When Paul Santoro and his wife, Dina Velocci, opened 876 Baldwin in October 2021, more than a few eyebrows rose. A destination restaurant in small-town Baldwin? But it made perfect sense to Santoro.
“It’s really all about the fishing,” he says.
For 30 years, Santoro vacationed in Baldwin, seeking respite from the daily grind by fly-fishing on the Pere Marquette River, and finding solace casting for trout and steelhead with flies he tied himself. Santoro, of Detroit, knew firsthand the magic and beauty of the place.
A decade after his first visit, Santoro and Velocci bought property on the river’s Little South Branch. In 2018, they completed construction of their home in Baldwin, located along M-37 northwest of Big Rapids.
But however heavenly Santoro found life on the river, he yearned for a good local restaurant. Drawing from Velocci’s family restaurant background (her family operated a deli in New York City), Santoro’s entrepreneurialism, and a combined love of good food and wine, the couple purchased a vacant building in downtown Baldwin and set to work creating a restaurant.
The restaurant, 876 Baldwin, which takes its name from its location at 876 Michigan Ave., occupies a former 1940s-era Masonic Temple. Santoro and Velocci renovated the vacant building, polishing and sealing the original concrete floor, exposing I-beams, and reusing reclaimed wood to create a street-facing banquette.
Then they furnished the space to evoke Baldwin’s fly-fishing culture. A mixed-media art installation emulates a fish-eye view of the Pere Marquette, incorporating driftwood and metal sculptures of steelhead, salmon, and brown and rainbow trout. An opalescent tile backsplash behind the bar conjures up fish scales. The crystals on two chandeliers resemble water droplets.
The room’s centerpiece is a live-edge community table etched with a map of the flies-only section of the Pere Marquette. Each bend and fishing hole in a river that’s praised by anglers for its clarity and strict adherence to catch-and-release, flies-only fishing, is labeled — Green Cottage, the Claybanks, and the Whirlpool. Above the table, a weathered fishing boat is suspended upside-down.
“We really wanted to pay homage to fly-fishing,” Santoro says. “We have fly-fishermen in Baldwin from all over the state and the country, and our idea was to create a restaurant that reflected that and also offered good food.”
Santoro and Velocci originally envisioned opening a sports bar in the retrofitted building, but their initial meeting with chef Glenn Forgie changed that. “He opened up a lot of options,” Santoro notes.
Today, Forgie serves as executive chef and general manager of 876 Baldwin. The Michigan native received classical French training at the California School of Culinary Arts in Pasadena before working at restaurants in Los Angeles, Tucson, Florida, and Lansing. While he loves locally sourced produce and fish, northern Michigan’s short growing season and his insistence on quality translate into an eclectic pantry.
“I like to describe myself as a Midwestern chef with European influences. I love the flavors of Europe, of Spain, France, and Italy,” Forgie says. “But then I also love the foods of North Africa, the American Southwest, and the Caribbean.”
The result is a diverse, 100-percent scratch menu that revolves more around interesting ingredients than any single geography. A recent menu included wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas, Cuban ropa vieja, French-style walleye baked in parchment and served with new potatoes and vegetables, and steamed Prince Edward Island mussels with white wine and Spanish chorizo. On Wednesdays, 876 Baldwin teams up with Smoke Wrangler, a BBQ restaurant in Cadillac, to offer two barbecue entrées.
“If customers have some hesitation about the more unusual dishes, we earn their trust with standard meat-and-potatoes fare,” Forgie says. “We know they’ll be back and maybe open to something different next time.”
Staffing a kitchen with locals unaccustomed to working under a chef or cooking from scratch proved trying in the restaurant’s early days, but Forgie and Santoro focused on hiring individuals who exhibited curiosity and a willingness to learn. Once they master the basics, the staff is free to experiment.
“A case in point is Jazmyn,” Forgie says of the restaurant’s bartender. “She came in using margarita and bloody Mary mixes. Now she’s customizing cocktails and making her own juices, grenadine, and house-infused vodkas.” The restaurant’s specialty mixed drink menu includes Jazmyn’s creations named for Pere Marquette fishing holes: Basswood Bourbon Maple Leaf, Moon’s Mojito, and Green Cottage Ginger Rogers.
Bonnie Price and her husband, Glenn, are locals who regularly dine at 876 Baldwin. The couple orders steak, halibut, Wednesday night barbecue, or her personal favorite, steamed mussels. The Prices, who own the PM Trailhead Lodge in Baldwin, see the new restaurant as a welcome addition to the community and say it’s an option that’s much appreciated by their guests.
“We have fly-fishers from all over, from across the state, from Chicago, from Florida, from out East,” Bonnie Price says. “They’re here to fish the Pere Marquette, but they’re used to dining in (big cities like) Grand Rapids or Detroit.”
Being able to recommend a reliably good place in Baldwin benefits their business, she says — particularly when she knows guests will be welcome as they are.
“We see customers come in wearing a dress or a sport coat,” Santoro says, “and others come in wearing waders. That’s just the kind of place we want to be.”