Michigan's 31 Most Classic Restaurants
What denotes a classic restaurant, you may ask? Well, one factor would be its age -- thus, it won’t be one of these new kimchee-slinging Detroit joints (as good as they are). Another: the food has to be, well, generally good. Preferably great. Preferably so classic, you couldn't consider yourself a Michigander unless you've eaten it at least once. And three, it must represent Michigan in one way or another. You know: taxidermy, old cars, a dartboard with Ted Nugent’s face on it -- that sort of thing. Already ruling out McDonald’s, here are our statewide choices for Michigan's most "Michigan" restaurants.
Located in the part of A2 that’s not full of annoying rich people and zitty college kids (Governor Snyder wins the award for that, by the way) is this charming train depot-turned-fancy restaurant. We say fancy because there are linens on the tables. Linens equal fancy dining. The building itself dates back to 1886, when it was a major stopping point on the line between Detroit and Chicago. The restaurant opened in 1970, and to this day specializes in seafood with a historical, upscale vibe.
Nestled along an absolutely stunning piece of Lake Michigan shoreline, this restaurant was built in 1925 by its original owner, a retired Polish auto worker who fell in love with the forests and quiet of Northern Michigan and its Ottawa and Chippewa cultures. The building is pieced together, and includes a curio shop, living quarters, tavern, balcony, dining room, and four great stone fireplaces. All this ambience stuff is fine and dandy, but what we really go here for is the kielbasa and pierogi. On the damn lake.
OK, first of all, it’s haunted. That's reason enough to go check it out. But ghosts aside, this striking mansion has culled all the "oohs" and "ahhs" of motorists and the motorless in its stately position along Woodward Ave in Midtown Detroit. The restaurant is known for its weekend Sunday brunches, the summertime garden parties, and, of course, being one of the highest-class eateries in the city that hasn’t had to shutter its Victorian doors.
This family restaurant has been around for more than 60 years, and specializes in everything we hope for from a Michigan restaurant: cedar-planked whitefish and Greek salads. Located in what could essentially be described as metro Detroit’s no-man’s land, where there are more lakes than there are liquor stores (oddly true), the Highland House has the charms of a small town and the taste of home-cooked delicacies that we Michiganders come to associate with our beautiful state.
We were just teasing earlier, Ann Arbor, when we said you were full of annoying rich people and zitty college kids. You’re also full of an incredible variety of beer and a ridiculous number of appetizing eateries, including probably one of the most famous of all, Ashley’s. This pub, opened in 1983, has more beers on tap than we can count, and considering that we’re in one of the greatest beer-producing states in the country, you can bet that the options are aplenty. The grub is yummy enough (damn good, in fact) to keep you around while you try to make a dent in the beer list.
If a car can be considered a classic after having been around for 25 years, then we feel the same should be said for restaurants. In this case, Rocky’s has been consistent in dependably tasty, slightly upscale food for quite a while. Specializing in lake food -- perch, whitefish, salmon -- it also is known for baking what may be the best breadsticks in metro Detroit. Seriously.
This little Italian joint is known for hosting dinner theater in the space next door, but the food stands on its own. The restaurant has been around for a while: this writer (who has white hair and uses a cane) remembers walking along the creaky wooden floors as a child, so that means it’s been holding strong for a minute. Go here for the seven-course Italian family-style meal, and please, exercise your eating capabilities before you go, lest you be embarrassed by your inability to reach the cannoli at the end of the Italian flag-colored rainbow.
Opened in 1933, the Rathskeller is still the place to go if you want to clank pilsner steins together and talk in a fake German accent -- which is basically what happens here the entire month of September in celebration of Oktoberfest. The restaurant was founded by German immigrants who wanted to add a bit of schnitzel pleasure to the neighborhood. When it comes to schnitzel and steins, friends, we say “Willkommen!”
The thing is, the original Buddy’s Pizza location is THE reigning square pizza champ of Michigan. Oh, and did we mention there’s bocce ball? It’s a no brainer, kids. Buddy’s is classic.
