When you're exploring Leelanau County on a bluebird-sky summer day, you don't want to head inside—no matter how hungry you might be getting. And thanks to some casual but innovative new county eateries, you don't need to.
There's a bonus too. The family pup can hang at your feet as you sample a mimosa with your food truck gourmet or fresh gelato, and you're eating on either a breezy patio or at water's edge.
Lunch: Capitol Dogs
This new casual offering by the owners of popular clothing store Baabaazuzu serves ice cream and shakes along with foods intentionally created to be family-friendly and ready to grab for a day at the beach or on the boat. The cozy interior inside Lake Leelanau's original but beautifully remodeled fire station (106 St. Marys Street) begs you to settle into a leather booth under the framed vintage photographs. The back patio teeming with bright blooms and table-side umbrellas also lures. But we opted for the most pet-friendly option and took our Leelanau coney (chili sourced from Detroit) and “Narrows dog” topped with mustard and kraut to the road's end boat launch. From there, you can enjoy the pontoons passing through the Narrows to your right, and the family of swans to your left.
Lunch (take 2): Fried
Head to the Crystal River Recreational District and look on the waterside of M22 to find the “Fried Food Truck” with the unusual (but wise) slogan, “get the pudding.” Just don't make the mistake of thinking that you'll find fair food on a stick, or you'll be missing out on chef-created, unexpectedly healthy deliciousness.
There is a fried fish sandwich—our choice for our outing's second course—at this stop at 6249 River Road in Glen Arbor, but the fresh-caught Great Lakes walleye was fried in a light batter and topped with a house-made turmeric slaw and lemon aioli. The kind chef staffing the truck even split our sandwich for us, wrapping up each half into a portion perfect for a day of grazing, easily eaten on a riverside picnic table.
If the fish evoked a wow, so did that slogan-worthy chocolate pudding, fresh made with artisan chocolate and reminiscent enough of a pudding served at former Grand Rapids eatery Marie Catrib's that we weren't too surprised to learn that Great Lakes Culinary Institute-trained food truck owner/chef Adam Raupp (also a former chef de cuisine at Mission Table), once worked there. The menu also boasts a charcuterie tray, a falafel platter and a shaved ribeye with white cheddar, mushroom relish and dijonnaise, and if it's possible for a locale to make a meal even tastier, the setting on the bank of the Crystal River accomplished that. Optionally, you can enjoy it at the pet-friendly outdoor tasting bar at the M22 store, where the mimosa made with their Sparkling Brut is so memorable you'll likely tote home a bottle or two.
Dessert (2) Grocer's Daughter Chocolate gelato shop
You can never have too much chocolate, especially when you're only 10 minutes or so from Grocer's Daughter Chocolate on M22 in downtown Empire. Owners Jody and D.C. Hayden do nothing halfway, something you'll easily discover at their newly-opened gelato and cookie shop. The new store, painted in their trademark spring green, is adjacent to the chocolate shop at which they source directly from Ecuadorian farmers and infuse them with all-local ingredients.
That same responsibly sourced chocolate is what you're tasting in that mint gelato that tastes like the flavor came straight from a mint plant out back—because it did. The sorbet is made from local berries, the gelato from locally-sourced dairy, and their award-winning chocolate. For the best experience, pair it with one of those cookies (in a variety of flavors, with vegan options too) that you're smelling as they come fresh from the oven to serving tray.
The idea for adding a gelato shop came on one of the couple's trips to Belize, where they met an Italian couple running a gelateria and realized the light dessert made a perfect combo to the chocolate they made back home, and the vibe of breezy patio seating would be perfect too. D.C. studied gelato making from an Italian university from which they also sourced their equipment, and they combined their flavors with chocolate, local herbs, and fruit for the trademark Grocer's Daughter touch.
“It all comes back to what we'd started with,” he said. “We started making our chocolate chip cookies, and they got more and more popular, and we wanted to expand on the original recipe. We have some of the world's finest chocolate here to work with. It's not a far stretch to start making some of the tastiest gelato and tastiest cookies.”
Dinner: The Burrow TC
And for the final stop for dinner at the county's southern border, it would be fun, but not at all essential, to visit by boat. Staff will hustle your meal through a tunnel to deliver anything from the Dock-n-Dine menu fresh and hot to the Elmwood Township Marina. The malt-dusted fries with garlic aioli (with or without the steak) is a destination dish in my book. You'll get a breezy seaside vibe from anywhere inside the updated space where the Italian decor of the former Tuscan Bistro has taken on a California (or Northern Michigan\-modern) feel.
Take a seat at a wrap-around bar that seats 22 or on the massive pet-friendly deck. Whether you opt for a Cali wedge, some pork belly tostadas, or tuna crudo, it all pairs well with the signature grapefruit-based cocktail, the Squirtsky—a great way to toast the ongoing creativity of the county's culinary scene.