Saint Ignace lies at the North End of the Mackinac Bridge in Upper Michigan, standing tall as the third oldest continuously occupied settlement in the United States. Living in a small, seasonal resort town, we often feel challenged when searching for the ideal setting for dining and romance. For CENTURIES, couples have succeeded in finding fine dining with their partner, so 21st Century citizens should, too! Whether you’re on a budget or just hit big at the local casino, you CAN enjoy an intimate, romantic evening just made for lovers. Take off the blinders and let’s explore some of the many possibilities within our own community of Saint Ignace, Michigan.
In my guide, we’ll start off small and attend to the budget, moving along toward the more expensive, grand daddy hot date of them all at the end. Generally speaking, it’s important to prepare for romance; however, you CAN be spontaneous, too. Most of the places mentioned here are good for spur-of-the-moment, come as you are, just show up when you want your table evenings. Be aware, there’s seasonal spots closed for periods in the winter, and I’ll highlight that fact in the suggestion. Certain times of year, we experience a massive influx of tourists: The Annual Car Show; Fourth of July; and Labor Day Weekend. Be aware that you might have to wait for tables during those periods. Another tricky holiday for dining is Mother’s Day. Wherever you live, you might find a park picnic less crowded; otherwise, make early reservations, dining in the off-hours on these special weekends. Now, let’s get to the meat of the issue!
The Hillside House Restaurant
Some folks here might raise their eyebrows, as the Hillside is known best for breakfast and lunch, but they offer a lovely dinner menu as well. The key to this place is the owners, their willingness to go the extra mile, the a unique perch above Saint Ignace. Owners Jeff and Judy Childs pride themselves on their home made meals and devotion to the family business. The Hillside was a large home, converted to a restaurant. The year they bought the place, the adjacent hotel burnt down in one of the biggest fires in recent memory. I can still remember seeing the huge flames shoot up from the hotel early one morning back in 2001, high enough to be seen from I-75. It’s never been rebuilt. Why did the restaurant survive after all those rooms disappeared next door? It’s the dedication of this family, spectacular views of the Straits Area and Mackinac Island, plus good old American ingenuity and hard work. The Hillside House is now a relatively secluded spot, right along the North End of town. For me, there’s nothing better than enjoying a great meal with my special someone, gazing out the window over Lake Huron towards Mackinac Island. Take in the early bird special, with a $2 discount from 4:30-6 pm. Even without the discount, about half the menu’s meals are priced at $10, and that includes the home made soup or the salad bar. When one of our family friends was visiting late in the season last summer, I took him up to the Hillside one morning. This guy is one of the planet’s pickiest people, a perennial bachelor, and even he was amazed! Recently retired, Joe usually tends to watch his money carefully and demands good value in his outlays in food. We enjoyed an expansive breakfast, perfectly prepared. Although a bit flustered by Joe’s sarcastic wit, the waitress responded well and accommodated each request promptly. I got to meet the owner’s son Jeff Jr., who is well known for his excellent soups. The meal ran under $20 for two and we were stuffed with one of the area’s best breakfasts. Look over their entire menu and catch a glimpse of the wonderful views from the patio at their website. Opening on Mother’s Day, look for another season of great, romantic dining through early October.
Java Joe’s Cafe & Jose’s Cantina
Joe and Sandy Durm host countless area visitors in their well-known coffee shop Java Joe’s Cafe; however, they opened Jose’s Cantina a bit closer to town. If you consider unique, south-of-the-border atmosphere, upbeat salsa music, Mexican food, and a well-crafted margarita essential to a fun and intimate dining atmosphere, this is the perfect choice. Joe and Sandy’s son generally heads things up. Consider talking to him in advance about your special evening. He’s exceptionally intelligent and a very interesting individual, holding down the fort at this newer location. You’ll discover Jose’s right across the bend from Manley’s Smoked Fish, also on the North end of State Street. If you find parking a little tight (or own a big honking 3/4 ton van like we do,) look up the road toward the ferry ticket booth lot. You might park there and walk down the street, hand-in-hand…it’s only a short half block, and it’s especially lovely in the long evenings of summer. For me, a light margarita buzz (I enjoy them on the rocks) after enjoying nacho chips and fresh salsa and a special chicken enchilada meal is only complete if I can enjoy a little walk with my honey afterwards. It might not be the San Antonio River walk, but you aren’t going to break the bank with dinner, either! With a little imagination, you’ll find yourself thinking you actually were down in Mexico at Jose’s. Jose’s is a seasonal operation, open May through October. Java Joe’s is open year around, other than a brief mid-winter period if the owners take a vacation. Both venues are a great choice for teens and young adults.
Timmy Lee’s Pub
To be perfectly honest, anyone who knows me can attest that dressing up for Kim is a newer t-shirt and black jeans. I’m a casual sort of person, but a stickler for good food and top drawer service. My husband prefers dining at home and he is the world’s most frugal Norwegian at times. We both enjoy Timmy Lee’s pub when we want to be together, in town, and have a later evening meal without spending the day’s profits. I’ve written up Timmy Lee’s before, but I’m not going to leave them out of this list–after all, they would be my first choice most of the time. I like it that the cute little waitress remembers us, that the bartender is willing to pose for an associated content photo, and just the whole friendly atmosphere of the place. They’re willing to make YOUR evening special, even in the middle of a packed house on baseball’s opening day without reservations, and just a single server in the bar area. A simple white wine and a cheeseburger IS great, if my date is my husband, right Warren? Consider forking over an extra few extra dollars and you’ll get a huge whitefish dinner. You won’t find anything over $14.99 on the menu list, even if you decide to share a Supreme Pizza. For added details, read my full review.
