If you are a local or a frequent visitor to one of Glen Arbor’s premiere dining spots, you probably call this restaurant the WAG. The popular Western Avenue Grill is located in the middle of town on M-22 and adorns the streetscape with its handsome stone- and wood-clad building. The dining room has white birch bark beams and boasts a fisherman’s theme. The WAG has both indoor and summer-outdoor seating. Inside you will find a cozy bar separated from an inviting dining area with small tables and booths. The back of the restaurant includes an additional space for private dining parties.
The bar features an open-mic night on Wednesdays and karaoke on Fridays and Saturdays. That fits the summer scene in Glen Arbor, which is diverse and celebratory. The WAG started as the popular Soda Shop and has undergone several transformations during the 30 years our family has been lucky enough to live in beautiful Leelanau County. I shared a meal at the WAG in early July with my wise and energetic mother-in-law, Anna Jean Wheeler, who is in her mid 80s. While we dined, we shared memories of foods from the past.
Warm weather and early July attracts many to this popular eatery. Gabriella was our hostess, and our server was Cynthia Steward, who has worked here for five years and is a veteran waitress of 40 years with an efficient and friendly demeanor. The executive chef is Steve Blalock, who is experiencing his first busy Glen Arbor summer but seems well prepared. Blalock is a graduate of Northwestern Michigan College’s culinary program, and is a Midland native. This handsome young chef expresses his excitement about the restaurant and the community by sourcing fish and increasingly more products from the local area. He recently picked up 230 pounds of fresh fish from Carlson’s Fishery in Leland. Blalock also boasts that the restaurant will increase its selection of beers on tap from the current eight to an astounding 28 within the next month. The WAG’s comprehensive wine list includes six local varieties.
Our meal started with a warm crusty sourdough baguette with whipped butter. Any secret behind this tasty bread was not revealed, but we agreed that it was an enjoyable and classy opening salvo. To keep my head clear for taking notes, I avoided wine and instead order a freshly brewed iced tea. Anna Jean delighted in a tasty lemonade. Next up was artichoke dip served piping hot. The cheese-drizzled pita chips were crunchy and offered a slightly picante taste of whole grain mustard. We used them to scoop up the creamy dip. Chef Blalock helped us choose two distinct entrees. Anna Jean ordered white fish Almandine with Lemon Beurre Blanc sauce. The flaky delicious fish dish came with white rice, crisp-steamed broccoli, and fresh asparagus. I order Pork Osso Bucco Milanese, a flavorful, tender braised pork shank in a red wine-infused rustic tomato sauce. This original dish was inspired by Blalock’s work in Midland with an Italian chef.
Our conversation turned to dining out, which has only recently become popular in American society. Anna Jean grew up in rural Oceana County during the Great Depression in the 1930s. Her first dining out experience wasn’t until 1945 with her date Robert, who she later married after he returned from serving in occupied West Germany. She was then a junior and he was a senior in the same high school in Shelby, a small west Michigan town. That memorable meal, in nearby Montague, was fresh caught perch. They had travelled to the restaurant in his parents’ Oldsmobile, in what would become the first of many dates. Anna Jean and Robert enjoyed 63 years of marriage before he passed away in 2011. When dining out she usually orders fish — a reminder of her first restaurant memory. The portions of this meal are plentiful, so I save some of the dip and the big pork shank in a “doggy bag” to take home and enjoy the next day.
The WAG’s comprehensive menu offers something for every taste and appetite, with many tempting appetizers and salads, several succulent seafood choices, dependably delicious meats from the grill, perfect pastas and dandy desserts. And the impeccable service is always friendly and professional.
The Western Avenue Grill is open for breakfast from 8 a.m. until noon, for lunch from noon until 5 p.m., and dinner starts at 5 p.m. The schedule is subject to change in September. Call (231) 334-3362 for information.