While the lakeshore communities in Southwest Michigan’s Harbor Country get a lot of love, there’s a lot more to see, do, eat and drink if you venture a little bit away from the water.
New Buffalo is a popular touristy destination with a public beach, casino and plethora of cute shops and eateries, but you might not be familiar with its inland next-door neighbor, Three Oaks. However, it’s well worth making your way off the beaten path to spend a day on a foodie field trip to this charming, laid-back community that has a nice rural, small-town feel suffused with a bit of artsy, folksy, eclectic diversity.
As you enter downtown from U.S. 12, you’ll notice a “Welcome to Three Oaks” sign that indicates that the town's Farmers Market is held from 9:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays through October. It’s a great day of the week to visit Three Oaks, as you can purchase fresh produce from local farmers. There’s also a fantastic example of a thriving community garden you can peek at that is located just off the main street behind the elementary school.
Viola Cafe is an inviting spot on a main street corner serving breakfast and lunch. Housed in a 19th century building, the inside has a tin roof and the the name appears in vintage-style lettering on a large front window.
Breakfast items range from hearty scrambles to Belgian waffles to eggs Benedict to huevos rancheros. Biscuits and gravy is served on weekends. The lunchtime menu includes burgers, patty melts, sandwiches and soups. We split a generous turkey club sandwich with chicken tortilla soup and the Apple Cider Century Salad with fresh greens, avocado, sliced apple, blue cheese and bacon. The salad’s name is a nod to the annual bike ride that winds in and around Three Oaks the last Sunday in September.
Keep in mind that you’ll be an hour ahead on Eastern Standard Time, making Viola a nice place to stop for brunch and follow it up with some shopping in the downtown galleries and boutiques, or a visit to the stunning public library that is housed in the old Warren Featherbone Co. Office Building.
The building behind the library that dates back to 1883 was originally the Warren Featherbone Factory where soft featherbone corsets and buggy whips were produced. In 2011, it became the Journeyman Distillery, producing organic spirits onsite that could be sampled or mixed into cocktails in the tasting room.
Later, the Staymaker restaurant was added with a full menu of creative, elevated tavern cuisine, including a bison burger, pulled pork and Detroit-style pizza and some upscale entrees such as an Idaho trout with toasted almonds, red onion, celery and kohlrabi with a cider vinaigrette with a large selection of sharable appetizers.
If you’re not up for a full meal, linger and enjoy a cocktail, a flight, a shot or a punch bowl. We did some sipping and enjoyed a dessert of sticky bread pudding made with Silver Cross Toffee, whiskey caramel, boozy raisins and sprinkled with powdered sugar. On the weekends, 45-minute tasting tours are offered for $12 per person.
Next up — if want to indulge in a treat, you have a couple options. Mooney’s Blue Moon Ice Cream is a classic ice cream shop where you can get a scoop or sundae or a root beer float made with Triple XXX root beer.
Froelich’s is a bakery and deli where you can get delicious freshly baked pastries, pies, breads, bagels, desserts and more along with house-made jams and jellies. You can also grab a light meal of quiche, tomato bread, a wrap, a sandwich or one of their tasty deviled eggs.
If you also plan to visit the beach on your trip, bring a cooler and pick up a nice spread here to enjoy later at the beach. P.S. Parking is free at the New Buffalo Public Beach after 8 p.m., (It’s $12 a day if you park between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.), so you can bring your dinner there and eat it while you watch the sunset. P.P.S. You may have seen Froelich’s products before, since it's been a frequent vendor at the Chesterton European Market.
Even if you aren’t headed to the beach or off on a hike where you’ll want to picnic, you’ll still want to bring that cooler. Why? So you can load it up with goodies from Drier’s Meat Market! This place is such a gem and a must when in Three Oaks.
The building dates way back to 1851 when it was a wagon repair shop. In 1875 it became a meat market and it’s been in the Drier family for more than a century. “It’s a National Historic Site and that makes it pretty special,” said Carolyn Drier, whose grandfather bought the business when he was 22.
In 1964, her grandfather died, and her father decided to scale back to a few specialty meat products. Those they sell have been made in the same smokehouse from the same recipes since the early 1900s — a German-style smoked summer sausage they call bologna, hot dogs, bratwurst and smoked ham. They also offer liverwurst and a variety of cheese spreads. A fourth-generation, Drier’s daughter and nephew, also are carrying on the traditions. Oh, and don’t forget to grab some of their own spicy mustard!
By now you may be ready for a little break or want to burn off some calories. You can stop by the Dewey Cannon Trading Co. & Three Oaks Bicycle Museum where you can rent a cycle and taking a relaxing ride on some country roads.
If the weather isn’t cooperative, take a little walk through the Region of Three Oaks Museum, which is open noon-5 p.m. on Saturday and Sundays and will extend also to be open on Thursday and Friday starting in June.
Finish off your day at Nelson’s Saloon, a little watering hole where you will find one of best reuben sandwiches you’ll ever eat, or sample some gourmet pizza from newcomer Patellies, which opened late last year. If you’re up for a show before calling it a night, check the schedule for the Vickers Theatre, which specializes in independent and foreign films, or the Acorn Theatre, located beside Journeyman Distillery in the old Featherbone Factory with live musical, theatrical and comedy performances. They’ve hosted such notable entertainers as Jeff Daniels, Jefferson Starship, Ricky Lee Jones and a variety of talented tribute artists.
Three Oaks is a walkable community with all the places mentioned situated along the four-block downtown stretch of Elm Street or within a block off the main thoroughfare. If you love parades, visit on June 17 for their annual Flag Day Parade.