September 19, 2013
Say you hold even a modicum of interest in the Chicago food scene. Just enough to know that Pleasant House Bakery is a minuscule Bridgeport shack/restaurant that serves savory English pies stuffed with steak/kale/ale. Just enough to be familiar with Greg Hall, the former brew master of Goose Island who left to start Virtue Cider. You know enough to be aware that you should be intrigued by whatever they're working on. Now ask yourself: Would I drive an hour from Chicago to find out? How about two hours out of Chicago?
Over the summer, both opened Michigan outposts along the touristy Interstate Highway 196 corridor: Pleasant House in the small town of Three Oaks, and Virtue in a rural farming community just south of Saugatuck. But, frankly, with due respect to Tim Allen and his "Pure Michigan," the Wolverine State smells like rotting eggs in July.
In fall, however, among the foliage, the crisp autumn air, the pumpkin fields, that's the time to visit.
Pleasant House Three Oaks
Where: In Three Oaks, a low-slung, quintessentially sleepy Midwestern town of 1,600, located on the western edge of Harbor Country, a fairly relaxing hour and 20 minute drive from Chicago.
What you'll also see along the way: On I-196, billboards for strip clubs; in Three Oaks, the lovely 100-year-old Vickers Theatre, and Drier's Meat Market, an even older institution with terrific homemade bologna.
What's there that's not in Chicago: The Bridgeport location may be cute, but it has all the gravitas of a bait shop. The Three Oaks spot is a spacious restaurant, housed in a late 19th-century storefront that's played host to a pharmacy, an antique store and a winery. Aside from the chicken tenders and "banger dogs" for kids, the menu — cold pork pie, mushroom and kale pie, etc. — is identical to the Chicago-based Pleasant House. One big difference: Owners Chelsea and Art Jackson, with full-time brewer Amanda Bates, have been making beer. Since the location came with a small-brewer license, this Pleasant House now has the homemade Pilseners and Belgian-style ales the BYOB Bridgeport restaurant should have.
Where: Just southeast of Saugatuck, on a 48-acre, 140-year-old apple orchard in the heart of what Hall calls "the beer/wine/cider tourist scene," about two hours and 15 minutes from downtown Chicago.
What you'll also see along the way: Antique shops, wineries, farms, cows.
What's there that's not in Chicago: Virtue's entire cider-making operation, a large cider house, long rows of fledgling orchid and thin apple trees. Said Hall: "Apples were grown here for 140 years, then about 10 years ago the farm was sold to a developer who wanted to put in a subdivision. So we bought the land back from the bank. Now we have more than 400 trees, which are still basically sticks at this point; we won't have a significant crop for five years. And even if we do, we have no intention of producing all of the apples for the cider here." That said, there is a charming tasting room and bottles of Virtue's several varieties for sale, including large jugs of its signature RedStreak, which Hall says will only be sold to-go at the cidery.
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