Detroit has long been a music city. But there was one specific era when it was pretty much one of the hottest spots to hit in the world. Though the tumultuous and exciting '60s are long behind us, Baker’s still retains that flair with live jazz and blues music and great soul food. Nowadays, it’s surrounded by medical marijuana dispensaries, so all of you with your permits for the green stuff can light up a jazz cigarette and pretend we don’t live in the days of reggaeton and dubstep, or whatever the hell else the kids are listening to these days.
Alongside the Pine River, which leads to the St. Clair River, which brings water from Lake Huron into Lake St. Clair, you’ll find this lovely haven for fishermen and Keno enthusiasts. This is the kind of bar that old so-and-so Toby Keith was probably singing about loving so damn much, and on top of its blue-collar charms, it has a dependably solid selection of bar food that's a cut above. Don’t miss it if you find yourself up that way -- most likely by boat or hot rod.
Along one of the winding roads of the Leelanau Peninsula sits this burger sanctuary that's held its place as a locals’ delight for more than four decades. Expect speedy service in a beautiful, classic old Northern Michigan home-turned-restaurant, and all at prices that don’t reflect the high socioeconomic class of the region’s tourists. The digs are Up North-y, the food is classic, and the vibe is relaxed -- a great place to spend happy hour, or any hour.
With the Great Lakes State being one of the nation’s beer capitals, it’s hard to imagine that artisanal brews were hard to come across before the 1990s. Founders was one of the breweries to hit Michigan before the sudsy wave grew strong in the 2000s, becoming what it is now. Not only is the beer inventive and delicious, but the deli sandwiches available at the taproom -- which overlooks the giant tanks of beer yet to be born -- is varied, and offers as much pleasure for the vegetarian (try the Tree Hugger) as it does the meat eater (try Red’s Rye).
Before everything else, there was Bell’s. Truly an innovator among Michigan’s breweries, bars, and overall laid-back restaurant vibe, the kitchen at Bell’s Eccentric Cafe is not to be dismissed. Locally harvested and sustainable ingredients are what you’ll find on the menu here, with items often prepared with Bell’s beer. You really can’t get much more Michigan than that.
As a local’s favorite, this tiny little cafe is buzzing with customers during high tourist season and offseason alike. Rush in for a seat and order up some house-made pork breakfast links to accompany your Southwest frittata. The food is top-notch; just be sure you don’t go starving. You’ll likely have to wait, but when you see your whole wheat French toast with blueberry sauce and sugared almonds headed your way, you'll know it was worth it.
Always a favorite for those Spartan fans nursing a hangover, Golden Harvest is one of the places that even Lansing’s bland economy can’t take down. Kitschy and a little bit cramped (OK, maybe more than a little bit), this popular diner is known for its farm-to-table offerings and for adding a bit of color and pizzazz to an otherwise dreary town.
The town whose name no one who isn’t from there can pronounce was settled by the Polish. The Polish know a thing or two about food that sticks to your insides, and Polish Village has been a prime location to experience said sticky situation since 1976, though it feels like it’s been much, much longer. Tall people, beware of the basement restaurant’s low ceilings, and don’t forget to order up an icy Zywiec (zhe-vitz) to wash down all the lard you’re about to gorge yourself on.
The absolute, no-holds-barred, king of the Fancy Deli Sandwich, Zingerman’s changed the game when it comes to comfort food fresh from the farm with its house-baked breads and gourmet, yet accessible, cheese and meat selection from the heavens. It would really be impossible to be disappointed by the quality of your food at Zingerman’s. Just be prepared that here exists the creature that seems to be becoming less and less elusive as each investment comes into Southeast Michigan: the $15 sandwich.
Lederhosen: check. Large quantities of chicken: check. Chalet-style vibe in a restaurant that’s existed since 1888: check. The Bavarian Inn is one of those places you should go to as a kid in Michigan. It’s fun, a bit cheesy, and the food is good enough that the chaperones will be content... and if they aren't, at least there’s beer. This German-themed restaurant is in the heart of Frankenmuth’s historic (and touristic) center. It’s a fun place to trek to for a day, and it’s always heartwarming to see how little the place has changed over the years.
