BY MELANIE DAVIS
WITH JUDY CARMACK BROSS
I consider our mission was the discovery of Harbor Country, on and off the grid,
or expected and unexpected treasures. –Melanie Davis
Noted Harbor Country pastry chef Melanie Davis recently took pal Janet Andriotti along with Judy Bross on a visit to her favorite destinations. On this Memorial Day Weekend, we share recommendations of her top tens spots to visit—even if you have just a day to explore in these magical places an hour or so away from Chicago.
Three Oaks, just over the border in Michigan and 70 miles from Chicago, was our first stop. Visiting the 105-year-old Drier’s Meat Market, then a former factory that once made corsets with stays made from turkey quills (rather than the more expensive and less durable whalebone), now a whiskey distillery and theater—as well as galleries, a historic movie theater, and shops—left us agreeing with local gallery owner Judy Ferrara: “People are always surprised to see the culture, history, and excitement we have packed into our two blocks of town. In the past 15 years, what we have done is enormous.”
Once known primarily as the place where the ill-fated US President William McKinley dedicated a Dewey cannon in 1899, it is now attracting year-round enthusiasts.
Here is Melanie’s list:
French Twist, Three Oaks
Melanie: An unexpected haute couture establishment in the little quaint, picturesque town of Three Oaks. The town smacks of a movie set to me—it is so clean and simple. This marvelous dress shop draws the highly fashion conscious women for miles around.
Judy: No turkey feather corsets to be found here! Chic Pamela Wannamacher, who bought the 15-year-old shop three years ago, offers not only sporty chic linens and cotton poplins by Valigi of Italy but also whimsical silk Rumisu scarves from Turkey, jersey dresses by Marlene Birger of Denmark, and handwashable featherweight blouses, skirts, pants and coats from Germany’s Katharina Hovman.
Ferrara Gallery, Three Oaks
An inspired gallery that represents artists from around the country. The mood of the gallery, the first time I visited, was imbued with a wonderful Pandora selection that made the stop that much more pleasurable. Owner Judy Ferrara has a terrific eye, and I just love her selections. As an added attraction, inspired jewelry is displayed for sale that also reflects Judy’s inspired taste.
The current exhibit includes paintings by Chicago artist Joyce Polance, who has recently shown at the University Club and the Spertus Museum, as well as in Montreuil, France, and works by the California sculptor and painter, now Union Pier, Michigan, resident, Robert Winslow.
The affable and informed Judy finds fall her busiest selling season but anticipates the upcoming influx of summer visitors. She is known to bring art to your home for you to see how it works there.
Drier’s, Three Oaks
Who could miss Drier’s and say that they did justice to a visit to Harbor Country? One of the long lived, family-owned businesses in the area, it is a mainstay for smoked meats, cheeses, and mustards, with chopped liver to boot. Carolyn Drier is the perfect example of a business owner who loves what she is doing and it shows. That is the secret for sustaining a family business for over four generations.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Drier’s still features sawdust floors and German bologna. Carolyn pointed out a photo of Carl Sandburg, whose daughter Helga had been a close friend of her father’s, and then packed a us a picnic for our journey including German summer sausage, whitefish spread, and an incredible cheddar.
Acorn and Vickers, Three Oaks
Here are two examples of what makes Three Oaks tick and draw people from far and wide. The Vickers is a throwback to another era of the small movie house where the owner gives a 10-minute critique of what you will see, asks a final question to be answered by any of the true movie buffs in attendance, and awards free popcorn to the person quickest on the draw in answering the question. What fun.
And for the Acorn, having been there Friday, it is a wonderful gathering place (I ran into neighbors), attracts very accomplished musicians and other groups, offers open mic opportunities for aspiring local musicians, and remains understated and casual in its small theater.
The first movie theater in Three Oaks, opened in 1907 in the Acorn Opera House next door to where the Vickers, formerly a livery and feed store, is today. Old timers remembered return visits by popcorn girls who told of selling snacks during a showing of Gone with the Wind in 1939.
Since it first opened, the Vickers has had five different names, and yearly celebrates silent movies during Three Oaks History Days. Films featured include indies and classics as well as first run movies.
