Where to Eat in Southwestern Michigan

Photograph by Christina Holmes

The tree-lined drive along I-94 as it moseys from Chicago up the coast to Michigan is marked with billboards for Kenny G’s next casino performance, the state’s number one deck builder (“yeah, we build in winter”), and countless dispensaries. But take Exit 1 for the Red Arrow Highway and a different scene emerges: a lakeside region with beaches that stretch farther than your eyes can follow, idyllic dunes, and water as blue as a tropical postcard.

This is Harbor Country—a cluster of eight small towns abutting Lake Michigan, all within a 15-minute driving radius. Just an hour and a half from Chicago, three hours from Detroit, and two and a half hours from Indianapolis, it’s a paradise of old-school taverns slinging rightfully famous burgers and kitschy ice cream stands that have sustained visitors for generations. It’s also home to a new wave of producers and restaurant owners making the most of the nearly 150,000 acres of farmland at their doorsteps, deepening the community’s ties to the land, and the people, around them.

Chuck Ritter Memorial Lighthouse in New Buffalo.
Chuck Ritter Memorial Lighthouse in New Buffalo.
Photograph by Christina Holmes

At the start of Michigan’s fruit belt are sprawling apple and peach orchards, and endless berry patches begging you to stop by and stain your fingertips. This abundance can be found at countless farm stands but also in packaged juices, jams, granola bars, and McDonald’s apple pies across the country. Beans, grains, hops, asparagus, and all manner of produce grown here finds its way onto the menus of the Windy City’s best restaurants. Rent a cottage with a decent kitchen and you have a world of chef-worthy ingredients at your fingertips. And when you dine out, you’ll eat like a king.

Plan your trip by first booking a coveted dinner seating at Granor Farm. The nationally acclaimed tasting menu series is an extraordinary example of hyperlocal foodways at their best, set in the prolific organic farm’s prism-like greenhouse. Then build out the rest of your itinerary with roadside burgers, big sandwiches, cider and bowling (sometimes simultaneously), ice cream, treasure hunting, dune hikes, and beach napping. Return home relaxed, inspired, and with a suitcase full of whatever fruit is in season.

The Essentials:

Don’t leave town without: Beans, jams, and grains from Granor Farm and New Buffalo Farmers Market. Check Instagram for sourdough availability from local baker, Dune Dough Bread Co.

The best place to stay: The Harbor Grand Hotel. It feels like a big-city boutique hotel with Midwestern hospitality. With breakfast in bed, fireplaces in every room, an indoor pool, spa, and bikes for guests, it’s worth every penny.

Book Your Stay

$.00, Harbor Grand Hotel

For breakfast, an egg-topped Reuben or fresh pastries

Make New Buffalo—a walkable, tiny lakeside town—home base for the weekend. Its main street, Whittaker, winds through downtown and slopes to the public beach. In the summer a line snakes outside David’s Delicatessen—and for good reason. Owners Joe Lindsay and Emma Brewster offer hearty bagels, sandwiches, and deli sides (and Intelligentsia coffee to boot) in a homey space decorated with vintage photographs and paintings by local artists. David’s is famous for its breakfast Reuben—a hedonistic stack of corned beef ribbons, an oozy fried egg, and Russian dressing. Keep an eye on the chalkboard for specials that are big on local veggies and puns, like the We’re Going to Live On, We’re Going to Surv-rye-ve! with golden beet, roasted onion spread, spicy carrots, dill-pickled snap peas, parsley salad, and vegan herby mayo on toasted rye.

But if you’re eager to hit the dunes, Whistle Stop Grocery is right off Red Arrow Highway. You can pick up craggy maple scones to go with your honey and cinnamon latte and a case of grab-and-get-thee-to-the-beach salads, wraps, dips, and fancy sodas.

A hike or a nap on the beach

Roam through Warren Dunes State Park on a sunny afternoon.
Roam through Warren Dunes State Park on a sunny afternoon.
Photograph by New Buffalo Explored

If you’re coming from David’s, a short walk down Whittaker and along a sandy path surrounded by feathery dune grasses gets you to New Buffalo Beach. Anchor your blanket, then alternate between swimming in the cool, clear water and warming back up under the sun (which might not set until 9 p.m. in mid-July—the perks of being on the edge of the Eastern time zone).

Farther north, at Warren Dunes State Park, you can while away the day on a three-mile swath of beach with the sapphire lake in front of you and a wall of dunes behind. If you really want to earn your beach nap, leave your umbrella in the car and take a hike first. The Mount Randall Loop is a four-mile trail that climbs through sandy inclines and an enchanting forest path, worth every step for the views of Lake Michigan. Taco trucks post up at the parking lot near the well-kept beach restrooms. And if laying out with a good book isn’t your speed, canoes and kayaks are available to rent.

