1987 was a long time ago. I was a senior, a Trojan student athlete at Traverse City Area Public Schools. I was proudly walking around in my gray Reebok, high-top Freestyles. My graduating class was just shy of 900 students, a bit overwhelming for any teenager trying to grow up, to learn something or just to make it to class on time. The jock hangout was the neighborhood Burger King. I am afraid to think about how many Whopper Juniors I scarfed down before or after volleyball practices. A better highlight was my high school job, a kitchen and retail grunt at Mary’s Kitchen Port, a gourmet food and kitchen shop downtown.
As I look back, the quaint small town of my youth has been replaced by a bustling tourism juggernaut full of hotels, resorts, a booming craft beer and wine mecca and a reinvented restaurant scene. The northern Michigan vibe alongside the big lake is hard to pass up. I might liken TC to a middle-aged guy who buys his pants too small causing the flesh to lop over the belt and waistline. The bulk has no place to go, jiggling around to the horror of onlookers. Containment is broken, the belly protrudes, the secret is out and Traverse City has arrived at a brow-scratching tourism cross road. Do they buy new pants, add a panel to the pants or (eeks) go on a diet?
TC is an oft host for events even in early November…enter me and the MFEA (Michigan Festivals & Events Association) conference at the Grand Traverse Resort. The conference title, Party On MI seemed appropriate since I was there to learn tidbits about marketing the Michigan Irish Music Festival. Simultaneously, the resort was the staging area and packet pick up for The Iceman Cometh, a mountain bike race that attracts over 4000 riders. Though an avid biker, I was not racing through sleet but safely warm and dry listening to a variety of speakers on topics like social media and maneuvering the media.
After conference sessions Friday, I got to be a tourist in my own town. I drove downtown to meet my brother Ben and girlfriend, Lauren at The Workshop Brewing. Craft brewing has come to the new warehouse district, just off Front Street. I gave the beer a thumbs up and settled on the ESB as the favorite of my flight that included a Bière Blanche, a honey stock ale, Gandy Dancer and the John Henry (imperial IPA on nitro). Beer was my appetizer, before I drove five minutes to meet my parents for dinner at Stella Trattoria in The Village at Grand Traverse Commons.
The Village, in my teen years, was a spooky and abandoned state hospital grounds. We’d often sneak around and in the buildings and try to scare the pants off each other. Now, the historic 1884 hospital complex is home to shopping boutiques, coffee houses, a brewery and fine dining. Through the labyrinth of restored brick buildings and parking lots, I found mom and dad waiting in the entry with news of an hour wait. I checked in with the host and assured him we would be happy at the bar or a table. That trick worked, when they led us to a table in the back after just 20 minutes. We sat down amid bustling servers and began to study the menus.
The wine menu was like an old King James Bible, just as thick and overwhelming. I quickly gave up and asked the server for a glass of house Italian red, like a Rosso or Barbera. The dinner menu, though a single sheet, was complicated spawning several rounds of questions. My Dad asked about the calamari and squid ink pasta then promptly changed his mind to a safer choice like the ravioli. After giving our server a thorough verbal workout, we settled on sharing plates of a veggie risotto, pesto ravioli with goat and mozzarella cheese and the pork/beef ragu over homemade pasta. The tastes were above average, befitting the above average prices. As we ate, my mind drifted back to a Tuscany trip where we found all of the menus to be supremely simple.
1 – Pick a pizza
2 – Pick a pasta and choice of sauce
3 – Pick a protein (usually a huge slab of beef)
(The choices were accompanied by local cheeses, cured meats, roasted peppers and olives).
I was pulled back from my reverie when the server asked if we wanted dessert. My dad leaned across the table, “This sure is different than the service and food at The Cracker Barrel.” Indeed it was and I marveled at how much had changed from 1987 to 2017. I had grown up and so had Traverse City. I noted that we had both put on a few pounds since the days of our youth!