The Acorn opened in 2002 in the abandoned Featherbone Factory building where corset stays were once manufactured. It often offers programs featuring highly recognized names in its 100 performances yearly with terrific acoustics and a prime location next to the Journeyman distillery.
Journeyman, Three Oaks
A mainstay distillery that expanded its dining ability in creating its restaurant, Staymaker, as a result of demand and over-the-top success. You feel like you could be in Wyoming or some such place with its reused wood, metal tables, and overall ambiance. Food is rather limited, but you are bound to find something on the menu to accompany one of their whiskey flights.
Among the organic spirits prepared are Last Feather Rye and Buggy Whip Wheat Whiskey—a nod to the whips once manufactured there. Purchasers have the option of buying a barrel and decorating it before it is filled with their favorite whiskey, then aged to maturity.
Vite Greenhouse, near Niles
Heaven is within your scope as you enter the greenhouse and look up. Custom made floral baskets hang in profusion aisle after aisle of annuals, perennials, and shrubs. It is a greenhouse not be missed by gardeners and any other person who is looking for breathtaking natural beauty.
We met two generations of the affable and knowledgeable Vite family whose current 60,000-foot showroom began when Bill and Maddie, parents to current owners Greg, Jerome and Don, started with mush melons. Greg explained that most of the plants are grown from plugs or cuttings in the greenhouse next the showroom with the majority of work occurring February through May.
My choice among choices in Harbor Country to visit for a glass of wine in the Michigan farmland and wine district. Again, as is true of many of the winery settings of Michigan, you could imagine you are far away in another part of the country. People are friendly, some of the musicians who perform as background are truly outstanding, and the experience is good-natured all the way around.
Dablon is the creation of Bill Schopf, owner of Chicago’s Music Box Theatre and Music Box Films, who visits the winery weekly. Schopf purchased 44 acres in Baroda in 2008 and began by planting four acres of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir the following year as an answer to equal passions: film and architecture. He notes that the climate conditions there are similar to Burgundy’s.
Chicago architect Don Shapiro, who built the lounge at the Music Box, where Dablon wine is also served, constructed the magnificent tasting room on the highest hills in the area. Bill notes that it duplicates “the same shabby chic” feel of his lounge at Chicago’s beloved landmark.
There are now 29 vineyards, benefitting from the soil and topography within 20 minutes of Baroda.
Sawyer has always been a destination due to the market but with the advent of Greenbush, the place has exploded. Greenbush is a perfect spot to slip into while shopping in the area for a quick beer, soup and sandwich, or for an afternoon outing. The food is outstanding, the place is busy, and the staff is very appealing. You may have to wait but you should! It is well worth it.
Greenbush makes its own beer and tells customers on its clever menu:
“Three years prior to our opening in 2011, we shopped out our beer, five gallons at a time, for hundreds of times and handed it out to anyone who would listen. We picked up an old brewing system from San Francisco, taught ourselves to use it, and started making beer for the Sawyer masses.”
You’ll find bar-b-que brisket, deep-friend cheese curds, pork rinds, and Cubano sandwiches, as well as quinoa and kale on the menu. Next door is the Sawyer Home and Garden Center, currently featuring locally grown asparagus and great hostess gifts.
Mesa Luna, Sawyer
One of the upscale restaurants in the area that offers truly good food while practicing locally grown and sourced products. The husband and wife team of Sam and Denise Luna have a long history of producing great food in the area, and the ginger cheesecake is an exceptional way to end a fine meal there.
This is the perfect spot for the weary Chicagoan who wants to head to Harbor Country, breathe fresh air, and find someone who will prepare a meal when he/she just wants to relax. Whether for a catered event or a simple dinner prepared by Rachel Collins and her staff, find Flagship and you will be both tempted and relaxed, knowing that you are in for a treat.
Flagship offers delicacies like soft shell crab and the widest variety of fresh fish in the area. The smoked salmon dip makes it way to many fashionable Lakeside parties.
Harbor Country is a year-round destination, but why not put these recommendations and other wonders into your summer plans?