A Beer and BBQ Lover’s Destination, Fitzgerald’s Hotel & Restaurant (Eagle River, MI)
We’re going to take you away from our usual Brewery Showcase feature to fill you in on a little secret, something just as good, if not better than your neighborhood brewery. If you want craft beer in Michigan, look no further than Fitzgerald’s Hotel & Restaurant.
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I minutely mentioned this earlier, about the Keweenaw Waterway, about the Portage Lake Lift Bridge connecting Houghton, Michigan and Hancock, the southern entrance and only land route into Copper Island (better known as the Keweenaw, land of copper (or, at least, used to be (maybe it still is (I’m no historian (or presentian))))).
Start there. Cross that bridge, toll-free. Swing a left and navigate the construction through Hancock, but do not ingrain this into your navigational memory. What you see here will not be the same as when you return. Or, hell, maybe it will. Nobody knows what’s going on around in this town anymore. Either way, head north. Eventually, through the same sarcophagus towns and blurred civilizations you’ll see on any stretch of US 41, you’ll come across a red-bricked antique shop.
On the top is a painted THE LAST PLACE ON EARTH. This is not your destination, nor is its message even remotely true; the northernmost tip (the summer and autumn-tourist hot-spot Copper Harbor, popular amongst autumn-color thrill seekers, bicyclists, and those with light pollution phobias) is only twenty-ish miles farther. Even beyond that, southern Lake Superior. Beyond that, northern Lake Superior. Beyond that, over 800 miles (or over 1,200 kilometers) of Canada. Beyond that, a greater distance of the Hudson Bay. Beyond that, more Canada, and beyond that, somewhere, the official last place on Earth (whatever that may be).
I mention this antique shop now only as landmark, segued as a personal reminder of how citizens of Keweenaw County possibly view themselves: differently — as isolated, devoid of outside presences and opinions. As I write this, there is a housefly buzzing at my window, frantically now for seven minutes. It seeks the sun, and I wonder if there’s a word for this and if this improbable word also belongs to the people of the upper-upper peninsula, those dealing with their ever-constant pane. The unofficial definition of hearty is one who is determined enough to stubbornly ignore something and similarly deny one’s blindness to it. The Keweenaw community is a loyal and hearty people, facing geographical stymies shacked up on a thin stretch of land surrounded by a temperamental lake, ferocious winter temperatures, and snowfall levels matched to dwindling daylight. From survivable conditions to the inhumanely impossible (mid-January to late-March(?)), they stay. Welcome to frayed ends of the northern Midwest.
Anyway, you’ve made it this far, so take that leap of faith, knowing there is more to see, and further you trek into Eagle River (take a left at the sign), home of the Eagle River Inn, and our destination: here, we call it The Fitz (within the inn), the only BBQ place I know in Michigan without wheels. Short for Fitzgerald’s (a regional homage to the sunken ore ship SS Edmund Fitzgerald immortalized by ’76 Gordon Lightfoot and only song I’ve ever drunkenly requested (a.k.a: shouted) of the house band (of which they sang the theme to Gilligan’s Island)), the restaurant, not counting patio space, seats a maximum of fifty people, and by my count upon an evening of crowded dining is only twelve tables (many four-tops), thirty-seven chairs, and six bar placements. My friends and I made a reservation – and I suggest you do the same. Though this summer a to-go window was implemented and will return in June 2017, for now, if you want a chair, you have to make like an 8-year-old and call it for three.
