There are many reasons that Traverse City made Bon Appétit’s annual list of five of the nation’s "foodiest" towns for 2010. Certainly one reason is the outstanding choices of Northern Michigan bistros—in Traverse City restaurants, and those around the region, outstanding bistros are offering inspired continental cuisine without sanctimony or pretense. Here are some we love, including a conversation with Mary Palmer, Executive Chef and Owner of Café Santé in Boyne City.

Café Santé , One Water Street, Boyne City • 231-582-8800

Glistening, planetary bowls of moules frites effuse sea brine and garlic. Every surface of burnished wood and brushed metal at Café Santé pulses in amber light that is thick with the fragrance of braising meat and woodsmoke. Between the filling and refilling of wine glasses, diners can savor the clattering ambience of old Paris jettisoned to the blue edge of Lake Charlevoix at Magnum Hospitality’s intoxicating new euro-venture on the Boyne City waterfront.

There is the unique luxury of taking every meal of the day here: break your fast on Vienna pancakes or eggs Florentine with masterful hollandaise, do a lunch of duck confit salad or a brie and prosciutto panini, and close with a charcuterie plate and chicken fricassee à la Julia Child. Café Santé sports rad manifold cocktails like the Lil’ Pimm, frothy Belgian beers, hip French, Portuguese and northern Italian wines by the carafe and a menu built on uncorrupted provincial cooking thatis good for the soul. Read on as we happily eat our way through some more of the North’s best bistros.

Interview with Mary Palmer Executive Chef/Owner, Café Santé

After becoming the first chick to ever work in the kitchen of Chicago’s Drake Hotel, Mary Palmer, via Magnum Hospitality, has gone on to build a hip, casual dining empire in Northern Michigan (Red Mesa Grills in Boyne City and TC, Pearl’s New Orleans Kitchen, Elk Rapids, and Café Santé, Boyne City). This month we sit down with her to talk about the virtues ofclassic French cooking.

Your quintessential bistro experience?

Camille’s in Paris, specifically Dover sole with boulangère potatoes. I used that as inspiration for our whitefish meunière, which is lightly dusted with flour, sautéed and finished with lemon, white wine and butter. It’s amazing how much pleasure can be found in those simple, old recipes. We can’t cook it fast enough.

So what’s the essential ingredient at Santé?

Butter. French food relies on butter and butter is magic. We use it to build our sauces, finish our sauces. It makes everything taste better.

More Northern Michigan bistros we love:

Martha’s Leelanau Table 413 N. St. Joseph St., Suttons Bay, 231-271-2344

Martha’s delivers deliciously crafted housemade soups by the lovin’ spoonful, culty Leelanau raclette with roasted potatoes and cornichons and a fine Croque Madame.

Chez Peres 237 Lake St., Traverse City, 231-922-9645

Salt cod pureé, truffled eggs, ratatouille or Corsican pork stew, pick your indulgence at Patisserie Amie’s new bistro venuebeside TC’s hallowed epicurie.

Bistro Amical 229 E. Front St., Traverse City, 231-941-8888

Tip your beret to the lobster tacos, lamb shanks braised in Right Brain brew and local honey and weekly farmers marketfeatures at Amical.

Lulu’s Bistro 213 N. Bridge St., Bellaire, 231-533-5252

This swanky, high-ceilinged foodie haunt takes a contemporary, international tack on bistro fare with luscious lump crab cakes, ale-braised pork belly, wood-fired pizzas and foolishly fine seafood features.

Tim Tebeau is food and wine editor for Traverse.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski