant serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Their menu includes beer, wine, cocktails, and live music some evenings.
Simple butcher block-topped tables and chairs are the perfect spot to grab a seat after ordering at the counter. The large windows allow for a well-lit room when the sun shines in northern Michigan.
I had breakfast at Common Good Bakery, and it was uncommonly good. I had a croque monsieur, which was a delicious beginning to my day. Listed under the Toasts and Tartines section of the menu, the sandwich featured French peasant bread, ham from Rice Farms, a traditional gruyère, torched béchamel, and a bit of black pepper. I added a molasses cookie for my mid-morning snack, but waiting that long to dig in was difficult.
They offer a variety of panini, quiche, soups, and salads for lunch. Their dinner menu features shareable appetizers, salads, pizza, and house-made pastas. Top off your dinner with one of the treats from the bakery.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Between 3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m.—Happy Hour, they limit their menu to a couple of shareable appetizers and various pizzas. They’re open between 6:00 a.m. and 9:00 p.m. Stop by before 3:00 p.m. or after 5:00 p.m. for a more varied menu.
Don’s Drive-In is the perfect place to grab a quick bite. You won’t need to get out of your car if you’re in a hurry. Situated on Highway 31, across from the beach, the award-winning neon sign and pink building are difficult to miss.
The vibe at Don’s is retro and super casual. Don’s Drive-In opened in 1958. It’s a real 1950s-style drive-in with neon signs and carhops. In the summer months, it offers outdoor dining on picnic tables, a carhop service, and an indoor sit-down restaurant.
The burgers come in various sizes that you can complete with your favorite burger toppings. Unlike traditional fast-food places, they cook the burgers to your desired doneness. Not in the mood for a burger? The menu also offers sandwiches like grilled cheese, tuna, and hot dogs.
Don’s is known for deep-fried pickle spears, so try them over the traditional French Fries for something different.
The award-winning shakes and burgers will have you reminiscing about the ’50s. I love fruit milkshakes or malts, complete with pieces of fruit. This is Traverse City, so you’ll find one with cherries. They also offer strawberries and a unique rotating blend.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Don’s is the perfect place to eat after a beach day. Grab one of their picnic tables and enjoy. It won’t matter if the kids still have the wiggles or you’re still damp and sandy.
Filling Station Microbrewery
Located in a former train depot, originally built in 1927, the Filling Station Microbrewery serves craft beers in an environment that still has a lot of its original charm.
The outdoor patio space provides open-air seating on the train station’s old railway platform. I was curious how it works in the winter, but they have sides that come down, and heaters for year round seating.
Specializing in wood-fired flatbread pizzas, artisan salads, and hand-crafted microbrews. What goes better together than pizza and beer? From their drink menu, one offering is a cherry seltzer, where they took a batch of hard seltzer and cycle it through their hop which they had backfilled with King Orchards’ local tart cherries. It’s a light and effervescent hard seltzer with a subtle tart cherry flavor, perfect for a hot summer day.
Needless to say, I had to try the Piper’s Porter, named in memory of Traverse City’s favorite airport dog, Piper. I enjoyed the rich full chocolate flavor, from the infused cocoa nibs. They use a Canadian pale malt, hopped with Cascad and Columbus hops from local Michigan.
Piper’s Pro Planning: The Filling Station Microbrewery closes and Tuesday and Wednesday.
A modern taco shop in downtown Traverse City, Mama Lu’s is named after the chef owner’s great-grandma Lu.
The ambiance is casual at Mama Lu’s but has a modern aesthetic with friendly service.
The street tacos come in one per order, so you can select what you want from six varieties. They offer steak, chicken, al pastor (pork), fish, shrimp, and a vegetarian black bean variety.
Be sure to try the street corn grilled and topped with chile cotija cheese and lime mayo. Mexican chocolate sauce accompanies the churros to make a delicious dessert.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Arrive before you’re hungry, as Mama Lu’s doesn’t have a reservations system, and the restaurant is small. Arrive early, add your name to the list, and explore the area until your table is ready.
Located on Front Street in downtown Traverse City, the Modern Bird could be categorized as a contemporary American restaurant. The chef owners, a husband and wife team, source local produce from various farms in the Traverse City area but mainly from their friends at Lakeview Hill and Loma Farm.
A primary-colored graphic of Traverse City cherries decorate the back wall. Yellow exposed brick walls add a light and airy feel, with open white ceilings adding a slight industrial ambiance. Small vases of flowers adorn the tables, completing a cheerful, happy environment.
