Grand Mere Inn, with lovePublished 1:26pm Thursday, January 19, 2012
I am at an age where I accept “perfection” as pretty difficult. But it is the first word that comes to mind in describing the Racine family’s Grand Mere Inn.
When you see the parking lot full on a Wednesday evening in January, you begin to understand this Stevensville treasure is popular. Entering the building, you are greeted with the buzz of animated conversation and aromas that immediately make your mouth water.
To many, this simply is the best restaurant around.
This is no accident. The experience one has at Grand Mere Inn is perfect by design.
The passion Pete Racine, along with wife, Nancy, and son, Charley, have for the place is obvious. They have the same passion for their customers, many of whom have frequented Grand Mere Inn for most of its 32-year history atop the bluff.
Named after an inn that was below the bluff on the shoreline; this was a rock ‘n’ roll and country bar called the Woodshed when the Racines purchased the place in 1980. Before that, it had been a family restaurant, with a little dance floor, called Ritters for 25 years.
Pete points to the two main dining areas with their wall of windows looking over the bluff to the horizon of Lake Michigan.
“Can you imagine? The previous owner had not seen any advantage to seeing the lake. There were only two small windows. Can you imagine thinking that view wasn’t significant?” he said.
Recommending this as the place to celebrate Valentines just makes sense. The whole place was built on love: Love of food, love for those who enter the door be they patron or bus staff and are treated as family. If you ask Pete Racine how he happens to have such an excellent staff, he answers, “We raise them.”
If you ask him what keeps a family interested in the restaurant business year in and year out, Pete answers, “I used to kid and say, ‘if you didn’t have the customers and didn’t have the employees, there would be nothing to this.’”
“He can sit somebody and already have a relationship with them, telling you where they live and what they do for a living. My friend used to say, ‘your father knows everybody but one guy, and he lives in Ethiopia.’”
“It’s new every night. Our staff is like family, and it’s fun. Every night is different with a new cast of characters. I know Pete and I will go home at night and sit at the kitchen table and say, ‘wow, everybody went home happy and had a good time. Things go smoothly because we have a system that works,” Nancy said.
I asked them what their specialty was.
“I’d say our ribs,” Nancy began, “Or our perch?”
“We sell an awful lot of steaks,” Charley adds. “And seafood.”
They all smile.
“There have been times we have added a new dish to the menu and tried to remove another and our customers won’t let us,” Nancy said. “They let us know they want it back.”
When the restaurant first opened, it was one of the only places around to find really good seafood. Year round, customers can choose from blackened swordfish, coldwater African lobster tails and Alaskan jumbo whole crab legs, lake perch, scallops, shrimp and walleye. At one time, Pete drove to Chicago to get the fresh seafood; now, it is more readily available.
The menu offers appetizers, such as oysters Rockefeller, New Zealand green lip mussels, escargot with garlic butter, artichoke hearts Grand Mere, fried calamari and brie in puff pastry. Follow this up with a steak: top sirloin, T-bone, New York strip or filet mignon. Or choose those famous baby back ribs or a grilled pork chop with rum mango sauce.
Poultry lovers will not be disappointed with scrumptious offerings such as Roast Maple Leaf duckling with Michigan cherry sauce or the blackened chicken with Cajun hollandaise. Vegetarians are not forgotten with spinach-pasta bundles or pasta primavera with basil cream or marinara sauce to which those, who must have their protein, can add grilled chicken.
The pate is served with the fresh-each-day homemade bread — brought to the table when one is seated — an old family recipe sold by the pound. Desserts are generous to a fault, and it has happened that a piece of decadent chocolate cake, with shaved chocolate had a diamond ring on top for the perfect proposal.
“If there is one thing I want your readers to understand is that this isn’t just a place to go for an expensive fine-dining experience. Some people come in for a couple of appetizers and a glass of wine. You can have a cheeseburger (cooked to order, of course) and order from the bar menu while sitting in the dining room or the regular menu while in the bar,” Nancy said.
Many items on the bar menu are less than $10.
The night I experienced Grand Mere’s hospitality firsthand, I was greeted and seated by Matt Rauen, who has been with Grand Mere for more than 30 years. He does the ordering for the bar in addition to playing maitre d’ with a smile as playful as it is sincere. It is obvious he fits the “family” perfectly with his willingness to make his guests’ needs his priority.
As we waited for our meal to be served, he took me around and introduced me to some of the regulars.
Bob and Linda Kraff have been coming to Grand Mere Inn since it opened.
“We first met Pete when he was working as a manager for Win Schuler’s in St. Joseph,” Bob said.
The Cranberry Bog Bar, named after the cranberry bog that once bordered one of three inland lakes between the bluff and the to-die-for sunsets of Lake Michigan, has a loyal following. Enter the Wednesday night men.
Candlewood Suites manager Frank Beltran, Lincoln Township Supervisor Dick Stauffer and retiree Dick Berry have met for dinner here every Wednesday at 6:30 p.m. for the past three years. Widowers, they find the weekly meal and shared conversation is therapeutic.
“It’s far less expensive than therapy,” concedes Beltran, whose business is just down the road.
Server Gina Bolin expressed the family attitude of Grand Mere best.
“I worked at another popular restaurant in St. Joe before coming here two months ago. It is the world of difference for me. Everyone is always truly happy, even after work as we do the money and talk about the night. If I got a full-time Monday to Friday job, I would still want a couple of shifts here just because it is so special.”
A warm, inviting atmosphere, first-class service, a great view, a fine-dining menu for every appetite with a drink menu to match: What more do you need to make this Valentine’s Day special for the one you love?
On Valentine’s, there will be a special menu featuring combo plates such as steak and lobster and you may get a balloon for your table.
If you want to bring special flowers or a diamond ring, reserve your table early and give t a week (preferred) to a couple of days’ notice.
For more information, call (269) 429-3591 or visit grandemereinn.com to view the menu. The restaurant is located at 5800 Red Arrow Highway in Stevensville.