We are seated at a five-top circle and placed near a railing separating the upper floor from the bottom. Space is never wasted here. Below us, a couple who has ordered the same beer as I (Comstock Park, Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Grapefruit IPA); I am close enough to lean in and say, “Good choice,” while tipping my half-empty glass toward them and close enough they can still hear me whisper to my friends, “Stop letting me talk to people.” The dining intimacy is charming, however, and if too confined for you, easily overlooked, for there are many reasons your discomfort (not saying you’ll experience discomfort, as a self-diagnosed claustrophobic, I’m quite comfortable (possibly because I know, at one point, capped at 50, the crowd will not get worse)) will be rewarded. The ambience itself, bright, glazed wood tables and chairs, pillars, large bay windows overlooking the patio theaters the isolated Lake Superior shoreline. A quick walk down a set of stairs, and you’ll have sand in your shoes. The few times I’ve been here, I’ve seen the sun set directly into the lake’s horizon. I’ve also seen clouds and a light drizzle and breeze, which was also delightful (not that I enjoy being slightly cold and damp often, but certain days have certain moods and sometimes your anxiety about life’s little oddities cannot support another picture-perfect day), and my great want now is to experience a November gale, though cannot happen since the Fitz is a seasonal institution that ends by the end of October. Summers, though, can produce a wallop here and there. What I’m saying is that I desire to see high waves and lightening; lately, I’ve been on an adventurous danger kick.
I’ve derailed from the good. To be fair, however, and to offer a plea to my editor(s), The Fitz requires and deserves a meandering narrative. Time exists here: the sun will set, beer will warm, food will cool, but rest happens, responsibilities fade, and worries, well, they never leave, but they can be muzzled by BBQ sauce. Homemade, by the way. I’m told mostly everything here is homemade—homemade, perfect, and so wonderfully simple. Perhaps we’ve been disillusioned from these vibrant cooking shows that implies complex is better, that pallets should experience some sort of foreplay, that you should skimp portions to leave one wanting more, that presentation is enough—Instagramable. Here, I eat my food from a fire-pit bean pans, and no offense to $70 Chicago braised riblets with an [inaudible] reduction, but I find the lack of symmetry in my scoop-n-serve meal gorge-ous (find all the puns and win a prize). Choose between ribs, brisket, pulled pork, chicken, whatever, it’s difficult (for those with indecisive tastes) to go wrong, but if you come for one thing, let it be the poutine. If you’re not familiar with poutine, it’s Canada’s answer to surviving wind chill: French fries, gravy, caramelized onions, white cheddar cheese curds. That’s it. I don’t know what much to say beyond that. There are vegetarian options as well, and the vegetarians I have eaten with have left just as satisfied as I (one of them may have had some of the poutine).
Though the food is a selling point to frequent The Fitz, I am writing as a craft beer enthusiast for craft beer enthusiasts about a place run by craft beer enthusiasts. “Man,” says Marc Rea, co-owner, Fitz treasurer and secretary and overall whatever-needs-to-be-done front man, “craft beer has brought me places I never could have imagined. I’ve met some of the best people at beer events, all throughout the country. I’ve planned month-long vacations, all around beer, and never seconded-guessed any of it.”
This is enthusiasm that has produced a 12-page drink list, eight of them being beer (including gluten free options), three for distilled spirits, the last remaining page, wine. “Our beer list changes almost daily,” says Rea. “When we’re running full throttle in July and August, we might get in 10 to 15 new beers a week.” Rea states The Fitz works with four different distributors who all come on different days and can be daunting for the staff to keep a grip, “But that’s our job as owners, to educate our staff on what we carry in our cooler. If someone asks for this, we have this, if someone doesn’t like this, we offer them this—it’s an ongoing educational process. It’s pretty rad.” “Our list is long, but it’s well thought-out,” continues Rea, “with a good amount of variety and rarities that you probably won’t find until you get down to Grand Rapids (MI), Chicago, and Minneapolis.” Because of this, those who seek a compelling assortment (for sure, the people of the Upper Peninsula) know of The Fitz as a destination. “A lightening rod for the Keweenaw,” says Rea. “I think our restaurant and hotel combo bring people in from all over the country. And the world, to be honest.”
