Northern Michigan Restaurants: Bistro Odyssey

Northern Michigan Restaurants: Bistros serve up food fixed with care and worthy drinks options all around. Here we show off four from Traverse City to Petoskey that represent.

It’s January, hunkering season in Northern Michigan, and rather than mourn the warmer months it’s time to indulge your appetite, get your bon vivance on and make a beeline for one of our great local bistros. Intimate space, elevated comfort food and restorative libations make these dynamic dining destinations perfect for January weekends with friends and lovers. The core spirit of bistro dining is eccentric and democratic with friendly relaxed service and menus rooted in classic technique but wired to the aesthetic of the resident chef. The gestalt makes room for everything from duck rillette to designer burgers. Join us as we troll through a quatrain of hotspots on the Northern Michigan bistro circuit and explore the mood, food and liquid love that will have you dialing for the next available reservation.

Chez Peres, Traverse City

L’Ambience: On a cobbled vector off bustling Eighth Street at the southern rim of downtown Traverse City, diners at Chez Peres can sip Pernod and stare through big fogged windows at the passing winter traffic. Inside you’ll find closely nested two-tops populated by lovers sipping Côtes-du-Rhône, the cooing of a long-dead chanteuse slipping between the clatter of silverware and the irregular hissing of an espresso machine. Chez Peres is neo-Parisian in its very soul. The servers, polite but not meddling, hustle more than hover while elaborating the plats du jour and gesturing at the requisite chalkboard. Between bites of dauphinoise there is the inescapable feeling that you can live like a belle époque expatriate a few miles from West Bay. Perfect for pre-theater or date night. Wear your best black turtleneck.

La Cuisine: Not fusionistic or flashy, Chez Peres embraces traditional bistro fare like tournedos of beef with pâté de foie, black truffle and bordelaise sauce, crispy duck confit with black lentils and lyonnaise salad. Presentations are simply executed and echo the proletarian origins of bistro dining. Poetic confections from Patisserie Amie (the onsite French bakery) like cherry clafoutis and tarte au chocolat make up the dessert menu.

Les Vins: In true bistro tradition the wine list at Chez Peres is concise and affordable, with most bottles priced below $50 and values to be found in the $20 range. The rustic versatility of Grenache-based wines from Côtes du Rhône and Minervois are balanced by more modern offerings from Northern Spain as well as a few local bottlings.

Lulu’s Bistro, Bellaire

L’Ambience: A casually swank island of urbanity tucked among the lakes of eastern Antrim County, Lulu’s could easily be a satellite of the current Chicago food scene with its exposed brick, slick artsy fixtures, hammered ceiling and perennial buzz. A destination dining spot from all compass points, Lulu’s boasts an eclectic clientele of resorters, northern hipsters and indigenous foodies; its stylish environs and raucous acoustics make this a great spot to people-watch or dine with friends.

La Cuisine: Locally sourced, elevated comfort food may be très à la mode but it’s been Lulu’s M.O. since the doors opened in 2001. Chef-owner Michael Peterson and chef de cuisine Henry Bisson craft an evolving menu that is quintessentially new American with dishes like smoked pork shank with jalapeño cheddar polenta and Coca-Cola barbeque sauce or jumbo lump crab cake with scallion brown rice and avocado remoulade. There are wood-fired pizzas with fennel seed sausage and goat cheese or brie, Tasso and caramelized onions, which can be followed by warm pear rum cake with poached pear, panna cotta and coffee streusel.

Les Vins: Curated by general manager Mindy Bisson the list at Lulu’s is predominately domestic and with well-priced choices for both the brand conscious and boutique drinker. You can order a ripe and spicy zinfandel to drink with your pork shank or dial it back and sip on a solid bottle of chardonnay from the Macon, both for less than 40 bucks. Lulu’s bar also shakes up some sick martinis so don’t feel like you have to behave.

Cafe Santé, Boyne City

L’Ambience: A bistro-brasserie hybrid with a sexy zinc bar, legit euro vibe and full frontal exposure to the shimmering North Arm of Lake Charlevoix, Cafe Santé is where everyone wants to be. Magnum Hospitality’s pièce de résistance in mood and menu Santé could have been airlifted out of Paris’s fourth arondissment. The interior is appropriately dark with a mix of intimate booths, tables and high-top bar seating set with bistro paper and rolls of vintagey silverware. Service is quick and attentive.

La Cuisine: Textbook classic bistro fare like pâté maison, boeuf bourguignon, a daily incarnation of chicken fricassee and six riffs on moules frites. There is a steady supply of paper-wrapped housemade baguettes and plugra butter.

Les Vins: The liquid landscape at Cafe Santé is one of the best in the North with dozens of hip proprietary cocktails, a staggering selection of imported beers and an exclusively European wine list flush with bons vins from Alsace to the Adriatic coast. Supposing someone else is driving you can start with a champagne cocktail like the Pernod Fizz, sail through a bottle of Bourgogne aligoté with your starters, wash down the mussels with a flight of Belgian draughts and sign off with a shot of absinthe. Santé indeed.

Chandler’s, Petoskey

L’Ambience: Manifold, modern cocktails garnished with sticks of sugarcane slide across the bar as translucent slices of yellowtail sashimi artfully poised on rectangular plates land tableside at Chandler’s, Petoskey’s gastro-destination. Warmly lit exposed brick and burnished wood invoke the bistro spirit of casual elegance but with linen-draped tables and stylishly geometric serving ware, Chandler’s plays equally to a model of contemporary fine dining. Bring your lover and a little bit of attitude.

La Cuisine: Offering crispy calamari salad with yuzu-sweet chile sauce, locally foraged mushroom bisque and lamb loin chops with caramelized fennel and salsa verde, chef Tommy Kaszubowski’s menu is ingredient-driven and loaded with new American, Mediterranean and East Asian preparations. Expect great sushi and inventive daily fish specials like Arctic char or black cod.

Les Vins: Drawing on the amply stocked cellar at neighboring Symon’s General Store, Chandler’s has a heavily New World wine program with rare boutique vineyards from the West Coast; Francophiles can find classified growth Bordeauxs and a few great Rhônes

Where to Stay

Feeling the bistro glow and disinclined to take to Northern Michigan's snowy roads? We’ve paired each venue with a nearby accommodation, so your bistro foray can be a walkable weekend outing.

Park Place Hotel
300 East State Street, Traverse City,
231.946.5000 Near Chez Peres, this TC landmark has vintage charm, views of the bay and is a short walking distance to downtown shopping and more remarkable dining.

The Grand Victorian
402 North Bridge Street, Bellaire, 877.438.6111 Stately and plush, a room at the Grand Victorian will give you an enticing breakfast and a little country swagger for your night out at Lulu’s, just blocks away.

Waterstreet Inn
240 Front Street, Boyne City, 231.582.3000 These one-bedroom waterfront condos on Lake Charlevoix, not far from Cafe Santé, have fine amenities and can be had for a steal on off-season weekends.

Stafford’s Perry Hotel
100 Lewis Street, Petoskey, 231.347.4000
Sip a fireside Manhattan in the lobby bar at this classy Victorian resort hotel before or after your snow globe romp to Chandler’s and through Petoskey’s Gaslight District.  

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