While the fried chicken has rave reviews for being crisp on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. I don’t eat birds. So, I had the new potato galette gruyere with a side of mixed greens and totally enjoyed this meal. Their bread, served as a loaf with cheddar and ranch butter was outstanding.
Piper’s Pro Planning: The restaurant is on the small side, so you’ll definitely want to make reservations, especially on the weekends.
Moomers Homemade Ice Cream
For Moomers Homemade Ice Cream, they process Moomers milk right on the Plummer Family dairy farm in their creamery. The whole family will enjoy a trip to Moomers.
Moomers scoops ice cream via counter service. They have several booths inside to sit and enjoy your cone, along with several tables on their patio. Definitely a casual environment.
They make over 150 different flavors of homemade ice cream, and have over 20 flavors available daily.
Piper’s Pro Planning: If they don’t have your favorite flavor available when you visit, ask them to give you a call when they have it on the menu.
Oakwood Proper Burgers
Oakwood Proper Burgers, a small place on Eighth Street with counter service, serves fantastic burgers and fries. I had lunch at Oakwood Proper Burgers, and I don’t say this lightly, but it was up there as one of the best burgers I’ve ever eaten.
During the summer months, they have an outdoor space. When the weather is less than ideal, indoor seating is limited. The atmosphere is upbeat and friendly.
I ordered the Chili Queen, a hand-spun chocolate shake made with Mooville ice cream, and their hand-cut fries. While I enjoyed everything, the burger stood out, a proper burger.
Don’t be fooled by the counter-style service. Oakwood Proper Burgers serves gourmet burgers here, even if you order at the counter. They start with Michigan craft beef, which I saw them making into patties by hand in the back. So, they are starting with a special beyond grass-fed beef from a farm in Zeeland, Michigan. Once they make the patties, they’re cooked as a smash burger, so the patties get that caramelization on the outside while remaining juicy.
While they have several specialty burgers, I had the Chili Queen, and I can’t say enough about it. First, they top that perfectly caramelized burger with a white queso that drips over the top slightly. Then they add grilled poblanos, which add tons of flavor yet not much heat. Don’t worry! It was flavor, not spice! Finally, they top it with grilled onions, spicy catsup, and shredded lettuce. No tomatoes! Again, the spicy catsup isn’t too much spice. Finally, they sandwich their burgers on Common Good Bakery buns.
I live just over three hours from Traverse City and would make the trip just for this burger.
Piper’s Pro Planning: They’re closed on Mondays.
Though the Village at Grand Traverse Commons is in Traverse City, an urban setting on 480 acres of preserved parklands, you’ll think you’re in the country. The community is full of history. In April 1883, construction began on the Victorian Italianate-style main building, Building 50. In November 1885, the Northern Michigan Asylum, later renamed the Traverse City State Hospital. After 104 years, the Traverse City State Hospital closed its doors in 1989 and remained vacant until 2000. In 2002, the Minervini Group began one of the nation’s most extensive historic preservation and adaptive reuse developments. The main building has become apartments, shops, and restaurants, creating a new community in this former place of healing.
Located on the first floor of the hospital’s original chapel, Pepe Nero has all the historical pieces found in Kirkbride Hall. Today, the elegant restaurant features the chapel’s relaxing atmosphere and Italian fare.
Chef Giorgio Lo Greco grew up in Sicily and worked in his uncle’s Trattoria. His restaurant in Traverse City serves dishes inspired by the memories of his youth and his travels abroad. The menu includes local farm sources for fresh vegetables, fruits, and meats. He uses Italian purveyors for items like anchovies and olive oil.
You’ll want to order one of their fresh house-made plates of pasta, either as a primi or an entrée. For those with gluten-free requirements, you can substitute gnocchi for all but the stuffed pasta. Try the pappardelle with a slow braised baby back-ribs ragu, cream, Pomodoro sauce, and Parmigiano Reggiano. Pepe Nero is a great place to order the branzino as an entrée. They bake it in parchment paper with artichokes, a caper, and tomato relish, and dill serve it with potatoes.
Piper’s Pro Planning: During nice weather, dine on the patio.
Sleder’s Family Tavern
Open in 1882, Sleder’s Family Tavern is Michigan’s longest continuously operating tavern. Randolph, the moose, sits about the back entrance, waiting for a kiss. The practice of kissing the moose for luck began when a losing sports team kissed the moose the night before a big game and won. Today, you can also kiss Randolf for luck. They have a step ladder available to assist in reaching the moose for that lucky smooch.