Destination, as in planned: The latest buzz around the UP is that we were recently selected by some travel pundit I’ve chosen to ignore as a best value in 2017 option (paired among Nepal, Italy, Australia and others); their reasoning outside of landscape, a somewhat pigeonholed insult (however accurate): “…a destination mainly for Midwesterners, prices are reasonable….” The Pure Michigan campaign is starting to take hold, it seems, which the added attention is great for local economies, however, on the downside, [redacted], but, shouldn’t spoil the overall essence of our quiet, little ways. And in some regard, establishments, at least for The Fitz, should not notice much of a difference, especially for those looking for something to do on the 4th of July where the road that leads up to the entrance is closed down for a block party. Short’s Brewing hauls up a trailer with 20 taps. Plenty of BBQ is served to live music and fireworks. A day, Rea states, is, “Slammed, all day long.”
Destination, as in an impulse or need: I don’t convey to the typical wanderlust a normal person should aspire to. It’s easy for me to make the trip, to leave spontaneously without much risk—from my doorstep to Eagle River is about 130 miles or so, a couple-plus hour’s drive. I don’t know if I can call it wanderlust, either (wanderlust definitions should, at least, be contributed to anything out of state lines). The beer, the food, the atmosphere, sure, all cater to this pull and desire to come, but something new for my friends and I has made its way into our perspective: a table here has become a spot of memoriam for our old boss who frequented enough to have a procedure to eating (and saving for later) an entrée called The Anchor—this being Douglas Houghton’s Anchor: a half-rack of ribs, quarter pound of brisket and pulled pork with two sides (the sides themselves taking up some hefty plate real estate). We take no selfies here (not that that we’re normally selfie people), we simply quiet our devices and laugh and revel at the memory of man whose life and demeanor was that of a beacon, encompassed with the need to let you know what’s going on in his mind. A repeat storyteller, magnet of the spotlight, a socially energetic man who gave his life and career to odd, quiet writers like us, who still brings us a little more joy by taking turns telling our own simple rendition of a story we’ve heard so many times already. The odds are against us that any one of us could be in his chair at his table in his last, exact spot, but witness, as some strange séance, an introvert trying the improbable: speaking to strangers, a foot below, drinking the same beer as he. This is not a eulogy. This is just an odd time to remember someone.
This is not your usual brewery showcase, being this is not a brewery, though The Fitz shares in the reasoning behind what craft beer stands for, which is to experience all there is to experience in full. By all means, have your favorites, but explore, too. Maintain the thirst for knowledge, allow yourself to be affected by the environment. “
Drinking a Two Hearted on the deck at The Fitz and drinking a Two Hearted in a bar in downtown Marquette is not the same thing,” says Rea. “All sense are opened and excited by our location. I think most brewers and brewery owners are in tune with that as well. Once they are here, they want us to sell their beer.”
If you choose to peruse through the list now, you’ll see a great number of Michigan beers—Michigan craft beer is an obsession within itself, whether it be because of Michigan-grown hops, or the use of our Great Lakes, it is slowly becoming “our thing” (which used to our unemployment rate) the same way Wisconsin loves their cheese, Montana, their terrain, Texas, their Texas—but those of us looking to go outside of our pride can find selections, this time around, from New York, Maryland, Delaware, California, Missouri, and Illinois, and a great selection from Europe.
As you read this, the season will be over. Consider this as appetizer, as your lure, something to look forward to once we make it through another winter. Experiences will always be a little different, the food and drink menus will change, you’ll never sit at the same table, see the same people, but the heart will always be here. Here, you endless possibilities to your choosing, but if you want a push in any direction, pair any of your meals with a Bell’s Amber. “Not a super sexy beer,” says Rea, “but a great food beer.” Also recommended, something rich, like Orval, cuts nicely through brisket, and ribs go great with a bourbon barrel-aged stout to add to the sweetness of the sauce, or an IPA, even, says Rea, to offset. Anything beyond this, ask your server. They know what’s up.
5033 Front Street
Eagle River, MI 49950
Seasonally closed from 10/31 until late March 2017
Stay up to date with the menu for the Fitz here.