In the historic town of St. Clair, perched along the rolling international river of the same name that separates Michigan from Ontario, visitors can watch massive freighters glide by while enjoying the fine fare and relaxing amenities at two celebrated waterfront favorites: The River Crab and The Voyageur.
Thanks to a sandbar that runs along the river bottom and forces passing freighters to move close to the Michigan shore, visitors get an intimate view of these gigantic vessels — sometimes they’re so close, you can wave to the crews. As an incentive to visit their establishment, The Voyageur’s website showcases a few videos of the freighters in action.
The river plays an important role in St. Clair’s history. The town began as a British fort in 1764. In the 1820s, it was developed by former U.S. Sen. Thomas Palmer, the same man behind Detroit’s Palmer Park and another park of the same name in St. Clair. When it was first platted in 1828, Palmer named the then-village after himself; it was later changed to St. Clair, in honor of American Gen. Arthur St. Clair. The river town became a resort destination, in large part due to its mineral spas, in the steamship days.
Today, the community features a beautiful boardwalk that spans five miles along the busy river; it’s the longest such freshwater structure in the world and a nice way to see this charming town by foot, or get a firsthand look at the ocean-going and Great Lakes freighters.
The River Crab
Just north of downtown, a fine-dining, white-tablecloth restaurant with a huge outdoor deck facing the waterway features Executive Chef Scott Schneider at the helm. After a difficult year with reduced staff and mostly carryout-only service, he’s hoping life will be back to normal this summer.
“We’ve always been really busy for the annual St. Clair Art Fair (in August),” says the 30-year veteran, who worked his way up the ropes to chef. His menu is big on seafood such as lobster, crab cakes, and scallops, and also includes steaks and chops, fish and chips, and pasta. A customer favorite is the Cajun chicken tortellini.
The Caesar salad and Martha’s Vineyard salad are hits, he says, as are happy hour offerings and the amazing Sunday brunch. “Everything’s fresh — I make all the salad dressings and everything else from scratch,” Schneider says.
Big picture windows, impeccable service, a piano at the bar, and a rustic yet elegant vibe are hallmarks of River Crab, once part of the Chuck Muer family seafood chain. It was sold in 2002 to Landry’s Restaurants.
Boaters can pull up to River Crab’s dock after a day on the water and enjoy drinks and dinner on the expansive and comfortable outdoor deck. Inside, there are private dining areas for special events.
For a delightful getaway, or if you want to spend more time enjoying the river life, the Blue Water Inn next door (also part of Landry’s) promises water views from each of its 21 recently remodeled rooms.
Another big-windowed eatery with a beautiful deck located near where the Pine River empties into the St. Clair River, this local favorite is a fun emporium that includes a fine-dining restaurant with a separate sports bar and bowling alley dating back to 1954. Owner Mike LaPort modernized the hotspot after he took over in 1996.
Today there are well-distanced tables inside, and lots of room on the huge outdoor deck. LaPort says the piano bar is always popular, and the music is piped out to the deck in warmer weather, where guests can sip a Margarita and sing along.
“Our menu changes with the seasons,” LaPort says. “We have the best perch, and in the summer our shrimp fest, with shrimp on skewers, is very popular.” The Voyageur’s menu offers a wide variety of soups, apps, salads, sandwiches, steaks, chops, and, of course, delicious seafood.
Guests also can book a two-hour bowling party with a variety of food choices at the St. Clair River Lanes. It’s connected to the restaurant and sports bar, which also has great views of the freighters.
LaPort just joined the boatnerd.com network, which posts all kinds of cool information about Great Lakes shipping and freighter traffic. It also tracks which vessels are floating by at any particular time, so even if it’s raining, The Voyageur has more than just great food on the menu.
After a hiatus due to the pandemic in 2020, the 50-year-old St. Clair Art Fair plans to return Aug. 28-29. Ralph Beattie, office manager for the St. Clair Art Association, says it’s one of the longest-running art fairs on Michigan’s east coast, and more than 80 artists’ booths will fill Palmer Park across from the mall at Riverview Plaza. “We’re really excited that this is happening again,” Beattie says.
For some diversions before dining, check out the St. Clair Historical Museum, the Art Center, the City Boat Harbor, Palmer Park, which offers outdoor entertainment on summer nights, and the shops, boutiques, and eateries at Riverview Plaza.
The River Crab/Blue Water Inn