Launched more than 100 years ago, the restaurant has a historic atmosphere. The owners have preserved the building’s charm throughout the restaurant’s long history. The original 21-foot solid mahogany bar stands along the restaurant’s east wall. The only change to the original antique lamps is converting gas to electricity.
The restaurant is known for its fish fry, including lake perch, cod, and Canada smelt. If you’re a carnivore, the menu features beef or buffalo burgers ground fresh daily. Soups, salads, and sandwiches are also available.
Piper’s Pro Planning: While you’ll find several steps in the front, the rear entrance is accessible.
If you’re looking for an overview of the Traverse City area, check out Traverse City, Michigan: A Luxury Destination. Need more information on the National Cherry Festival? Read Traverse City, Michigan: The Cherry Capital of the World.
Also located in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, the cheerful bright yellow building with window boxes and wrought iron trim is Spanglish, once Firehouse Number 1 in the hospital complex. Today, this counter-service restaurant uses Northern Michigan ingredients and traditional Mexican recipes to create traditional Mexican dishes with a twist.
During the summer months, sit outdoors at a picnic table and enjoy the bubbling brook in front of the restaurant.
Since the menu has many good options, deciding what to order is difficult. I enjoyed the Spanglish fried rice, a dish composed of Spanish rice, red bell pepper, poblano peppers, sweet corn, onion, and whole beans topped with feta, cilantro, and chopped onion. They heat it on the grill, so it has some flavorful crispy bits reminiscent of paella. The portion size is generous, almost enough for two.
I also enjoyed the corn tostadas topped with refried beans, shredded cabbage, onions, cilantro, tomatoes, Mexican sour cream, and salsa verde. Try the traditional Mexican horchata, a sweet drink with rice, whole milk, cane sugar, and cinnamon.
You won’t have difficulty finding gluten-free and vegetarian options.
Piper’s Pro Planning: Don’t forget to stock your freezer with some of their tamales and burritos. I like having them tucked away at home when I can’t reach the restaurant.
Trattoria Stella, One of the Best Restaurants in Traverse City
Another favorite located in the Village at Grand Traverse Commons, Executive Chef Myles Anton leads the kitchen at Trattoria Stella. He’s a five-time James Beard Award semi-finalist focusing on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients. You’ll find the names of the farms on the menu. The team makes everything in-house— charcuterie, cheese, pasta, bread, and desserts. Wine Enthusiast Magazine named Trattoria Stella one of America’s Top 100 Wine Restaurants. The restaurant features local wine from Leelanau, the Old Mission Peninsula, and the Italian peninsula.
Trattoria Stella, an award-winning restaurant, sits in the cellar of a 100-year-old building, the former Traverse City State Hospital. The yellow exposed brick walls of this building exude a deep history. The family-run restaurant has a friendly atmosphere, whether you’re having a romantic dinner for two or a large family dinner with children included.
The Trattoria, an Italian restaurant, features sustainable, fresh, and local ingredients. The menu lists the farms where it sources its ingredients. So, you’ll know exactly which local farm the blueberries came from. Trattoria Stella makes its cheese, bread, and pasta in-house, so you’ll want to try one of the dishes featuring those ingredients. The chef prints a daily menu, so what I enjoyed might not be on the menu when you visit.
I particularly enjoyed the cherry bruschetta. One day, I had it, and the chef spread the crostini with creamy house cheese, covered in a mixture of chopped cherries, for a beautiful Michigan-themed bite. I’ve also had the bruschetta with fresh Black Mission figs, candied hazelnuts, caramelized onions, and pecans drizzled with a balsamic glaze. Remember, the menu changes daily, so what was on the menu when I visited may not be on the menu when you visit, but you’ll find something equally wonderful.
The restaurant is known for its house-made burrata.
Piper’s Pro Planning: If you want something great to eat at home without all the work, order something online from their ready-to-go menu and take home a hot meal, ready to eat. For those who prefer open-air seating, order your food to go and eat al fresco at one of the tables on the grounds of the Village at Grand Traverse Commons. If you plan to dine in, I suggest reservations.
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While Piper is a lifelong Michigander, she’s had adventures worldwide. Bomb-sniffing dogs chased her in the middle of the night in Bogota (working late), gate agents refused her boarding to Paraguay (wrong visa), and US Marshals announced her seat number on a plane while looking for a murder suspect (she’d traded seats). It’s always an adventure! She even finds exciting activities in her home state of Michigan, where she lives in Lansing with her husband, Ross Dingman, her daughter, Alexis, and two granddaughters.