Moving toward a bit more traditional, upscale dining, the Driftwood is our choice for special anniversaries. Call in or dine late to secure one of my choices for most coveted table, right near the big stone fireplace. If you ask me, the whitefish is the best choice in this area, although I always take the pan fried walleye special when it’s offered. Another thing I enjoy is home made pasta, and I highly recommend the tortellini and pasta primavera options. Personally, I enjoy pasta, wine, and romance. The Driftwood’s chef and cooking staff are highly motivated and creative…you’ll find a solid majority of townspeople who congregate here, the parking lot is always full. The good food and fine service draw in everyone from around the area and it keeps them coming back every year. Don Nelson, the Quality Wild Rice distributor from Wisconsin, doesn’t eat anywhere else and we both drive Warren crazy as we always order the same house special: PLANKED WHITEFISH! This is a medium range price level, with just a few items hovering around $20 (lobster, crab legs, & Filet Mignon)
The Village Inn & The Mackinac Grille
Set across the street from one another, let’s talk about the Village Inn (V.I.) and The Mackinac Grille together. They’re the next and last step up before we head out of the downtown area itself. Take a quick look at my article on the Village Inn franchise in Best Gastropubs of Saint Ignace for details, but. The decor is delightful, without being pretentious. I’ve spent many an hour tucked in a corner in both the Mackinac Island location or here in town. Budget wise, the meals here are moderately priced, but I’ve always tended to enjoy an appetizer, one of the steak, whitefish, or seafood specials, PLUS the signature strawberry margarita at the V.I., which brings up the price tag. Want to go whole hog? Enjoy your wine, beer, or cocktails at the bar and make eyes at each other. When the mood strikes, stroll to a table for dinner. If you imbibe a bit too much or simply decide to stay overnight, there’s reasonably priced rooms at the Inn right on the premises to conclude that most successful end to a romantic evening. Be sure to ask about any specials, I’ve had fried chicken dinners there with enough meal for two if you’re trying to trim costs.
The Mackinac Grille is right on the water in Moran Bay and you can’t beat its view, service, or selection. There’s patio dining, and I’m a sucker for that ploy…it’s lovely sitting out there with your “better half” in the warmer evenings of July, August, and even September. You’ll find their food is expertly prepared. I’ve never had a bad meal in the place and highly recommend it to visitors and family alike. Prices are just marginally above what is average for this area, but DEFINITELY reasonable. My husband often goes for fruits and vegetables, and has loved the planked vegetable board, an off-take on the whitefish dish described above. Their fish comes from the local Mackinac Fish Market in town. The Grille is one of those places (all except for the Cantina) where romantic couples can enjoy an outstanding fish fry on Fridays. Dollar for dollar, the Mackinac Grille provides the best place to impress your special someone. The wait-staff is well trained and elegant, I’ve often enjoyed the lyrical accents of some Jamaican men who work there.
Kewadin Shores Casino and the Woods Restaurant of Grand Hotel
When you’ve been married for nearly 30 years, sometimes it’s worth it for an added investment involving fine dining and an overnight adventure. Really out to mark a an especially significant milestone, engagement, retirement or anniversary? Maybe that dream job finally materialized or you’ve secured a bonus or incentive payment for military service. Plan ahead, and you’ll never forget this time. Just five miles North of Saint Ignace, on Mackinac Trail, sets the Kewadin Shores Casino. Recently, they added a very nice hotel, complete with a pool, spa, jacuzzi suites and all the extras. The buffet on weekends includes crab legs, shrimp, and local specialties. Look it over, or order off the expanded menu. If you book your room with a club card (available on site or via internet,) you’ll receive significant discounts, complimentary casino packages, and often a food voucher is included for breakfasts and dinners. I’ve spoken with large numbers of couples who paid for the vacation with their winnings off those complimentary tokens. Others simply enjoyed the standard discounts and loved the view from their rooms or the foyer, overlooking Lake Huron. Even if you don’t stay here, drop by the casino for a quick kiss by the fireplace and check at the customer service area for any complimentary items.
In my mind, the best romantic dinner will always be at the restaurant now owned by Grand Hotel, called The Woods. In my very early 20’s, I met the man of my dreams, Warren Hagen, who was my supervisor and trainer at the Grand Hotel’s security department. For four years, our birthday treat was an evening at “Stonecliffe,” where the restaurant was/is situated. You’ll have to plan around a ferry ride to and from Mackinac Island. To be honest, it’s hard to dine at “The Woods” without staying overnight. As a last resort, book a one-way ferry ride over, and then book the plane back to the mainland via Paul Fullerton at Great Lakes Air. My suggestion is to book a room at Stonecliffe and take the round trip ferry ride the next morning. Just the idea of the boat ride, carriage up the big hills, and the secluded, Bavarian themed restaurant gets my heart fluttering. Please let me know if you ever take my advice, because I think this place is the BEST. (Don’t forget to bowl on the single lane at the bar before you leave…it’s an unforgettable experience!) The Woods does close up the doors in late October, re-opening with the Grand Hotel in early May.