Getting away “Up North” so often means a welcome disconnect from the daily grind. And for many, it represents a simpler lifestyle that harkens back to earlier times when things didn’t move quite as fast. Those respite seekers often set their GPS for the picturesque village of Leland, located on the peninsula between Lake Michigan and Lake Leelanau, and home to the historic Riverside Inn.
On the banks of the Leland River, the 114-year-old restaurant is a permanent fixture of many an “Up North” itinerary. Known for its fresh, innovative fare and world-class wine list, the convivial getaway is the perfect place for those looking for an elevated dining experience that they can have in their flip-flops.
“It’s a come-as-you-are kind of place,” said owner Kate Vilter, whose family history dates back to the early days of the Riverside. Her family hailed from Cincinnati, but like many dwellers of Midwest metropolitan areas, they spent their summers in Leland. Vilter worked at the inn as a teenager.
When the opportunity came to purchase the charming estate, which boasts four guest suites on the upper level, Vilter and her mother, Barbara, jumped on it. They took over ownership in 1997, becoming the eighth family to run the iconic inn.
In the late 90s, the phrase “farm to table” hadn’t yet entered the culinary collective consciousness, but Vilter looked around and saw the ingredients available from local farmers and suppliers. “That’s where our focus has always been, even before it was popular,” she said.
For years, Vilter and her team simply used the freshest ingredients they could find, and the result was an innovative selection of locally curated options that showcased not only the creativity of the kitchen but also the diverse bounty of northern Michigan.
The inn’s cozy dining rooms feature intimate spots, many with relaxing views of the river vista and the nearby gardens, as well as a recently renovated bar area perfect for spirited gatherings.
“Our food has always been farm to table, simply because we’re surrounded by farms,” said Vilter, who works closely with executive chef Peter Siagkris. The large and ever-changing menu features an eclectic mix of small plates, desserts, and finely curated, locally inspired charcuterie selection.
Rich, hearty meat choices, as well as seafood, are popular and pair well with the wine list that spans the globe. The inn’s cozy dining rooms feature intimate spots, many with relaxing views of the river vista and the nearby gardens, as well as a recently renovated bar area perfect for spirited gatherings.
The restaurant underwent an extensive first-floor renovation in 2017, unveiling updated furnishings and fixtures, including an impressive new bar area. It gives the restaurant’s cocktail and award-winning wine selection a chance to truly shine, said Libby Stanton, who has been part of the service team for over 14 years.
Additional seating, a new draft system and expanded workspace for staff were all part of the remodel, and Stanton said it’s made it a popular choice for diners, as well as those just looking to grab a drink.
Among Stanton’s favorite cocktails is the Smoked Rye, in which the staff adds a smoked ice cube to a pour of Bulleit Rye. The on-site smoker is used to add the smoky quality to the water, which is then placed in cube trays and frozen. “As it melts, it adds another layer of smokiness which is just fantastic,” she said. The cocktail menu boasts a variety of local spirits and mixes, like the fan favorite Gin and Vin, which combines Journeyman Bilberry Black Hearts Gin with McClary Bros. Lemon & Ginger shrub and soda.
And of course, the wine. “Our wine inventory is huge and really unique,” said Vilter, who personally oversees the selection.
Stanton said the bar’s ambiance lends itself to the laid back, friendly character of Leland. There are no TVs and the use of cell phones is strongly discouraged, which she says is aimed at helping people slow down and make conversation. “It’s wild how easily people connect without all that,” she said.
No doubt the historic charm of the place adds a certain element of familiarity and ease, and as Vilter said, “It’s a beach town,” where you can enjoy a sunset over the lake, no suit jacket required.
For more information, call (231) 256-9971 or visit theriverside-inn.com.
Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer living in Detroit. She enjoys writing about food arts and culture.