In Search of the Perfect Manhattan by Mike Richards

‘In Search of the Perfect Manhattan’

by Mike Richards, with permission

We began what was billed as a road trip around the northwestern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula on August 1, 2016, with a flight from National Airport in DC to Detroit. There Nancy’s brother Bill met us and took us to East Lansing, Michigan. On hand to greet us were Bill’s wife Diana and their dog Maz. We started what would be an ongoing theme of great food and drink with bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwiches. Later that day we had a steak dinner with baked potato and all the trimmings dinner. We topped dinner off by a very good Scotch afterwards. We got Bill and Diana started watching an HBO series, “The Night of.” They were hooked, but we stopped after episode one since we wanted an early start the next morning.

Harbor Sprints
A Home in Harbor Springs

Tuesday morning we started on the long drive across central Michigan to Harbor Springs. Along the way, we stopped for lunch at what turned out to be a very poor excuse even for an Arby’s. It turned out to be by far the worst meal of the trip. In Harbor Springs, we checked into the Colonial Inn, an interesting B&B that had spacious rooms but was a little short on air-conditioning. Told that the downtown district was just a few blocks away, we struck out along the Lake Michigan beach. Downtown turned out to be several blocks away. Hot and tired, we searched for a place to get a drink. Before finding a place, Bill discovered an ice cream store and we learned that Bill could seldom pass up the chance to have ice cream or, for that matter, a hot dog. Eventually, we reached the Pier Restaurant where we sat outdoors in the shade and enjoyed drinks. After drinks we walked back to the Colonial Inn, showered, changed clothes and set off for Legs Inn. This establishment, in Cross Village, which was 25 or 30 minutes from the Colonial, appeared at first to be a biker bar, but turned out to be a great restaurant with a large outdoor area fronting Lake Michigan where we could watch the sun set. I had whitefish polonaise in honor of being in Michigan (the restaurant was skewed toward Polish dishes).

View From Legs
A View from Legs Inn

On the 3rd (Wednesday) we headed off to Petoskey, in search of, among other things, the fabled petoskey stone. We had lunch at the Twisted Olive, where I had a terrific Croque Madame. Nancy purchased a petoskey stone and some jewelry. Bill bought several books on Detroit at an exceptionally good bookstore, McLean & Eakin. Then we headed to the ferry to Mackinac Island.

I was more than a little apprehensive about the ferry because of the huge amount of baggage Nancy and I had. It turned out, however, that everything was well organized. Our baggage was tagged and loaded on carts. We learned that when the ferry reached Mackinac Island someone from the hotel would pick up the baggage and deliver it to our rooms. The ferry ride was relatively short but scenic. We were on Lake Huron and could see the bridge from the Lower to the Upper Peninsula from the boat.

The Grand Hotel from the Ferry

We walked from the ferry landing to the Harbor View Inn. The downtown area was crowded with tourists, bicycle rental places, fudge shops, and other kinds of things for tourists. It was difficult but we managed to get Bill to pass up various opportunities for ice cream or hot dogs. We took a carriage tour of the island before dinner and got a good idea of where things were. We went past Fort Mackinac and the Grand Hotel and down Market Street, which runs parallel to Main Street. We heard a lot about life on the island from our driver, who lives on the island from May to October, then winters in Petoskey.

We ate that night at the Grill Room in the nearby Island House Hotel. I believe I had a lobster risotto. Diana ordered a Manhattan with an olive. She did not think it tasted right, but, then, as she noted, a favorite uncle used to make Manhattans for everyone and he set a standard to which all other Manhattans would be compared. This was, I believe, the beginning of our search for the perfect Manhattan.

Our first night on Mackinac Island we saw a notice for a Jamaican church service in the Catholic church next to our B&B. The Grand Hotel on the island has long been staffed by people from Jamaica. The tourist season on Jamaica is roughly from October to April and the season on Mackinac is April to the end of September, so seasonal workers can put together a full year of work. The service started slowly with only a handful of workers but eventually several dozen came in after their shifts had ended. A lot of enthusiasm and some great singing. And the following week was Jamaican Independence Day!

The next day, Thursday, we spent mostly at the Fort. We watched a display of weapons from the different periods, from muskets to rifles. The display featured loading and firing the weapons. We also watched a performance involving the many instruments soldiers might have had at the fort. After lunch we walked back to the Main Street area. Diana went off to ride a horse. The rest of us went to a museum where we saw an exhibition of the work of an artist (whose name I have forgotten) who worked and painted on the island for many years. Quite prolific, he never achieved much notice and apparently did not care about selling what he produced, but instead bestowed his work on friends and people who liked what he did.

