Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Gather & Graze

If you seek a vibrant food scene, look about you for Michigan’s many foodie meccas

By Kathy Gibbons

Colorful cuisine from Oak & Reel in Detroit || Courtesy of Oak & Reel

How important is a vibrant food scene when making a destination attractive to meeting planners? Extremely, say the experts. “Groups always want something to do in the downtime,” says Trevor Tkach, president of Traverse City Tourism. “Sometimes there are spouse groups that have plans and itineraries, so keeping those who aren’t in the meetings busy is always important.

“But also, when the meetings wrap up, being able to let everybody go their own direction and have a good time and taste the flavors they’re interested in—not every destination can offer that all in one spot.”

Across Michigan, though, many do.

Nosh Up North

Take Traverse City, where Chef David Denison opened what has evolved into the fine-dining restaurant Amical in 1994. He has watched as the food scene has exploded to offer new and diverse options. “There’s a big culinary tourism industry here,” Denison says. “People come up to eat. And word gets out.”

Downtown Traverse City “is a powerhouse little corridor that features a variety of cuisines,” says Tkach, noting, “Some groups really want to have those types of opportunities for their participants. They want to know if it’s on their free night, there is a high-quality experience they can take in while they’re in that area.”

Both Grand Traverse Resort and Spa and Delamar Traverse City have chefs creating cutting-edge and farm-to-table menus. Delamar rebranded its banquets to “Events by Artisan” to reflect the fact that the food options for group events are of the same level of quality as its fine-dining restaurant. Grand Traverse Resort and Spa also works with groups to customize menus that showcase the culinary staff’s talents.

Food and wine at Highlands Detroit atop the Renaissance Center || Courtesy of Bureau Detroit

Farther north in the Upper Peninsula, Susan Estler, CEO of Travel Marquette, says farm-to-table-style menus have also come to the forefront there. “Probably the biggest thing is just that with fresh produce especially, they have figured out ways to either purchase or grow it themselves,” she says. Iron Bay Restaurant & Drinkery, which also draws on farm-fresh ingredients, has a taproom that can accommodate up to 40. The Landmark Inn, which Estler says regularly updates its menu, is a go-to for conferences and corporate functions.

Western Flavor

Ask Doug Small what drives Grand Rapids’ robust food scene, and he points to the region’s rich agricultural resources. The president and CEO of Experience Grand Rapids and self-described foodie says many of the best local chefs rely on fresh, locally produced ingredients. And every week, it seems, new eateries are not only opening their doors, he says, but “reaching farther.”

Italian fare from San Morello in Detroit’s Shinola Hotel || Courtesy of San Morello

“Any destination that doesn’t have a good food scene is lagging behind,” Small says.

The Essence Restaurant Group operates multiple properties around the area and several offer group-dining spaces. One of them, Bistro Bella Vita, features four rooms for private gatherings that can range in size from intimate to up to 120 participants. Lucy’s The Loft also has a private space on its upper level.

In southwest Michigan, an abundance of wonderful chefs drives the food scene in the region covered by the Saugatuck/Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. Executive Director Lisa Mize notes restaurants that can accommodate groups, including Bowdie’s Chophouse, The Belvedere Inn & Restaurant, and The Grill Room at Clearbrook, among others. “Our area—not just Saugatuck and Douglas, but Fennville as well—has been a mecca foodie heaven,” Mize says.

Longtime restaurateur and cookbook author Howard Norris says the nearby Holland and Grand Haven areas are also notable for their chefs and restaurants. Noto’s in Grand Haven is on the water and can accommodate up to 125 people for group dining. Part of The Gilmore Collection, Grand Haven’s The Kirby House offers many banquet spaces. “Some great people are doing great things here,” he says.

A Chef’s Take: Making Food the Experience

More and more often, menus for conferences and other events are likely to reflect the local ingredients and creativity that set a foodie destination apart. Auston Minnich, executive chef at Traverse City’s Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, has been blurring the line between fine-dining restaurant and banquet menus since joining the staff there in 2021.

