Forty-Eight Hours in Highbury
By Catherine Vernon
Highbury, Michigan is a unique little town. There’s no denying that. Located in the northwestern corner of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, Highbury somehow manages to be home to a small liberal arts college, welcome tourists seeking wineries and lakeside getaways, and provide its local residents with a comfortable home. I recently spent forty-eight hours in Highbury exploring the best food in the area and talking with both locals and tourists about the local food scene.
When I arrived in Highbury on a Friday afternoon in late September, my first stop was to get a cup of coffee. I’d heard stories about the Knit Wit, and I really wanted to visit it. The café/bookstore/yarn store is co-owned by native daughters, Elspeth Bennet and Annabelle Eliot, who inherited it from Jane Bates whose mother Harriet founded the it.
“Harriet started this place in the 1960s,” Annabelle Eliot explained to me over a cup of coffee. “Her family owned the building, but their tenants left. This was a flourmill, and the mill closed. Harriet was a good cook, and she figured that she could make some money to support herself and her daughter. Jane took over when her mom retired, and she sold it to Elsie and me when she was ready to retire.”
I asked her if the whole shop had been the mill, but Eliot explained that the building had been split up into three units-what is now the café, an apartment upstairs, and another shop next door.
“They turned the upstairs offices into an apartment, which Harriet rented out to students. Elsa and I rented it from her and Jane when we were in college. It was great because we both worked here, so we could just roll out of bed and run downstairs for early morning shifts.”
When did books and yarn get brought into the equation?
“This place used to be called the Bake Shop back when Harriet first got started. The shop next door was a bookstore, and it was really successful. But it had to close when Mrs. Croft had to move to Arizona because of her asthma. So Harriet bought out the Crofts’ stock and turned the Bake Shop into a café/bookstore. The yarn and the name change came in the nineties. There was a knitting group that met here every week, and every week the members would complain about how there was no good yarn store nearby. And you have to remember that this was before online shopping was an option. They used to drive either to a big box store in Mansfield or to an independently owned shop two hours away. So Jane slowly but steadily started building a yarn stock here, and it really took off.”
Having learned a little local history, I headed off to my hotel with a promise to return to the Knit Wit for lunch the next day. My hotel room afforded me an amazing view of swimmers and boaters enjoying Lake Michigan. I can easily understand why families come to Highbury summer after summer.
I decided to spend my Friday evening at the Green Dragon. Owned by Erik Wentworth and Christopher Brandon, the Green Dragon specializes in farm-to-table food and locally sourced craft beers and cocktails. Yes, it’s named after the pub in Hobbiton, and you can see the Shire’s influence throughout the restaurant. The Green Dragon is in the building that was the city’s firehouse until about twenty years ago.
I was able to talk with both Christopher and Erik over dinner, and I quickly discerned that the pair is a bit of an odd couple but oddly also a match made in restaurateur heaven. Both served in the military “in sandy places,” as Erik describes but in different branches and at different times. But beyond that, the two differ greatly. Brandon is a Highbury native who left the town to join the Army after graduating from high school but returned home when his older brother fell ill unexpectedly several years ago. “I’d worked in restaurants in high school, and oddly I liked it. When I left the army, I moved to New York to get first my bachelor’s degree and ultimately a doctorate in history. In my spare time, I worked as a bartender,” he explained to me. “I loved it. I loved creating new items and planning pairings with a chef’s new menu. I probably would have stayed in that life forever, but when Lucas got sick right after I finished my doctorate, I had to come home. There was no real choice. I started teaching at Highbury College, but I missed bartending.”
Wentworth came to the Green Dragon by a different route. He grew up in southeastern Michigan and attended Highbury College on a Navy ROTC scholarship. After four years in the Navy, he went back to the north suburbs of Detroit and taught high school English. He also earned a master’s degree in creative writing from Kellynch University in creative writing and began a doctorate program at the same university. And in the middle of all of this, he wrote a book about his time in Iraq that drew more than a few comparisons to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. In 2010, he returned to Highbury College as a Guest Writer in Residence. During that time, he reconnected with his college girlfriend and made Highbury his home. “Chris does the booze. He understands that side of the restaurant,” Erik explains. “That’s not my world.”
