Same location, (many) different restaurants
It’s spring, the time of the opening of many restaurants. Who got The ticker think… of those places that seem destined to always be restaurants, even though the names and concepts change over the years.
To help us look back, we enlisted the help of some of downtown Traverse City’s business leaders – in and outside the restaurant industry – including Dave Denison, owner of Friendly on Front Street. Denison came to Traverse City after a stint with Ralston Purina, which operated a number of restaurant chains across the country, including J. Ross Browne’s Whaling Station, Mountain Jack’s Steakhouse and Carlos Murphy’s.
Although Denison says this is the first restaurant on the site (more on that shortly), across Front Street there was a parade of restaurants. There was Georgina’s, preceded by Phil’s on Front. Previous iterations included Ciao Bella, Brad’s Burritoville, Road Runner Deli, and, at the time, The Sawmill and Elmer’s.
As for the location of Friendly, Denison’s friend and hospitality veteran Pete Solomonson notes that it was once home to The Elks. Solomonson came early to the industry, accompanying his grandfather Harry to deliver pies around town. Among other gigs, he worked for the same company as Denison and was responsible for transforming the Embers near Acme into Mountain Jack’s.
Solomonson says most TC restaurants in the 1960s were bars with food. “Then Dill’s and the Sizzler took off. It was kind of the start of established, memorable restaurants,” he says.
A current memorable restaurant is Mama Lu’s Taco Shop at 149 E. Front Street. Long ago this was the home of Tom’s Mom’s Cookies, a northern (Harbor Springs) import. This spawned Marifil’s Bakery, which later moved to 14th Street. The late-night cafe and cafe Red Eye Café followed – Denison says it was open from 6am to 2pm as a place to go after the bars closed – and in turn it became Zakey, offering Middle Eastern cuisine -East. Now in her sixth year, Mama Lu’s might have the record for longevity there.
Another memorable location is at 439 E. Front Street (shown as three different iterations above), the small space that now houses the Zest plant-based cafe. Once upon a time there was a sandwich shop called Soho Café. It later housed the Left Bank Café.
Patisserie Amie opened there before moving, eventually landing as the rebranded Brasserie Amie at the intersection of Front and Cass. Next is Cook’s House, which also decamped for a bigger space (we’re seeing a trend here), followed by 9 Bean Rows, which – you guessed it – overtook it and moved to Suttons Bay. Owners Nic and Jen Welty eventually left this location to build their farm just outside Suttons Bay.
Tony Craig moved in with the original Georginas before moving down the street, and Sparks BBQ did the same, eventually moving to 201 E. Front, leaving current tenant Zest.
Why do some places continue to attract restaurants even after the previous ones have failed? Traverse City DDA CEO Jean Derenzy said that in the case of this small storefront, it serves as an incubator for restaurateurs to establish, grow and relocate.
Denison thinks a big reason is the infrastructure already in place, noting the electrical, plumbing and cooking equipment needed, as well as the myriad of regulations and inspections. “The only thing harder to build is a hospital,” he says.
Derenzy also points to the region’s continued and growing reputation for food, wine and beer, attracting both customers and restaurateurs.
And then there’s 120 Park Street. No place in town can top the list of restaurants that call this location their home. The food parade began in the 1950s, when it came to Thomas’s Coffee Shop and the Redwood Room. Owner Bill Thomas claimed that in the roughly 20 years he owned it, the place made more than three million blueberry muffins. He sold it in 1977 to his manager Steve McClain, whose Olde English Chutney menu focused on English cuisine.
It started a 45-year odyssey of bars and restaurants that probably isn’t over. Then Nicky’s North in August 1979, owned by Mitchell Pierce, the son of the chairman of National Bank & Trust. NBT was soon embroiled in a series of lawsuits, including allegations of conflicts of interest with the restaurant, and Nicky’s was in financial trouble within a year of opening, closing after 22 months.
Next was Billy’s. “Now that was a hot spot,” says Bill Golden. “It was the place to go. This was the place. Free appetizers and hermit crab races were among the attractions.
The owner of Golden Shoes is a longtime resident and remembers many restaurants in town. (Others he mentions include Woolworth’s lunch counter, where Cherry Republic is located today, and the aforementioned Elmer’s, under James C. Smith Fine Jewelry. “I was way too young for the Rathskeller.” , he said hastily.)
After Billy’s two years, a brief stint at Winger’s followed, before Dan Kelly bought the property and opened DJ Kelly’s in 1986. “In 1985 I bought it. It went really well,” he said.
It did, operating for over a decade before Kelly decided it had run its course. He changed it to Durango, then Park Street Deli, before retiring from the restaurant scene to focus on his restaurant business. He soon leased the property to a succession of restaurateurs, and it housed the aforementioned Left Bank Café, Pete’s Pub & Grille, and Catch Island Grill. Wanting to sell the property but fearing the series of missed opportunities would limit interest, he reopened a restaurant, this time The Bay Leaf.
The Bay Leaf was successful both in terms of its own business and, more importantly, in attracting interest in the property: Glen Harrington and John McGee bought it and opened Sorellina, “little sister” to Harrington’s By the Bay, their popular restaurant on M-22.
In 2018, they moved Sorellina to the newly constructed building at 250 E. Front alongside their new venture Slate, which in turn reopened the property. Today it is home to Fresh Coast Beer Works, which offers an abbreviated sandwich menu while encouraging customers to frequent nearby restaurants.
“Each one was unique and had particular qualities,” Derenzy notes of the history of the place. “We attract talented chefs. There is talent throughout the food industry. And we have excellent local sources.