View from Fort
View from the Fort, Mackinac Island

That evening we ate at the Grand Hotel. I cannot remember what I had for dinner, although I do remember the meal being quite good with several courses including a salad, soup, and dessert. This time, Nancy ordered a Manhattan and the person taking the order suggested the Grand Hotel Manhattan made with Makers 46. I decided that sounded good and I believe Diana ordered one as well. To my mind, that was the best of the several Manhattans we tasted during the trip.

The next day, Friday, we got the ferry back to the mainland. Diana and Nancy had the presence of mind to wade in Lake Huron (there was no place on Mackinac Island where we could go to swim in Lake Huron). We had lunch at the Weathervane in Charlevoix. From the restaurant we could watch boats going from Lake Michigan to Lake Charlevoix under the raised drawbridge. After lunch we drove to Traverse City and the Cherry Tree Inn. That evening we had dinner at Nine Bean Rows in Suttons Bay. I had ratatouille. I can’t remember whether we continued the search for the perfect Manhattan. To the best of my memory, I know I had a couple of beers. We noticed that there was to be an art festival in town the next day. We wandered around and watched people setting up. Nancy talked with a sculptor and I could see she was already thinking seriously about purchasing one of his sculptures.

Sculpture Finds a Home

There was much discussion about whether to swim in Lake Michigan from the beach at our hotel (some thought the water was too muddy) or from the beach at the site of the art festival (some were put off by the sign on that beach advising people not to pollute the water in any of several ways). In any case, Nancy and I both wore swimsuits the next day when we visited the art fair.

Saturday we spent a couple of hours wandering through the art fair. Nancy did buy the sculpture. Later we went over to the lakefront and went swimming. I only went in waist-deep and then retreated back to shore. Nancy, Bill, and Diana actually swam.

Beach Seton
Wonderful Beach Front at Seton

On the way back to the hotel, we stopped in at the Grand Traverse Distillery, which I had been lobbying for over the past couple of days. Bill, Nancy, and I had a tasting of some of the Bourbons, Ryes, and Gins produced by the distillery. The person conducting the tasting told us that originally the Manhattan had been made with Rye. After World War II, people had taken to drinking Bourbon rather than Rye and this led to Manhattans being made with Bourbon. Nevertheless, the authentic Manhattan was made with Rye whiskey. As it turned out, the Grand Traverse Distillery had a tasting room a few doors down from the restaurant we planned to go to that evening, so our idea was to go there before dinner and order Manhattans made with Rye rather than Bourbon.

The plan didn’t work, however, because the tasting room closed before we could get dressed for dinner and go downtown. So it was only after dinner at Red Ginger that we went to a nearby pub and ordered Manhattans made with Rye. There was no consensus. To Diana the Manhattan was still a little off. I thought the Makers 46 Manhattan at the Grand Hotel was the best Manhattan. I don’t remember if Nancy or Bill expressed an opinion.

Sunday, the last full day of the tour, we traveled from Traverse City to Dearborn and checked in at The Henry, part of the Autograph Collection of hotels, the nicest place we stayed during the trip. We went as quickly as possible to the Henry Ford Museum, which had originally been named the Thomas Edison Institute in honor of Edison, Henry Ford’s good friend. We toured the exhibits for a couple of hours, had malts at a reconstructed diner in the Museum, but arrived too late at the Dog House to sample their hot dogs. We could easily have spent the day at the Museum and the nearby Dearborn Village, but I’m glad we got there at all. That was a place I wanted to go to, but somehow never made it despite going not that far from Dearborn on the many trips I made to a small lake near Lake Michigan in my previous life. That night we had a Lebanese dinner at La Pita. The four of us ate a dinner that was supposed to be for two people –and we were not able to finish it. It was great food and ridiculously inexpensive.

Sentimental Billboard at Ford

Monday it was on to the Detroit airport and the plane back to DC, unpacking and catching up with mail. It was a great trip during which we sampled much of the best that the northwestern corner of the Lower Peninsula had to offer. The unexpected bonus was the quest for the ultimate Manhattan. I think I found it in the Grand Hotel Manhattan made with Makers 46. Ironically, perhaps, even though I thought it was very good, I’ve gone right back to my preference for Bourbon on the rocks. Basically, I’m immune to the craft cocktail craze. But there is a certain pleasure to be had in an extended taste test and search for an ultimate version of a classic cocktail. Next time we should perhaps have an extended taste test for either ice cream or hot dogs.

Reminder of Hot Dog at Ford Museum