“Except when it comes to shrubs,” Chris interjects. “Erik makes mean shrubs.”
The fair-haired man shrugs. “That’s my one contribution to the bar. The kitchen is my kingdom around here.”
“And the Tolkien references.”
That elicits a rare laugh. Erik Wentworth is not known for being much of a talker. He is a great writer, but he believes in, as one of his Highbury College colleagues put it, the “economy of words.”
Over a burger made from a bull named Rufus (if Chris Brandon is to be believed) and a cocktail made from local gin, beets, carrots, and soda water, I asked why the pair went for a locally sourced model.
“It’s about building something that gives back to the community,” Chris began. “We want to create something that will last and will add something to Highbury.”
“We’ve both seen enough destruction in our military careers,” Erik added. “We wanted to do something that added to the community. So we started by using products from the area that actively gave back to the community. Then we added the community garden out back a couple years ago to support struggling families in the area.”
“It’s also about knowing where your food comes from,” Chris said. “I don’t want this to be a place where chicken comes from the freezer aisle. I want to know that the chicken lived a happy life.”
“And was named Rufus,” Erik teased.
“Yeah, for a long time, I used to claim that all of our meat came from an animal named Rufus.”
So my burger isn’t from a bull named Rufus?
“All of our beef comes from a farm about half an hour from here,” Erik said. “I can take you there and you can ask them what they name their bulls.”
“Our menu changes on a daily basis based on what’s available to us. For example, last summer, the Allen farm had a bumper crop of basil and cucumbers, so we ran a special on the Farmers Market Gimlet at the bar for a while.”
The menu also includes items such as the Farmers Market Salad, the Farmers Market Soup, and the Farmers Market Pizza, each of which features ingredients that rotate depending upon what is available from local farmers. Erik goes to Highbury’s farmers market every Saturday morning as well as receiving deliveries from his local suppliers throughout the week. The evening that I visited, I tried the salad, which features local greens with apples and a seasonal vinaigrette.
“I like the variety,” Martha Hurst told me. Hurst comes to the Highbury area two or three times a year to visit the beach, the wineries, and other local sights. “It’s interesting to see how Erik and his kitchen choose to use different ingredients at different times of year. It shows a lot of creativity, and it exposes their customers to different flavors and ideas. You don’t see a lot of restaurants doing things like that.”
“The Knit Wit does something like that,” her companion pointed out. “In fact, they were doing it before the Green Dragon opened.”
“They were,” Chris told me when I asked him about it. “In fact, Elsa and Annabelle inspired Erik and me in many ways. When we opened this place, we talked to the two of them a lot. You really should talk to them about it. They really did their research when they changed the menu over there.”
The comment led me to ask how often do Erik and Chris exchange ideas with other business owners in the area.
“Not with most businesses,” Chris replied with a sly look in his eyes.
“But our relationship with the KW is not what you’d call normal or traditional,” Erik elaborated.
“What he’s trying to tell you is that he’s engaged to one of the owners of the KW and we work with the other over at the college,” Chris explained. “There’s more of an exchange between there and here than we have with the other restaurants around town.”
“But at the same time, Highbury is a small town and you want to have good relationships with your neighbors. I don’t want to step on someone else’s toes.”
The Knit Wit has been a part of Elspeth Bennet’s family since before she was born. “Alexander Gardiner, who was my great grandfather several times over, founded this town, and he built this building in about 1852,” she told me over lunch on Saturday.
“I’m guessing it wasn’t a café?”
“No,” she replied with a smile. “It was a furniture factory. He built wooden tables, benches, chairs-things like that. Some of the bookshelves in this building came from that factory.”
