Frugality for Foodies: Four-Star Meals on a Two-Star Budget?

Lunch Rush at the Silver Swan


Karen and I realized last month that we weren’t seeing enough of each other, so we decided to do something about it. For starters, we’re now going out at least once a week for a little low-key “date night.” Nothing fancy, just a meal together in someplace where we can have a conversation like to adults who enjoy each other’s company.

Not only is this really helping us to remember why we married each other in the first place — it’s also giving us a chance to try some new restaurants. Our first venture was a great success; we ended up at the Towne Plaza, a new place on Cass Street that specializes in charcuterie. Lovely food, wonderful presentation and a great atmosphere — but the most pleasant surprise was that I didn’t have a heart attack when the check arrived.

And it got me thinking.

As everybody knows, in recent years, Traverse City has acquired an outsized reputation as a “foodie town,” thanks to enthusiastic praise from fans like chef Mario Batali. The problem is that too many of us think that a great meal means an expensive meal — and that’s not necessarily true.

In fact, there’s plenty of tasty, well-prepared artisanal food to be had in Traverse City at modest prices – even at some of the area’s most prestigious restaurants. You just have to know where — and when — to look.

For instance, to enjoy a great meal at places like Trattoria Stella, the Cook’s House or The Boathouse without paying premium dinner prices, the smart play is to try lunch instead; the menu is usually less extensive, but the quality is still excellent — at a fraction of the dinner price. In fact, Traverse City boasts a host of small eateries whose chefs are as well-known for their imagination and attention to detail as they are for their reasonable prices – but where lunch (and occasionally breakfast) are the only meals available.

Bay Bread Company is already known for the quality of their fresh baked goods. Their upstairs café, The Roost, serves wonderful breakfasts and lunches — soups, salads and sandwiches made with their excellent breads. There’s a catch – you have to order your food in the bakery and then wait to have it delivered to your table upstairs. But the payoff is great; it’s like eating in an apartment with a view of the Bay, with free Wi-Fi and baskets of books to browse and read.

Centre Street Café is hidden away in a working-class neighborhood east of Boardman Lake –not a chi-chi downtown eatery by any means. But the lunches served here include imaginative sandwiches, made-from-scratch soups, salads with organic greens, and pastas with house-made dressings. (An example? Du Usual Samm: smoked duck breast, prosicutto and goat cheese served with caramelized onion, cilantro and lettuce with an apricot-balsamic reduction on homemade cinnamon pecan bread).

Great Presentation at The Dish

Another “don’t judge a book by its cover” spot is The Dish, a Union Street eatery that’s especially valued for its vegetarian and vegan selections (but that should not dissuade non-vegetarians). Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner (except on Sundays, when they close at 4), this little downtown place serves thoughtfully-made soups, sandwiches and wraps, made as often as possible with locally-sourced ingredients. They have a $5 lunch menu – that’s the whole lunch — but all their entrées are less than $10.

In the mood for an early dinner? Consider the Silver Swan on M-22 just outside the city limits, where the three Pepellashi sisters still make mouth-watering Albanian specialties like lemony stuffed grape leaves, hummus and baba ghannouj from scratch – not to mention cream puffs, baklava and tiramisu – and serve them up at stunningly low prices. (They’re open until 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, but are closed on weekends.)

The Xylo Bistro Café is located in the rear of a former industrial building in the city’s Warehouse District, but its menu is innovative and fun (their slogan is “We only Cook Food We Like to Eat”) and in addition to some thoughtful sandwiches and focaccia pizzas they serve up items like linguini carbonara and shrimp adobo for a fraction of what you’d pay elsewhere. Even better, they’re open until 9 p.m.(10 p.m. on Saturdays).

In spite of its name and its location at the edge of a shopping mall on Garfield Avenue, the Opa! Coney & Grill is one of Traverse City’s most fascinating (and inexpensive) restaurants. Paul Barbas and wife Brigette fused their family cookbooks to create a place where you can get Greek specialties like souvlaki and moussaka and Polish favorites like golabki and pierogis. They’re open for dinner, but the breakfast menu is especially good, too.

Greek/Polish Fusion Food at Opa!

Just across busy South Airport Road is another sleeper: Spaghetti Jim’s Market & Café, where owner Jim Abfalter makes and serves his own pasta — linguine, paparadelle, spaghetti, capellini, bucatini, fusilli and fettuccine (including flavored fettuccine) with homemade sauces, salads, soups sandwiches and antipasti – all for less than $10. It’s a good lunch option – but if you like to eat early, Jim’s open for dinner until 7 p.m.

I’m sure everybody’s got their favorites — and I still love to go in and splurge at a place like Red Ginger or Chez Peres every so often — but it’s great to know that there are also good options for those slim-wallet days!


About mikelovestc

These days, I’m the media relations guy for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, but before that I spent 25 years as a reporter and columnist at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, a job that frequently took me out into the most remote backroads, forests, beaches and islands of the beautiful Grand Traverse Region. My strategy was pretty simple — just drive, paddle, ski or walk until you’re certain you’re lost, and then find somebody to talk to. It was a great job! I never intended to live in Traverse City. I grew up in Grand Rapids, spent four years in the Coast Guard in places like Miami Beach, Monterey and San Francisco, and when I finally graduated from college I took a summer job at the Miami Herald. To my surprise, I discovered I didn’t like the tropics nearly as much as I thought I would — and when the Record-Eagle offered me a job I took it, figuring I’d put in a year or two and head off to someplace like Seattle or Portland. What I discovered very quickly is that this place gets to you in a variety of unexpected ways. The beaches here are as lovely as anyplace else I’ve ever been, the weather is mild all year round — warm enough for swimming in September and cold enough for skiing in December — and just about the time you’re getting tired of one season you get another one every bit as pleasant. The people are laid-back and friendly, the music and arts scene is awesome, and the place still hasn’t gotten so sophisticated that a guy like me feels out of place.
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One Response to Frugality for Foodies: Four-Star Meals on a Two-Star Budget?

  1. Pingback: 5 Best Bites in Traverse City, Mich. « Working Traveling Mom

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