Delicious dining options abound across St. Clair County for food lovers

Almost every activity is preceded or followed by a meal, whether you’re out on the water or picking up dinner on the way home from work. Restaurants fill not only our stomachs, but our social lives, too. In that sense, they can be a strong indicator of a city’s identity. With such a whirlwind of eateries, it can be easy to take them at face value, but The Keel wanted to dig deeper and discover what they say about the Port Huron foodie community.

What works?

Let’s talk about fare first. It’s easy to find what you’re craving in Port Huron, as there are plenty of diverse food options. Check out Tio Gordos Cocina for Mexican, Bangkok Star for Thai, Great Lakes Italian, salad and sandwich shops, pub grub, and more. The Atrium Café and Ice Cream Parlor has specials each day that range from Mexican (complete with peach sangria) to Italian to mushroom steak soup, 16-ounce pork chops, barbecue ribs, it’s best-selling Parmesan-crusted whitefish, biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, stuffed burgers and, of course, ice cream. It’s been awarded accolades for the majority of its homemade offerings.

The people Port Huron enjoy hearty food and stay close to standard favorites like sandwiches and fries.

Culinary Institute Instructors Scott Twichell and Karlee Schulz demonstrate how to make a new dish. Chef Thomas Recinella, dean of culinary arts and executive chef at COURSES, the student-run restaurant at Baker College of Port Huron’s Culinary Institute of Michigan, has seen eating habits first hand. CIM’s administration has to balance mandatory student learning objectives and different cooking techniques with food attractive to customers.

“What we’ve learned since we’ve been here (the last five years in Port Huron) is that people are somewhat adventurous. They do like their traditional items, though,” he says.

At COURSES, filet mignon sells out fast. Last quarter, the same type of tenderloin used for the filet was cut in half and took the classic name tournedos. Even when students explained that it was almost exactly the same product, nobody had interest in it, and the filet turned into a perfect lesson for students about knowing your customer. Filet mignon is now back on the menu.

While interesting or new food may not be of peak importance, restaurant-goers in Port Huron do expect quality, and they are able to get it at a value thanks to the reign of locally run establishments where a guest is likely to know the chef or owner personally. Diners, cafes, casual dining, and family restaurants are easy to find here.

Restaurants like Kate’s Downtown are packed with fresh, Michigan-sourced ingredients and dishes made from scratch. StaffFresh, seasonal salads are a favorite at Kate's Downtown. at Pompeii’s Pizzeria and Italian Eatery, a favorite since it opened in 2002, gets sausage from Eastern Market in Detroit, hand slices vegetables, cuts homemade meatballs for pizza, makes andouille sausage in house, pounds veal to order, processes and portions 40 to 120 pounds of chicken a week, and makes their sauces from scratch.  

Palates vs. personality

But there is more to a restaurant than its food. All of the sources interviewed for this article talked more about the necessity of an inviting atmosphere and personal details than anything else.

This means if you stop by Pompeii’s five minutes before close, you’ll be welcomed in. Pompeii’s saves its old menu items in a computer and pulls them by guest request. At the Atrium, owner Rock Stevens says he doesn’t want any guest to walk out without having had a “meaningful conversation” with him or his wife, Gayle.

Freighters Eatery and Taproom, a huge player in downtown hospitality, is part of Meritage Hospitality Group, which spans 12 states and includes over 250 restaurants. Even as part of a larger company, Freighters doesn’t operate on a blueprint and prioritizes belonging to its community, as evidenced by its Port Huron-specific website and locally sourced, scratch-made menu items. Three nut chicken, a dish from the former Thomas Edison Inn, is a Chef’s Feature plate. Freighters provides food for the Hilton DoubleTree, formerly the Thomas Edison Inn.

“Everybody has okay food. Some places have great food. But when stands out is when you get that person who makes it a special experience, or gives you a little extra attention, or thinks about what your needs are,” Freighters' General Manager Dale Kaminski says.

In an 1890s building decorated with salvaged Victorian materials, Port Huron hosts the epitome of personal ownership at The Atrium.

“My sweetie (wife and co-owner) and I met and fell in love in 1965, and I knew from the get go her dream was to have a restaurant. It was always ‘someday sweetie,” Stevens says. The couple would write down pros and cons of their dining experiences over 30 years and created a log of what they wanted to include once they created their own.

