How do you know when your collection has gotten a bit out of hand? When you have to build a tavern to hold it! That’s what happened to Bill and Elaine Fournier of Bay City, Michigan. Their love of antiques led to Bill amassing a collection of beer steins, which grew so large he created the Stein Haus beer
garden restaurant on Water Street to house it. With more than a thousand steins wired onto the walls, hanging from the ceiling and displayed on shelves, it’s an impressive spot. He has another 1,400 steins in storage and he hasn’t stopped collecting yet. “We started with a few beer steins and it blossomed from there,” says Elaine Fournier.
The Stein Haus offers sixteen beers on tap and over one hundred varieties in bottles including locally crafted, German and domestic beers. Add a plate of delicious schnitzel, red cabbage and warm potato salad and you are quickly transported to a German beer garden without leaving Michigan. “People come here for a good, social time,” says Elaine. The addition of live music and a patio makes Stein Haus a popular destination for all ages.
Bay City is not on a bay, but on the Saginaw River (where the Fourniers also run dining cruises out to Saginaw Bay on Lake Huron). It’s a hip little town with a lively downtown strip featuring locally owned cafés such as World Café International Bistro with Lebanese styled menu items, and St. Laurent Brothers nuts and chocolate shop where you can buy bags of candy sure to make you feel nostalgic. This is all part of the Great Lake Bays travel region (www.visitgreatlakesbay.org) where you can “tour the triangle” in your car between Bay City, Midland and Saginaw.
A perfect stop on the route between Bay City and Midland is Shari at The Willard Hillton restaurant near Auburn where chef/owner Shari Smith, executive chef Jacob Austin and pastry chef Maria Austin have created an exciting dining experience in “the middle of somewhere”. Don’t blink or you will miss it and that would be a shame. The team grow their own produce and herbs from seed and pride themselves on serving delicious, healthy food. “Build it and they will come,” states Chef Smith. “I used to come to this old hotel when I was a kid. Years later I told my realtor that I wanted a place like the Willard Hillton. He said, ‘It’s on the market.’”
The 135-year old former Beaver hotel and tavern is known to have “two ghosts for sure,” says Smith, and her staff fully agree. “We’d hear footsteps, when we first moved in, and it would drive us nuts. Then we met families who told us about the ghosts, and guests who say they can see them.” The so-called town of Willard (think intersection) bills itself as Michigan’s last ghost town. The hotel was jokingly called the Hilton and then Shari had to add an extra “l” to the name to avoid lawsuits.
The dining room features classic European cuisine. Orange harissa shrimp, slow roasted strawberry barbequed pork and goat cheese egg rolls, and hickory roasted duck breast are among the menu offerings. The wine list is extensive. Chef has recently added cooking classes.
After a great evening at the Willard you’ll be looking for a place to spend the night. The immaculate H Hotel in Midland is an unexpectedly upscale destination in a quaint town. This five-star property is owned by the area’s main employer, Dow Chemical, which maintains the top floors for their visiting executives. Check out The Table Restaurant with its wine room and temperature controlled wine cellar.
The next day it’s off for a full-scale taste of Bavaria, with more chicken then you can imagine, in Frankenmuth –
located near a popular outlet shopping centre, Birch Run. Here you can enjoy some “Lutheran Lemonade” at Frankenmuth Brewery, proclaimed the oldest brewery in Michigan by the enthusiastic manager, Ryan Buchinger. Try a flight of craft beers including Hefeweizen ale, Munich style Dunkel lager, Batch 69 American style IPA and American blonde ale. If you have some kids along, or a DD, be sure to try Frankie’s root bier, microbrewed in house. You can take home a growler, which you can get filled on Wednesdays for only five dollars.
The brewery offers incredibly hearty meals with fresh Bavarian style pretzel balls served with spicy mustard – helps to soak up the beer! Try the mountain high meat loaf sandwich or the Bavarian bratwurst. If you have room, fit in a root bier float.
A stroll along Main Street is required after this meal, and before you even consider tucking into dinner – which is a must in Frankenmuth. Famous chicken dinners are offered by the two branches of the Zehnder family. Dorothy
Zehnder, a whirling dervish at ninety-one, who still works each day, and her clan, led by son Bill and granddaughter Amy, operate the Bavarian Inn and Restaurant. Their cousins operate Zehnder’s Restaurant across the road. To put this phenomenon into perspective: the Bavarian Inn serves 600,000 meals annually! Dorothy has her own popular cookbook and people clamour for her apple kuchen recipe. “The first time you come here you have the chicken dinner. The next time you have the ultimate platter,” she says. It features smoked pork loin, sauerbraten, bratwurst and schnitzel.
The Bavarian Inn is celebrating its 125th anniversary and has grown into a large hotel complex with multiple swimming pools, water slides, games rooms and gift shops. Guest rooms are named after the numerous German families who still live in the area.
Aside from all the food and drinks, Frankenmuth is an interesting community with deep roots in the Lutheran faith. Our guide, Herb Zeilinger (who is thrilled to have a room named after his family at the Inn) informed us about Frankenmuth’s rich German history. A visit to the impressive St. Lorenz Lutheran Church, which depicts the history of the region through its stained glass windows, is worthwhile. All in all, it’s a fun weekend getaway within a few hours of the border crossing at Port Huron.
JANE ANTONIAK is a culinary travel writer for eatdrink magazine. She is also Manager, Communications & Media Relations for King’s University College, Western.
BRUCE FYFE is a regular contributing photographer to eatdrink magazine. He is also a librarian at Western University, London.