WITH NORTHERN MICHIGAN offering plenty of ways to enjoy the outdoors and invigorating natural views, it’s no wonder that so many restaurants at the tip of the mitt offer patio or deck dining.
Outdoor venues Up North give planners distinctive settings for entertaining guests. Even the upscale spots tend to have a laid-back atmosphere, lending themselves to easy conversation and conviviality.
One restaurateur, Dave Denison of Traverse City’s Amical, was so keen on offering his guests outdoor dining, he knocked down his building’s front wall in order to make space for a year-round patio. "People thought we were out of our minds," Denison says.
Denison installed three natural gas heaters, as well as a retractable clear plastic shade, to shield guests from the elements. Demand for the patio’s eight tables is greatest in July and August, when its street-side location on the town’s main drag makes it a prime spot for people-watching, but guests request the space in winter, too. "We can set it up and tear it down at a moment’s notice," Denison says. "It’s never closed." Amical, which offers a moderately priced bistro menu, along with Sunday brunch and a cookbook menu series, accepts reservations for its indoor tables, but the patio is firstcome, first-served. The restaurant has a working relationship with the nearby Grand Traverse Resort, whose staff often calls in indoor reservations for its patrons.
Karen Simpson’s Harbor 22 restaurant, a few miles from downtown Traverse City, also has a first-come, first-served policy for its 15-table deck that offers a view of the West Arm of Grand Traverse Bay.
Simpson keeps things lively in the summer, with music on Wednesday evenings and periodic grilling events. Boaters bound for Harbor 22 can call the restaurant to request a spot to dock at the nearby private West Bay Marina while they eat.
Simpson’s restaurant also has an indoor venue, the Fireside Event Room, which seats 35.
On Mackinac Island, the Mission Point Resort offers an outdoor choice in the warm months: its Bistro on the Greens has a 15-table upper-level deck, or a 10-table, lowerdeck patio, says Aimee Williford, the front office director. Diners on either of the two outdoor levels can order from a tapas-style menu while enjoying a view of Lake Huron.
For those intent on a guaranteed outdoor dining experience or hosting an event outside, the Mission Table on Old Mission Peninsula has a bi-level deck that can accommodate 75 people seated or up to 150 for cocktails. As an alternative for up to 40 diners, planners can reserve just the deck’s raised portion.
Like Harbor 22, the Mission Table deck offers views of the west bay. Diners can partake wine from local wineries, or opt for beer or spirits made on-site. Chef Paul Olson shops as locally as possible. "We’re very much farm-to-fork focused," says Barbara Olson, the chef’s wife and events director. The Mission Table facility also has the indoor Peninsula Room for up to 150 people.
Another farm-to-table venue on the peninsula that accepts reservations for its deck is the Boathouse Restaurant. The deck’s 10 tables offer bay views and can accommodate up to 40 diners.
Boathouse owner Doug Kosch grows much of his produce and raises pigs on his family’s 10-acre farm, where his wife grows herbs and the flowers that grace the restaurant’s tables. The menu is French-influenced fine dining, Kosch says, but "we’re not stuffy, where you’d be afraid to laugh out loud or wear jeans."
The Boathouse serves up to 20,000 oysters each year, and its signature soup is morel bisque. Kosch buys the prized mushrooms from enterprising local morel hunters while they’re in season.
The patio at the Fire Fly, in Traverse City, is on the Boardman River and offers both nature and street views. The Fire Fly specializes in small plates, sushi and steaks, and offers daily specials for drinks or food.
Drive about 150 miles south from Traverse, to Muskegon, to enjoy fish and seafood as well as the casual atmosphere at Dockers Fish House and Lounge.
The restaurant, which overlooks Muskegon Lake and is steps away from Lake Michigan, has three outdoor areas: the private patio is billed as a great spot for rehearsal dinners, birthdays or anniversaries; the awning offers a shady retreat; and the famous tiki bar has live music on weekend nights. Dockers offers easy access and docking for boaters.