I’ve gone to Charlevoix every summer since childhood, and I enjoy it as much now as I did then. Of course my fascination with food has given me new eyes with which to explore “up North.” The constantly changing food scene seems to illustrate the difficulty of surviving in or near a tourist town with a population considerably reduced during the off-season. Fortunately, the area’s merchants benefit not only from summer vacationers but also from fall color followers and winter sports freaks.
This summer’s first visit to Charlevoix took us to Whitney’s Oyster Bar, Terry’s Place, the Villager Pub, Thick N’ Juicy, Pearl’s and Murray’s Bar and Grill.
I think that Whitney’s must have started life as Tom’s Oyster Bar. It has that familiar feel to it: casual, convivial, offering a good drink at a fair price, lots of fresh, well-prepared seafood, fresh oysters and, of course, a tasty tomato-based fish chowder that I love. (Unfortunately, Whitney’s won’t part with the recipe.) There is a covered deck upstairs, overlooking Round Lake.
My only complaint is that the bartender was smoking. I have no tolerance for that. I am a former smoker, and I do not consider smoker’s hands sanitary enough to handle food or to squeeze limes into my rum. Restaurant and bar employees should never smoke while they are working. Hopefully, Michigan is approaching New York as a state that will not allow smoking in restaurants or bars. This notwithstanding, I’ll return to Whitney’s and drink bottled beer and eat more chowder.
Terry’s Place was another successful venture. In 1981, after a stint as a chef at Café Chauveron (a five-star restaurant in Florida), Terry Left, a native of Charlevoix, rented a small storefront back home on Bridge Street where he founded the immediately popular Great Lakes Whitefish Company, a carryout serving fish and chips made with fresh fish caught daily by the Cross family, owners of John Cross Fisheries. Two years later, Left opened Terry’s Place around the corner, serving fresh sautéed whitefish, walleye and perch in a small dining room serviced by a kitchen smaller than those found in most homes. The restaurant is up North/upscale; that is, cloth napkins, fancier than dockside or pub dining but still casual. The food is top-notch and well worth the $20 average dinner cost. The short wine list is well-chosen.
The menu includes a few non-seafood items such as rack of lamb, steaks, baked chicken and Mediterranean pasta. After years of hearing friends talk about the excellence of the duck, I finally ordered it. They were right. It was roasted perfectly, crisp skin, tender meat and accompanied by a cherry sauce. Among the choices of sides are stewed tomatoes topped with croutons and Parmesan cheese, as well as roasted sweet potato. If you haven’t had a plain sweet potato in a while, try one. They do not need butter and sugar and cinnamon.
In 1987, Left took over the Villager Pub, which is located between Terry’s and the original Great Lakes Whitefish Company. The Villager offers typical bar food items: wings, cheese sticks, chips and salsa, sandwiches, burgers, “South of the Border” selections and the fish and chips that started it all. There is live music on weekends. It’s a great place for families as there’s something for everyone.
Meanwhile, John Cross Fisheries is open to the public, selling fresh and smoked fish, smoked fish salad and smoked fish sausage. The family operation offers the freshest, highest-quality, most delicious stuff available. It’s always my last stop before returning home. The Crosses will pack your order in enough ice to get it home cold.
Four or five years ago I discovered a sandwich shop in Boyne City that I visit every time I’m in the area. Thick N’ Juicy is owned by Frankie and Sally Roselli from New Jersey, who moved here looking for a small town lifestyle. They found it all right. As hard as running a mom and pop restaurant can be, they say they love it, mostly because they obviously are fond of people and love to schmooze. The decor is ’50s kitsch. The food is malt shop: charbroiled burgers, club sandwiches, tuna and egg salad, a good Philly Cheese Steak, popular coneys and Koegel brats, chicken Phillys and a halibut sandwich. Alas, no malts, but they do serve root beer and Vernors floats.
Elk Rapids, about thirty miles south of Charlevoix, is home to Pearl’s, a terrific Creole and Cajun restaurant. We arrived on the last night of the restaurant’s crawfish festival and pigged out on the mudbugs, as they are known — the ultimate finger food.
“Pinch the tail and suck the head” is the legendary method used to consume the little devils. The head contains the flavorful fat and the tail holds the meat. To augment the crawfish boil, Pearl’s serves one of the best Bloody Marys anywhere. Called the Big Easy Mary, it’s garnished with a blue cheese-stuffed jalapeño and a whole crawfish.
The menu includes fresh fish — pan roasted, grilled, blackened or corn fried. Appetizers include barbecued shrimp (sautéed in butter and garlic with lots of spices, not actually barbecued), gumbo ya-ya, Oysters Rockefeller and crawfish beignets. There are several Po’Boys — try the blackened catfish — and muffulettas, as well as the requisite specialties like shrimp Creole, crawfish étouffée and jambalaya. Pearl’s serves some killer sides. I’ve made a meal of them, including cheddar grits, red beans and rice, collard greens, tasso jambalaya, hush puppies and cheddar mashed potatoes with andouillie gravy, to name a few. At $1.95 each, they are a steal.
The music is Zydeco and blues, Dr. John and Professor Longhair. Everything about Pearl’s is fun!
While driving through East Jordan, looking for a place to lunch, I noticed a sign offering an all-you-can-eat perch dinner (Fridays only) at Murray’s Bar and Grill. Driving around the block, I noticed a deck in the back overlooking Lake Charlevoix — two good signs of a good thing.
The menu is eclectic. It is listed on their Web site, www.murraysbar.com. We tried the fried calamari, served with homemade cocktail sauce and a chili-garlic aioli. The Maryland crab cakes are 97 percent crab, plated with a roasted corn and black bean relish with roasted pepper coulis — delicious. I think the food could be more assertively seasoned, but it is so fresh that it is difficult to find fault.
I will be up North again in a few weeks, and I’ll offer more on fried perch at that time. Eat hearty, my friends, and enjoy the summer.
Whitney’s is located at 307 Bridge St. in Charlevoix. Call 231-547-0818. Terry’s Place is located at 101 Antrim St. in Charlevoix. Call 231-547-2799. The Villager Pub is located at 427 Bridge St. in Charlevoix. Call 231-547-6925. John Cross Fisheries is located at 2090 Belvedere Ave. in Charlevoix. Call 231-658-2532. Thick N’ Juicy is located at 104 Water St. in Boyne City. Call 231-582-7700. Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen is located at 617 Ames St., Elk Rapids. Call 231-264-0530. Murray’s Bar & Grill is located at 115 Main St., East Jordan. Call 231-536-3395.Jeff Broder is a chowhound for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org