“And then it was a flourmill?”
“Somewhere in the 1920s, the furniture factory moved out of town, and my great-grand father sold this building to the Bates family. They bought it in a fit of Roaring Twenties optimism as an investment property, and then they rented it to someone who wanted to open a flourmill.”
“And that stayed until the café came along?”
Elsa nodded. “The flourmill was successful, but it wasn’t well suited to being in the heart of downtown. It’s on the road into town if you’re coming from the east now.”
“What about this place? What’s the story?”
The question immediately elicited a smile. “When Annie and I took over the place, we knew that we needed to make this place our own.”
“How did that evolve into using local ingredients?”
“My parents own a hotel [The Longbourn Estates] in town, and I grew up around the hotel. Part of the hotel complex is a vineyard, and the local wine culture was a big part of my childhood. When I was in high school, my dad hired a chef for the Longbourn’s restaurant who changed the way that the restaurant approached seafood. He would only use-he still only uses seafood from the lake near here. Then when I was in college I worked a lot on weekends at the Bake Shop’s stand at the farmers market, and I saw all of the food that was available locally. I personally try to eat locally grown food, and so I really wanted to share that with our customers when we took over this place.”
“How did it go over with customers? I’d imagine a place like this had loyal regulars who expected a certain thing when they came in.”
“We were very intentional about changing things, and we didn’t want to do it all at once. We made changes gradually. First we worked on the sandwiches, then it was the coffee, and then it was the pastries. We’ve had a bit of pushback here and there but mostly people have been extremely receptive to it.”
“What was the hardest part of the transition?”
“For us or the customers?”
That elicited a smile and a nod from the brunette. “For us, it was settling the menu and ensuring that we had the right suppliers. We had to strengthen our relationships with local farmers.”
“How did you do that?”
“Buying from them, talking to them,” she told me. “We have a stand at the farmers market, and we’ve spent a lot of time just getting to know the farmers.”
But what was hardest for the customers?”
“Some of our menu items changed. There were items we removed and ones that we added. Some things became seasonal only, and we initially had some pushback on that. We won people over when they realized that the flavors were better. Using things that are in season tastes better than using things that are imported from other places.”
“And now some of the items that we changed are some of our most popular items. For example, people were livid when we made blueberry scones a seasonal item, but now people like them more. Some of it is probably the novelty. Some of it is because the berries are fresh from the Moore-Lands’ farm.”
“What is the most popular item on the menu?”
“Our scones regardless of flavor are universally popular. Our bacon-apple-kale salad is very popular. Our bacon-turkey sandwich is really popular. Our house-made bagels are very popular. But our chicken noodle soup with homemade noodles is probably our best thing.”
“Personally,” Annabelle told me. “I prefer our challah to our bagels.”
“Beyond that, you’d have to talk to our customers,” Elsa told me. “I have my opinions. Annie has hers. But our customers can tell you what they think.”
“They have amazing coffee,” George Knightley, a Knit Wit regular, told me. “I go there every single morning for coffee and a bagel.”
“I’m probably biased,” William Darcy said. “I get a coffee and bagel pretty regularly. But I’m also a big fan of the challah bread and the orzo sausage soup they have in winter.”
“The bacon-turkey sandwich is the greatest thing in the world,” Ed Ferrars stated firmly. “Sometimes they make it with avocado.”
“But avocado isn’t locally sourced?”
“No, but they have an arrangement to get ethically sourced avocados from a supplier in a California. It’s how they get a couple of other produce items as well.”
“It’s true,” Elsa told me when I asked her later. “There are ingredients that we really do need like lemons and avocadoes and vanilla that we just cannot get locally. But I didn’t want to compromise our commitment to ethical food. It took work and time, but we found suppliers who could help us to achieve our goals.”
That led me to a question that I had to ask. Do they share tip or ideas with The Green Dragon?