For lunch, a towering turkey club sandwich, a veg-heavy grain bowl, or an iconic burger

Recent additions add welcome variety to the restaurant scene while fitting right into this unpretentious neck of the woods. Ray & Al’s in Galien, named after co-owners Reyna Larson and Alice Hoffmann, is the kind of cozy café where locals are called “darling” when they walk through the door. Get the stacked turkey club and a side of bacon-studded mac salad to enjoy in the sunlit space.

For a modern lunch vibe, head to Gather All Day, which has an airy, coastal feel. The seasonal veggie-filled grain bowls, juicy roast chicken, and thin-cut fries pair especially well with a glass of natural wine. You could also snag a wood-fired pizza with a bubbling, chewy-thin crust at Emma Hearth & Market and take it, plus an Italian lemon soda or a bottle of cold rosato, to the picnic tables out back. A slice of leopard-spotted margherita is known to come with a garnish of basil so big it covers the whole thing like a modesty fig leaf.

Redamak’s destination burger (that’s Velveeta cheese between those two patties).
Redamak’s destination burger (that’s Velveeta cheese between those two patties).
Photograph by Christina Holmes

All who wander between Michigan and Illinois know there is one stop you must make, and that’s for a burger at Redamak’s, which has been feeding travelers and seasonal residents since 1946. Inside, the shine of well-worn wood paneling bathes the dining rooms in a greasy glow. Kids sprint to the arcade. Motorcyclists hold court at the bar. Teenage waitstaff hustle between the narrow spaces between booths and tables, trying to fathom why you ordered a side salad (rookie mistake). This isn’t a hoity-toity place; they didn’t offer lettuce and tomatoes until 2016, and that busy kitchen will feed 400,000 more of youse this summer. Best to keep it simple: jalapeño cheddar bites, Velveeta burger, onion rings. Cash only. Then step out from the din into the quiet summer air, bursting at the top button.

Go antiquing or check out a local brewery

Along Red Arrow, you’ll begin to experience a specific kind of dusty déjà vu brought upon by endless antique malls. Wander through the Harbert Antique Mall, where a back corner overflows with bolts of vintage fabric, and Sawyer Antique Mall for, perhaps, a miniature wood cow.

If sifting through other folks’ heirlooms isn’t your thing, grab a tart local hard cider at Peat’s Cider Social. The cidery is located inside a renovated bowling alley decorated with a midcentury bent. On a clear day, though, you’ll want to sit outside by the woods at Seedz Brewery, maybe with a glass of mlíko, a light, foamy Czech-style specialty. Or grab a traditional sour or farmhouse ale at Transient Artisan Ales, made with hops grown at Hop Head Farms down the street.

For dinner, experience all the region’s bounty

Enjoy a multicourse farm-to-table dinner in Granor Farm’s magical greenhouse.
Enjoy a multicourse farm-to-table dinner in Granor Farm’s magical greenhouse.
Photograph by Emily Berger

Granor Farm is a destination restaurant in Michigan and also one of the state’s most significant advocates for local agriculture. It’s an ambitious model for what the future of farming in America can look like, with a CSA, farm store, grain and distillery programming, and summer camps for kids.

The farm is best known for its James Beard–nominated dinner series, overseen by celebrated chef, cookbook author, and daughter of a Michigan farmer Abra Berens. The dinners take place on the weekends and sell out quickly. The meal’s seven courses showcase the farm’s bounty without excess embellishment. Freshly picked salad greens, kohlrabi sculpted into a scallop (and somehow even more delicious than the real thing), and plums baked into a featherlight clafouti all share the table. Berens, who tends to shy away from the spotlight, might come out and introduce elements of the meal (“we’re up to our ears in tomatoes right now…”) before handing the reins to the chefs plating courses in the open kitchen.

As the wine pairings flow and conversations deepen, you’ll get the sense this food is feeding not just a group of lucky strangers but an entire ecosystem: the neighbors who stop by for their monthly CSA; partner farms across the state who supply the meats and cheeses on the menu; and the staff themselves, some of whom have moved from as far as Texas to plant roots here.

Finish the night with craft cocktails and an ice cream cone

The menu is always in flux at neighborhood bar the False Front.
The menu is always in flux at neighborhood bar the False Front.
Photograph by Wesley Moguel

At 6 p.m., the lights at David’s Delicatessen dim, furniture is rearranged, and the shop reopens as the False Front, a low-key cocktail bar popular among locals in the hospitality industry. The staff here, like everyone else around these parts, is passionate about the produce at their fingertips, which gets worked into drinks in unexpected ways: The Fig Lebowski stars fig-thyme syrup, pear brandy, and goat cheese–washed Opihr gin.

Then cap the night at Oink’s Dutch Treat, a blue-trimmed ice cream stand around the block. Michigan Pot Hole is the way to go here, a chocolate ice cream flecked with crunchy chocolate cookie bits. Every inch of the interior is covered with kooky pig decor that seems to multiply each winter hiatus. But you won’t know for sure unless you make your way back again next year.

Originally Appeared on Bon Appétit

More Restaurant Stories From Bon Appétit