One column of the blond-wood dining room displays a photo triptych of a three-leaf, three-petal trillium moving from woodsy bud to lovely bloom. Other walls have landscape shots of flowering cherry orchards, baskets of the neon-red fruit, barns, and an iconic weathered fishing shack in Leland.
Before you’ve ordered a single bite at the new Grand Traverse Pie Company on Liberty near the Michigan Theater (although maybe not before you’ve snatched a bite of pastry from the sample tray up front), you feel an Up North vacation vibe. And fortunately, the pie-a-palooza display upfront is supported by an interesting, reasonably priced, and fairly well-executed lineup of sandwiches, salads, soups, thick-crust quiche, and–no big surprise–meaty potpies.
The chicken potpie has all white meat and a half-dozen different vegetables (even cute little lima beans); on its brothy gravy float delicate herbs like thyme and tarragon. A pastry cutout of a perky folk-art bird distinguishes the chicken pie from the beef. In keeping with the company’s slogan, “love, peace, pie,” the beef potpie gets a simple heart cutout, the same bushel of veggies, and beef chunks that are tender and lean but not particularly flavorful. Both have an above-average crust–enticing, generous, and attractively brown–and are more filling than a $7 single-person serving has any right to be.
Soups, salads, and sandwiches present a symphony of hit and miss. A great tomato-basil soup, thick as pasta sauce, has meaty chunks of tomato and nice Italian spicing, whereas a from-the-can-tasting clam chowder blushes pink, not knowing whether it’s a New Englander or a Manhattanite. Salads come fresh-leafed and mildly done up: the least garlicky Caesar around, for instance, with toasty croutons that match the sandwich breads, like super-swirly marbled rye from the light, tasty Reuben sandwich. My BLT had thin-cut, well-flavored cherrywood-smoked bacon, but the slices of tomato were so thin they were starting to disappear. Thicker-cut tomatoes held their own in the well-balanced Caprese with pesto on a baguette. An albacore tuna with dill sandwich scored a near ten. Less successful was an odd chicken salad with soggy grapes and dried cherries–one or the other would have been plenty. A side of blueberry applesauce, on the other hand, was the best kind of fruit overload, not too sweet, blended fine but with just enough fruit-seedy texture for interest.
A disconnect between front counter and kitchen showed up a few times on our visits barely a month after May’s opening day: sourdough for a BLT requested grilled dry came drenched in butter (for dry-grilling done right, try Afternoon Delight down Liberty). Trying to find out what’s homemade can be frustrating–the menu-proclaimed “housemade ranch dressing” arrives in a sealed packet, and many items seem to fall somewhere in between, shipped from the eighteen-store parent company “fresh-frozen” or half-made (one reason this semi-corporate cafe bakery evokes deja vu of the Panera around the corner). And how about turning down the volume a bit on the mood-busting “order-ready” LOUDspeaker?
The final hit-or-miss refrain comes with the greatest percussive contrast at–drum roll–pie time. The wide dessert case is the first thing you see upon entering (Panera again), and a wedge of pie can be a wonderful $2.99 conclusion to an otherwise light lunch. The cherry pie filling is really good, authentically sweet with a tart accent. Grand Traverse’s strawberry rhubarb is possibly the best I’ve ever had–not too sweet, not too mushy, not too skimpy. Big chunks of each fruit remain intact so you can enjoy distinct flavors, textures, shapes, and even colors! Nestled in that above-average crust, it’s definitely a treat for people who love the complex tastes of this classic early summer pie. Our crumb pie samples seemed less exemplary, with a too-thick layer of supersweet cake-batter-like crumble that was overbrowned in blueberry and gooily undercooked in a berry medley. You also get less fruit with the crumb pies, and that’s less of a good thing. The cookie crust on very real-tasting key lime pie was pleasing, though, and there are peanut butter cups, brownies, and other decadent choices for the non-pie crowd. Any and all of the above wash down well with coffee from Higher Grounds, Traverse City’s “mission-driven” roaster. Be forewarned: the cherry-flavored coffee is really cherry flavored, for folks who haven’t had enough berries in their salads, sandwiches, and pie.
Grand Traverse Pie is not the only North Coast fix downtown. Cherry Republic at Main and Liberty sells dried fruit amid north woods decor and flair, and 2Mission’s Jolly Pumpkin and Blue Tractor come in both northwest and southeast Michigan versions. Like Grand Traverse, all offer Pure Michigan experiences, feeding the work-weary soul as much as satisfying the hunger for food.
Grand Traverse Pie Company
505 E. Liberty
Mon.-Sat. 9 a.m.-9 p.m., Sun. 10 a.m.- 7 p.m.
Sandwiches, salads, quiches, and meat pies, $5.99-$7.49, soups $3.29-$4.39, desserts $1.99-$2.99.