Annabelle laughed, and Elsa tossed her head. “We don’t see them as competition. We’re not the same kind of establishment that they are.”
“There’s really no harm in sharing distributors and vendors with another restaurant,” Annabelle told me.
“Also, she’s about to marry Erik, so naturally they occasionally discuss business,” Elsa added.
“And we don’t see them as competition,” Annabelle insisted. “We do café food while they do pub food. If you come here, you can get a solid breakfast to go, a traditional pastry, or a soup or sandwich with a tea or a latte. If you go there, you can get a hearty meal with a good beer or a great cocktail. So Erik and I can easily talk about vendors or compare notes.”
“So it’s an amicable relationship?”
“We get along with them very well. We support their community garden. We both donate our leftover bread and pastries to a local homeless shelter. We work together on a lot of things, and I think that makes the community better.”
Highbury has other restaurants. Las Tres Hermanas is an authentic Mexican restaurant that’s very popular with the local population. The food is delicious. Elsa Bennet told me that it’s one of her favorite places in the world. “Their tamales are to die for and they have the best margaritas this side of heaven.”
The tamales are in fact delicious. The margaritas are fantastic. But the real star for me was the carnitas platter. The meat was succulent. The spices were perfectly balanced. I cannot recommend it highly enough. When I told owner, Carolina Montez, this, she laughed. “It’s our most popular dish. “
It deserves that honor.
I also took time to visit the restaurant at the Longbourn Estates. The menu is impressive, and I enjoyed everything that I ate. I especially appreciated the eggs benedict from the breakfast menu and the Lake Superior whitefish from the dinner menu. The Taste of Michigan salad is also excellent. The dessert menu has many delicious options, but the house-made ice cream is probably my favorite.
I spent a little time talking with Martha Hill, the Longbourn’s longtime head chef, about her menu and about how Elsa Bennet and Annabelle Eliot credit her as a culinary influence. “Elsa was in and out of my kitchen from the time she was old enough to stir a mixing spoon. She’s been asking me questions about my menus and recipes for years. I’m very proud of what she and Annie have accomplished with the Knit Wit.”
I asked her if she saw the Knit Wit or the Green Dragon as competition, and she laughed. “The Knit Wit is a café. You go there for a light meal or a snack. The Green Dragon is a pub. You go there for hearty fare. The Longbourn is fine dining. We have simple dishes and things that you don’t need to linger over, but that’s not our primary function in my mind. You come here for a special occasion, for a fancy meal. Elsa won’t do an Easter brunch, but I won’t do a toasted bagel with cream cheese. Erik won’t do a seven course dinner or a wedding reception, but I can’t do barbecue can like he can. We each have our own specialties, and I think that we try to celebrate each other’s strengths.
Overall, my trip to Highbury was delightful and delicious. I highly recommend a visit not just for the food but also for the beautiful scenery and enchanting vineyards.
The Knit Wit
Best in Class: Bacon Turkey Avocado Sandwich
Worth Coming Back For: Chicken Noodle Soup
Worth Waking Up Early For: Everything bagel toasted with hummus, avocado, and egg
The Green Dragon
Best in Class: Hot Pot Pie Trio (Pick any three of the Green Dragon’s seven available hot pot pies with two sides.)
Worth Coming Back For: Bacon and bleu burger
Worth Saving Room for Dessert: Seasonal fruit pie (rotates depending on the season; during my September visit, it was a superb apple-berry pie.)
The Longbourn Estates
Best in Class: Espresso Rubbed Filet Mignon
Worth Coming Back For: Locally Sourced Roasted Chicken
Don’t Skip This Side: Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Bacon
Worth Saving Room for Dessert: House-Made Ice Cream (in three rotating flavors)
Las Tres Hermanas
Best in Class: Carnitas plate
Worth Coming Back For: Chicken Tamales
Don’t Skip This Side: Elotes (Mexican Street Corn)