My husband and I love almost everything about a road trip–driving away from everyday life towards new landscapes, small towns, and regional cultures. We love everything, that is, but road food, especially across the vast expanse of this country’s middle. Though true-blue Midwesterners, we find, in diners along back roads and highways, too much food taken directly from freezer to fryer, from can to plate, with nary a vegetable–fresh, frozen, or otherwise–in sight. Even with Jane and Michael Stern’s Roadfood guide in hand, we rarely seem to pass near the hot spots it lists, and we almost never luck into our own.
But perhaps we have been searching too far afield. Recently, a drive to Grass Lake’s Grand Illusion, the gallery and architectural salvage yard that lines much of the town’s main thoroughfare, provided a lucky find. The tiny Grass Lake Diner across the street looks rather unremarkable. Inside, however, chef/owner Matt Foster, late of Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, makes good meals out of typical, and not-so-typical, diner food. No printed menus exist, just a dry-erase board that lists a mostly unchanging all-day breakfast lineup, rotating lunch options–mostly sandwiches–and, on Sunday, brunch specials. Friendly, cheerful staff serve plates laden with gargantuan portions, overseen by a grandmotherly local who keeps busy polishing silverware and reciting her favorites–and not-so-favorites–to any customers undecided on what to order.
We didn’t have any trouble deciding on our choices our first visit–or thereafter, for that matter. I chose the beef brisket sandwich and was rewarded with tender, juicy slices piled high on a wonderful soft onion roll from Brooklyn’s Stone Hearth Bakery. Draping the meat with the accompanying coleslaw, I found the sandwich utterly delicious. My husband was equally smitten with his hot corned beef. House-made fries or chips–a real bonus–garnish the sandwich plates; I’d recommend the latter simply because they’re crispier. A “root beer float” cupcake finished us–figuratively and literally–for the day.
At another lunch, the chicken salad snagged me, though I requested it on one of those tasty onion buns rather than in the advertised wrap. The meat was exemplary, shredded from a roasted bird rather than diced poached or baked breasts, with perhaps a tad too much mayonnaise for some, though not for me. Given the quality of the two sandwiches I tried, I have to imagine that the pulled pork or turkey BLT would be equally delicious.
On the next glorious spring Sunday my husband and I began the day with a leisurely drive to Grass Lake, winding slowly along back routes in Sunday-drive mode that must have been infuriating to anyone behind us in a hurry. Our goal was the diner’s brunch, where I had my eye on the breakfast menu’s corned beef hash. A fan even of Hormel’s canned, I found this hash near perfect, with good proportions of moist meat and potatoes, topped by two nicely poached eggs and garnished with thick slices of toast. My husband’s huevos rancheros, a brunch special, proved not to be the typical fried eggs on crispy tortillas slathered with a spicy tomato sauce but a scramble of eggs, sliced jalapenos, diced tomatoes, and cheese on a small mountain of fluffy/crispy American fries–odd but savory.
Foster offers French toast made from any bread he serves, including quick breads like banana. The “Elvis” is, as you might imagine, over the top, a sugar overload of battered apple-cinnamon bread finished with peanut butter, bacon, banana slices, and vanilla ice cream. I avoided it, though I watched many other patrons dig in enthusiastically. I did try a pancake–the kid’s “stack,” which was actually one dinner-plate-sized orb that more than filled me up. Rather chewy and dense and a bit tangy, the pancake was tasty, if not the light, fluffy, drier type I prefer.
Another kind of road trip–a Sunday bike ride to Ypsilanti–rewarded me with the pancakes I favor. The long-standing Wolverine Grill on Michigan Avenue, refurbished and reopened last year by cook/owner Kevin Hill, has a stack of buttermilk pancakes, dotted with optional blueberries and accompanied by sausage links, ham, or bacon–which is my ideal.
My husband’s ideal, after the physical excursion of pedaling rather than driving, was the much healthier special–the Growing Hope frittata. Rather than the usual thick cake of eggs and vegetables, Wolverine Grill’s frittata is a thin omelet topped by feta cheese and a saute of vegetables–squash and kale, when we were there in May–supplied from Ypsilanti’s Growing Hope Urban Farm. Accompanying it were thick slices of whole-wheat toast, deep-fried potato chunks, a fruit cup, and a shot glass of V-8 juice–a real energy boost rather than the indulgence my breakfast had been.
Wolverine Grill’s weekend vibe, orchestrated by a swinging jukebox that reflects Hill’s interest in Michigan music and rock in general, is relaxed and fun, and attracts clientele ranging from Eastern Michigan students and hipsters to families and older couples. As at the Grass Lake Diner, friendly strangers often chat across tables. Although music posters and memorabilia decorate the walls, the place retains the character of a 1950s-era diner. A long counter with revolving stools still lines one side of the restaurant, with Formica booths opposite and a black-and-white checkerboard floor underneath.
Weekdays, the clients are more businesslike, but breakfast can still be had all day. Wolverine Grill’s omelets are much like its frittatas, though rolled around the fillings, which range from traditional to turkey bacon, Boca burger, and an unusual vegetable mix that might include green beans or carrots or greens. Gluten-free toast is also an option. Again, the potatoes are seasoned, deep-fried chunks–kind of an amalgamation of French and American fries. Weekend coffee is from nearby Ugly Mug, while on weekdays, it’s from Paramount (and slightly less expensive).
Lunch options include assorted burgers, salads, subs, and sandwiches. One noontime I wavered between a Cobb salad with chicken and a big chicken club, settling on the latter. I chose a cup of soup–thick, filling corn chowder–over possible fries or salad, making for a substantial meal. Fortunately, Hill constructs his club of two slices of bread rather than the usual three. (All the thickly sliced bread comes from Arnie’s Bakery in Grand Rapids.) Stuffed with grilled chicken and several slices of bacon, and liberally smeared with herb mayonnaise that came on the side, the sandwich was hearty enough I could’ve split it with a friend, though I didn’t.
While the Grass Lake Diner has a root beer float cupcake, the Wolverine Grill offers the float itself. I couldn’t have managed one then, but I do intend to treat myself sometime soon, after a long bike ride up and down as hilly a route as I can find between my house and downtown Ypsi.
What a pleasure to find, so close to home, the Wolverine Grill and Grass Lake Diner. Both are true to the diner spirit but also idiosyncratic representations of their chef/owners–places to begin that day’s journey or refueling stops for a road trip, on two wheels or four, on that long route leading out of Detroit to the west.
Grass Lake Diner
108 E. Michigan, Grass Lake
Tues.-Fri. 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat. 6 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Closed Mon.
Breakfast and brunch $2-$8.50, lunch $6.50-$8.50
228 W. Michigan Avenue
Wed.-Fri. 10 a.m.-3 p.m., Sat.-Sun. a.m.-3 p.m. Closed Mon. & Tues.
Breakfast $3.75-$9, lunch $3.50-$7.95