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The Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives of the North –

September 18, 2023

“Welcome to Flavortown.”
If you’ve ever seen an episode of the popular Food Network TV series Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, you’ve surely heard host Guy Fieri say those three words before taking a big bite out of a mouthwatering burger or chowing down on some spicy chicken wings. The show, a send-up of America’s great “greasy spoon” restaurants, has been making viewers feel extremely hungry for 17 years and over 400 episodes. In many ways, it’s helped elevate overlooked restaurants and bars to levels of esteem and popularity normally reserved for famous five-star restaurants.
For all the good work that Fieri and his team have done, though, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives has underserved the Michigan culinary scene. Since the show’s start in 2006, only 16 Michigan eateries have been featured, and none of them have been in the northern part of the state. Those numbers got us thinking: If Fieri and co. did set their compasses to our region, which spots would they visit, and which dishes would they praise?
Well, strap in and get ready for a road trip to our version of Flavortown, because Northern Express is giving seven local diners, drive-ins, and dives the love they deserve.
The place: Don’s Drive-In, Traverse City
The category: Drive-in
Why it rocks: The concept of a “drive-in” restaurant is largely a thing of the past, so it’s cool to have the real deal in northern Michigan. Plus, this beloved little spot commits so completely to its throwback aesthetic that stepping through the doors genuinely feels like stepping back in time. The 1950’s theme of Don’s is a thing of beauty, from the pink color palette to the checkerboard floors to the iconic sign, and touches like the jukebox and the milkshake bar make this spot feel like something straight out of Back to the Future.
Potential Fieri fave: Call us biased, but we’re pretty sure Guy would agree that the thick, creamy milkshakes at Don’s are among the best in the country.
The place: U&I Lounge, Traverse City
The category: Dive
Why it rocks: For a long time, the term “dive bar” was used in a somewhat derogatory fashion. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives helped shift the narrative by redefining dives as unassuming local hangs—often spared by the flood of tourism, in the case of northern Michigan—with affordable drinks, tons of charm, and food that’s way better than you’d expect. TC’s U&I Lounge fits this fond redefinition of “dive” extremely well. A popular local hang since the 1930s, U&I is a great place to take in a football game, sip on a bourbon or beer, and make new friends (or become closer with the ones you already have).
Potential Fieri fave: Most dive bars have great burgers and deep-fried appetizers like mozzarella sticks and chicken wings. U&I has those too, but the ace up the bar’s sleeve is the “Greek Specialties” section of the menu. Suffice to say, U&I’s flavor-bursting gyros are legendary for a reason.
The place: Rounds Restaurant, Traverse City
The category: Diner
Why it rocks: Everything about Rounds feels like a relic—and we mean that in a good way. Rounds has been a fixture of Traverse City for the better part of 70 years, and any visit is bound to evoke some nostalgia for a bygone era—even if you were born in the 1990s or 2000s and that particular “bygone era” is something you’ve only experienced in movies and TV. Here, breakfast is served from 7am to 2pm, with everything from griddle goodies to omelets to burgers and sandwiches for the lunch-craving crowd.
Potential Fieri fave: We have three words for you: raspberry French toast. Talk about Flavortown!
The place: The Tribune Ice Cream & Eatery, Northport
The category: Diner
Why it rocks: While The Tribune is easily the newest establishment on this list—it opened its doors in 2015—it still has a history we love. This charming small-town eatery occupies a building that’s been standing for over a century, which used to house printing operations for the Northport Tribune newspaper. Today, it’s one of the region’s very best brunch spots, made even better by the ice cream window that allows passersby to grab a frosty treat without ever leaving the sidewalk.
Potential Fieri fave: The Tribune does magical things with fried chicken, so you’ll have amazing fried chicken sandwiches to choose from whether you stop by for breakfast or lunch. If pressed, we think Guy Fieri might be partial to the breakfast menu’s Chicken & Hot Honey Biscuit Sandwich, which crams crispy chicken, pickles, spicy honey, and a fried egg onto a fresh-baked biscuit. It’s the kind of wake-up treat we wish we could have every day.
The Place: Kal-Ho Lounge, Kalkaska
The Category: Dive
Why it rocks: The Kal-Ho Lounge is so committed to the dive bar ethos that it doesn’t even have a website. But if you know, you know, and we know this: The Kal-Ho Lounge is a ton of fun, whether you’re looking for drink specials and a low-key hang on a weeknight or a rowdy Friday night dance-to-the-music crowd.
Potential Fieri fave: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives often highlights an establishment’s most decadent dish, and in the case of Kal-Ho Lounge, we think the Smoking Hog has to take the cake. The bar’s signature pizza, the Smoking Hog is a meat lover’s delight piled high with pulled pork, bacon, ham, onion, green pepper, jalapeño, and barbeque sauce. Honorable mention to the Smokin’ Ho Mac-n-Cheese, a macaroni and cheese with all those same fixings.
The place: Bucksnort Saloon, Mesick
The category: Dive
Why it rocks: Like many of the best small town dive bars, the Bucksnort Saloon has been around for generations. Once known simply as the “Mesick Bar,” Bucksnort is the type of bar that people sing about in country songs—a welcoming neighborhood hang that all the locals hit up every Saturday night. Billiards, daily specials, and a surprisingly dynamic food menu make it a good place to visit again and again.
Potential Fieri fave: Guy couldn’t possibly resist the Bucknuts, deep fried nuggets of fresh bread dough seasoned up with butter, parmesan cheese, and a medley of “secret spices,” all served with cheddar ale and marinara dipping sauces.
The place: Clyde’s Drive-In, St. Ignace
The category: Drive-in
Why it rocks: Since there are so few true drive-in restaurants left, let’s end our fantasy episode of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives at another one. Clyde’s Drive-In has been a staple since 1949 and is keeping the drive-in tradition alive in the Upper Peninsula with three locations—in St. Ignace, Sault Ste. Marie, and Manistique, respectively. The closest of those sits just across the Mackinac Bridge in St. Ignace and has a lot of the same vintage back-in-time vibes we love about Don’s Drive-In.
Potential Fieri fave: Clyde’s purports to serve the best burger in the U.P., and the Pure Michigan folks have even proclaimed the restaurant’s cheeseburgers to be the best in the entire state. The business is particularly famous for the “Big C,” a burger made with three quarter-pound beef patties stacked on top of one another and made to order to suit the customer’s preferences for toppings and doneness. Guy Fieri would surely bring his appetite for that one.


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