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In Traverse City, Even the “Hotel Food” is Extraordinary

Hotel food? In Traverse City, that’s not a put-down. People take food seriously here — including the restaurants in local hotels, which have some of the best cuisine in town.

Eric Nittolo is a case in point. Formerly at The Boathouse Restaurant, he’s enjoying the opportunity to surprise diners at Reflect in Traverse City’s Cambria Hotel & Suites, where he’s now the executive chef.

“I love to hear well-traveled people say, ‘I can’t believe this place is in a hotel,’ but in a place like this I don’t have to feed 300 or 400 people a day,” he says. “That means every diner gets custom white-glove treatment. You can come in, spend $40 on a meal and feel you’ve been treated like royalty.”

That’s even true in a chain-owned hotel like the West Bay Beach Resort. When sous chef Mike Brady arrived at the Holiday Inn Resorts property several years ago, he assumed he’d be doing cut-and-paste corporate cooking. Instead, he was given a surprising amount of leeway to create and innovate.

“In a lot of places, hotels settle for being safe and predictable,” he says. “But when people go on vacation, they’re looking for new experiences – especially in this area, where there’s so much emphasis on food. I’m much more able to focus on doing interesting things, changing up the menu every six months and so on.”

Tommy Rioux, the hotel’s food and beverage director, says that’s because diners are more interested in good food than they used to be – and he doesn’t think that’s just a fad.

“There’s been a significant cultural shift between generations, and it’s a trend based on reconnecting to what used to be the normal way to think about food,” he says. “So maybe menus will be smaller and offer fewer options, but that will allow us to strive for excellence in each dish and in the way the various dishes pair with each other.”

It’s not always easy creating innovative dishes at a large resort, particularly when it has many restaurants, each with its own identity. Grand Traverse Resort and Spa’s food and beverage director, Brian Burkley oversees 11 separate food operations – from the splendid Aerie Restaurant & Lounge to Jack’s Sports Bar, Sweetwater Bistro and a host of smaller spots.

“The people who visit this resort are very well-traveled and sophisticated; Traverse City is such a foodie place,” says Burkley.

Burkley’s approach is to insist on fresh, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible – whether that means replacing the breakfast buffet with an omelet-making station or designing a more flavorful blend of ground beef for the hamburgers served in the resort’s sports bars.

As executive chef at Shanty Creek Resorts, Michel Newton also presides over a diverse group of restaurants and clientele, from the skiers at Ivan’s to the couples in the elegant Lakeview Restaurant. But he sees that as a challenge, not an excuse for mediocrity. Even hotel banquets – a recipe for bland, dry and tepid food if there ever was one – can be occasions for culinary excellence. To Newton, the idea of cooking for several hundred guests is an invitation to make magic.

“Those are the jobs that the cooks love, because they help us stay interested and alert and on our toes,” he says. “That’s when everyone comes together and works as a team; it’s hard work, but it’s fun work – and it challenges you to show your imagination and innovation.”

Traverse City’s Great Wolf Lodge is best known for its indoor waterpark, but guests are often surprised to discover that the food is remarkably good, too. Even though their target clients are overwhelmingly children (notoriously picky eaters) and they operate under corporate guidelines, sous chef Aaron Tankersley says he has great freedom to innovate and create local dishes like his whitefish piccata – pan-seared and served with a sauce of white wine, lemon and capers.

“The company loves it when cooks use local specialties or invent their own dishes,” he says. “They don’t want every Great Wolf Lodge to taste the same.”

It’s a challenge to present interesting new meals in ways that help young diners overcome their hesitation about unfamiliar foods. An even more important task at Great Wolf is anticipating and adapting to the increasing number of food allergies that the resort sees in today’s children. Food and Beverage Director Amanda Zehner-Carlson says the staff exercises a great deal of creativity and ingenuity devising tasty meals for youngsters who can’t tolerate gluten, dairy products or other ingredients.

“The people who come to us want their children to be safe, and we’re willing to do whatever we have to do to create what they need,” she says. “We’ve had parents tell us that this was the first time their children could eat in a restaurant with the rest of the family.”

Traverse City’s Hotel Indigo is built on the idea of its “neighborhood story” – invoking the history and ambiance of the city’s past. General manager Bridget Hawks says the hotel culinary staff has developed a contemporary menu that relies wherever possible on locally-sourced ingredients – from the Light of Day teas to the Bonobo wines.

“Most of our guests are from out of town,” she says, “and when they’re eating and drinking with us they have a chance to sample what’s being produced by local farmers and distillers, to learn a little about Traverse City and Michigan and what we have to offer.”