A local’s hangout that opened in 1882, Sleder's is a collection of oddities (which includes the locals), serving shots of lord-knows-what with bacon garnish, along with bar grub that goes the extra mile, all while you relax under the watchful eye of taxidermied buffalo and moose. Charming, for sure.
If there’s anything more Michigan than the Coney Dog, it’s the pasty. The meat pies are native to Northern Michigan, having made a hearty meal for miners and lumberjacks in the thick of the cold north woods. But if you want to find a truly authentic and delicious pasty, look no further than Joe’s, which has occupied its space in Ironwood since 1946. Curried chicken, local grass-fed beef, locally raised ham, etc. It’s all damn good.
Little Dalla’s Diner is right off Highway 2, close to the Wisconsin border, and far away from the bustle of everyday life. The spot serves up traditional homemade Northern breakfast fare -- which means heavy portions, pancakes, bacon, etc. But it’s all done with a lot of love. It even has gluten-free bread, which any picky (or allergic) eater in the middle of the Upper Peninsula will tell you is not the easiest thing to come by.
This unpretentious gem offers quality food for diners on a budget in the middle of tourist central, and as such, attracts a number of locals. Holding steady for more than 60 years in its little (and we mean little) location in the middle of it all, The Chuckwagon is a good place to head if you’ve spent all your wads of cash already tipping the beer cart girl at one of the island’s golf courses.
OK, OK, OK -- ONE more German place. Michigan was a major settlement for German immigrants over the years, dontcha know? Hence our appreciation for sausages and beer, which by the way, are two excellent offerings at Steinhaus, which strives to ensure that its ingredients come from local farmers whenever possible.
The dogs here are ungodly good -- made at the Koegel's factory in town, using real cuts of meat -- and are served Flint-style, which means the chili is dry and full of secrets (hearts, kidneys… ground-up hot dogs). It's the experience of this diner -- smack in the middle of Downtown Vehicle City, open 24 hours, and serving dogs with fries & gravy at any time -- that makes it so magical. In Flint's heyday, it was where auto workers gathered for lunch (even if lunch was at 3am). At the height of the economic collapse, it was a cheap reprieve from the despair. Now, as the city faces yet another crippling crisis, Angelo's remains. Each bite reminds you that, despite all the hardship, there's still an unshakable pride and perseverance in Flint. At the end of the day, the lights will always be on, and the dogs will always be waiting. --Andy Kryza, Senior Editor
Ypsi, as it’s called in terms of endearment or loathing, is an overlooked haven for good food on a budget for people who can’t afford Ann Arbor. It’s a little bit more laid-back, noticeably grungier, and for those reasons we love it dearly. One can’t simply go to Ypsi without stopping at Sidetrack for a drink and a bite to eat. The beer selection at this not-too-college-y college bar is impressive, and the burger is one of the best you’ll find in the 734.
Making us hummus and tabbouli addicts since 1989, Al Ameer is one of the most beloved Middle Eastern restaurants in Dearborn, which is saying a lot, as Dearborn is the unofficial shawarma capital of the United States. You should go here to stuff your face on grape leaves, baba ghanoush, and any form of grilled meat. Note: if on a date, we recommend you go easy on the mysterious and supernaturally delicious garlic sauce. You’ve been warned.
A place with a name like Krazy Jim’s that’s been in a town like Ann Arbor since 1953 (albeit with a temporary interruption when it moved from Division to Ashley St) has got some stories to tell. It’s diner food bordering on fast food, but it’s got its charms, and it's strict system of ordering, strictly enforced. Follow the steady flow of longtime customers and the directions on the wall -- the folks flipping the burgers don't like lollygagging, but the deliciously greasy burgers and fries make the stress worth it.
We at Thrillist can’t really attest to what the hell actually goes on at this diner or what you should eat, but we assume it involves some sort of red meat ritual in which a hallowed butcher makes meat origami in the shape of Dream Cruise cars and throws them to a crowd of hungry, well-dressed people from Birmingham. Either way, the restaurant’s sign has been drawing strange looks along Woodward Ave since 1957, and if there’s two things we love, it’s creepy dudes with knives and animal byproducts.
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