Rock taught for 40 years, and Gayle ran a home daycare, then became a line cook and worked at The Heritage Inn serving meals for senior citizens before establishing their restaurant in 2008. Are you going to find a story about two lovebirds following their dreams at a conventional restaurant? Probably not. This is the charm of Port Huron.

Downtown Port Huron’s casual, locally-run businesses are a welcomed contrast to the corporate chains closer to the mall at the city’s north end, locals say.

Elegance without a dress or tie

The argument could be made that there are too many family-friendly, casual dining areas. Yes, guests can get wonderful sushi at the Huron Athletic Club or steak at Lake Fx Grill. But while The River Crab in St. Clair and Rix’s Roof Top are less casual, there are very few fine dining restaurants to go for a special occasion where you really have to get dressed up.

The benefit is that restaurants in Port Huron are accessible and bring people together. Freighters, for example, has an unbeatable view, but also has $10 menu items. It caters to everyone from its DoubleTree guests, to those coming from the convention center from the other side, and locals. The Vintage Tavern also offers a view and decadent entrees such as lamb, steak, and scallops, but can be attended in jeans.

Kaminski sees the lack of fine dining as a plus.

“What’s happened is good food and great experiences have now become for everyone. They’re not something you have to wait six months to experience. You shouldn’t have to get dressed up to go out and be treated like someone,” he says.
Still, there may be room to attract different markets if we were aiming to be a big food city, like Chicago.

Future foodies are welcome at Kate's Downtown.“The family piece is very important because when I’m out with my wife and our kids and granddaughter, I don’t want to have a bunch of drunk people sitting a table away swearing and yelling, but there very well could be a place for them to do that. I’m not sure Port Huron has that balance. There does seem to be a dearth of places for only adults to go,” Recinella says, though he agrees that fine dining is changing.

Fancier places could be hard to come by because they aren’t what people here want, but approachable, unstuffy atmospheres seem to be a trend elsewhere, as well.

Guests from near and far

Locals frequently go out to eat and are willing to travel go outside of the immediate downtown area to do so. Restaurants are full, and CIM students have no problem getting jobs in them.

It is a balance for restaurant owners to attract locals and tourists. Social media is the key for tourists, as travelers often check Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Facebook for top picks.

Pompeii’s owner Neil Pickelhaupt responds to reviews on Yelp, and Stevens' daily posts photos and song lyrics in the form of a game on his business’ Facebook page.

Food is often secondary to new visitors of Port Huron who come for water and activities; the city isn’t quite a food destination like, say, Grand Rapids is for beer. It is growing, though, with new food trucks and festivals encouraging food. Chefs in the area regularly spot guests from Detroit, Flint, Sterling Heights, Brighton, and Canada. Once they find a place they know well, they come back specifically for the food.

“I’ll go around and share with them (guests) where all the architectural pieces came from, and they love hearing those stories. The unique thing is whenever they have friends and family from out of the area, they’ll bring them in, and I’ll listen to them sharing with new guests, coming in and being the tour guide, sharing stories,” Stevens says.

Word of mouth and customer feedback is efficient in gaining new guests, but some restaurateurs think the city could help more with marketing. Owners, managers, and chefs support and recommend one another.

“We’ve never felt threatened by a restaurant. To us, it’s just bringing more people to the area. It’s new interest, keeping Port Huron fresh and alive,” Pickelhaupt says. The more places to visit there are in an area, the more people will visit.

Though they own their own establishment, the Stevens’ go out to eat about three times a week. When they run into their loyal customers at other restaurants, they get apologies and promises to visit The Atrium soon.

“I crack up and say, ‘We’re here too! We all obviously have good taste,’” he says. “We want to be seen at local eateries.”

The care in personal attention and quality when picking products found in Port Huron’s restaurants is unique. The problem is, you have to be "in the know." Port Huron has many eats to offer that out-of-towners don’t know the extent of yet, but attention is definitely rising. There is always room for improvement and pieces are missing in order to become a foodie’s paradise.

However, without the peaceful, caring establishments in the Port Huron food community now, it would lose its niche. Port Huron knows its personality, and while it may never be a huge food destination, it doesn’t need to be.
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