Auston Minnich, executive chef at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Traverse City || Courtesy of Grand Traverse Resort and Spa

“I kind of wanted to bring a little different food scene to Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, especially in Aerie, our fine-dining establishment,” Minnich says. “I did my research on what’s in town, what’s trending—you always look at your competitors, right? But you also want to respectfully one-up them in what we’re trying to do here as a culinary team.”

For him, that meant looking at what’s available locally in season from regional farms, then taking it up a notch. “Anybody can have a filet, mashed potatoes, and grilled asparagus, but how do we enhance that? How do we prepare it?” Minnich explains. “My team and I work on how to enhance menu items. …
Do we do a puree? A different root vegetable puree? We want to elevate the well-known element of starch and vegetables but make it as great as possible, whether with garnish or sauce.”

The resort does brisk events business given its expansive facilities and capability of hosting groups of up to 2,500, with multiple ballroom spaces and outdoor options. Minnich estimates about 25% of meeting planner clients opt for “something extravagant,” which he enjoys because it meets clients’ wishes while showcasing his staff’s talents. He describes a large group that comes each summer, whose planner “is always wanting something outside of the box.” They sit down months in advance to map out a slate of meals for several days that might include a lobster boil, seafood boil, and prime ribeye. “The bigger clients will focus in on ‘I see your menu, we’re working with budgets, but what else can we do to enhance it for our guests and make it spectacular?’” says Minnich.

Minnich’s goal is to put the resort at the top of the list—for meeting planners as well as tourists and locals—when it comes to the Traverse City area’s burgeoning food scene. “I have tried my best to look at what’s going on—not only the value, but also the best, freshest food possible that we can absolutely do here,” he says. “My goal is to be here a very long time and to make this one of the best culinary spots to eat and stay. … It’s one big production and experience.”

Savor the Southeast

Ari Weinzweig is founder of the Zingerman’s Community of Businesses, which just might have put Ann Arbor on the path to becoming a foodie destination with the founding of Zingerman’s Deli in 1982.

“Ann Arbor is not only the University of Michigan, but because of the university’s presence, we also have a whole bunch of great businesses involved in high-tech, medical technology, and education that are all based here,” Weinzweig says. “And there’s a thriving creative business eco-system, too, which fits with food.”

Chad W. Wiebesick of Destination Ann Arbor says the “awesome” food scene is composed of cuisines from around the world. “Meeting planners choose locations for a variety of different reasons—not just the quality of the meeting space, but also the vibrancy, arts, culture, shopping, and dining,” Wiebesick says. In nearby Chelsea, Chelsea Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Terris Ahrens says Common Grill is top of mind for fine dining. Its private downstairs Grill Room is suitable for business meetings, with a semiprivate South Room that can accommodate larger gatherings.

The Belvedere Inn & Restaurant, Saugatuck || Photo by Craig Watson, courtesy of Saugatuck/Douglas Area Convention and Visitors Bureau

Port Huron’s food scene has been growing, with about 30 restaurants concentrated downtown alone, according to City of Port Huron Downtown Development Authority Director Natacha Hayden. Offerings range from steak to Mediterranean, pizzas, and Asian cuisines.

Where to begin when it comes to Detroit? Visit Detroit Senior Director of Communications Christopher Moyer says the city is a foodie mecca because of its global cultural cuisine, influx of top chefs, and varying levels from fine dining to the corner diner. Highlands Detroit atop the Renaissance Center offers stunning views for groups of up to 300. Other standouts with some private dining options include Oak & Reel, Chartreuse Kitchen & Cocktails, Leila, Besa, Parc, San Morello in the Shinola Hotel, and Wright & Co.

Attendees gather and dine at the Grand Rapids Downtown Market. || Courtesy of Grand Rapids Downtown Market

“The best conversations, the best interactions, the best parts of meetings are when you get to take a moment and have a longer experience with somebody,” Moyer says. “And from time immemorial, that happens over food.”