No strangers at Little Traverse Inn


By Linda Beaty
Sun contributor

Halfway between Glen Arbor and Leland along M-22, just after the Maple City turnoff, you’ll find the historic Little Traverse Inn, owned by Graeme Leask, who was born in Scotland and grew up in Ireland and England before settling in the United States in 1988. The establishment, which includes six beautifully refurbished rooms and a pub, reflects Leask’s diverse heritage, beginning with the flag that flutters in the breeze in front of the premises. On any given day, it may be Britain’s Union Jack, Ireland’s green, white and orange vertical stripes, Saint Andrew’s Cross, the national flag of Scotland—or our own Stars and Stripes. “They’re rotated according to occasion,” laughed Leask. “The Irish flag on St. Paddy’s Day, Scotland’s flag on Saint Andrews Day in November. On the Fourth of July, I woke up in a tizzy because the British flag was still flying—I had to change it to Old Glory.”

And then there’s that traditional Celtic cultural warmth. You’ll almost always be met at the door by Leask, on special occasions wearing the family distinctive tartan kilt, “eight pounds of wool,” according to the innkeeper. “Greeting people is part and parcel of who I am,” he said. “I want to say hello and to make everyone feel welcome.”

European pubs (short for public) explained Leask, are gathering spots for neighbors and friends. “Back in the day, pubs were someone’s house open to the public, where you got whatever Mrs. Smith cooked that day,” he said. “A place for people to hang out and be a part of the community.”

And this is exactly what Leask has replicated in Leelanau County. Those staying at the Inn enjoy the community living room, an unpretentious and casual setting for sipping that morning cup of java, playing a board game, or watching rugby or soccer on TV. And regulars to the Gastro pub, like Bob Sonnenberg, a physical education teacher at The Leelanau School, come for the camaraderie among both patrons and staff. “The people that work here are a lot of fun,” he said. “And Graeme’s hilarious. I love the jokes that fly around.”

Of course, folks come for the culturally-driven food and drink, too. There are Haggis Parcels, a traditional Scottish sausage dish, Toad in the Hole, a Yorkshire comfort food, or a traditional Irish Shepard’s Pie, all of which can be enjoyed both inside and in the summer months, on the patio, with a view of Little Traverse Lake. For those with a more American taste, there’s filet mignon, mac ‘n cheese, burgers, and the Up North specialty, whitefish. To sate your thirst, the pub boasts the biggest cask engine in the state, for ale brewed and served in traditional British style. Cask conditioning, explained Leask, allows the brew to mature naturally in the barrel, developing the malt and hop flavors to a richer tasting drink, “the champagne of beer.”

The pub also boasts the largest collection of Scotch in northern Michigan, triple distilled cask strength single malts that have distinctive notes of heather and honey, smoke and peat, or a maritime flavor according to the area of origination. On Saint Andrews Day, Scotland’s national day and “an excuse to have a party” said Leask, you can enjoy Scotch tastings at the pub all day long.

Any day is an excuse for a party at the Little Traverse Inn, but especially fun are Thursdays, when Don and Rebecca Lessard and friends (Swallowtail) provide live entertainment. The traditional Celtic tunes played on hammered dulcimer, Irish tenor banjo, guitar, mandolin and bodhran are so catchy that even if you’ve never been to Scotland or Ireland, you’ll be tapping your feet. And most Thursdays, you’ll enjoy a tune or two with Leask doing vocals. On Fridays, to celebrate the tradition of drinking cask-conditioned ale, the pub offers “Firkin Friday,” (a firkin being the old English unit of volume equal to about a quarter of a barrel) with beer specials, and music courtesy of Goodboy, featuring Pat Niemisto, Norm Wheeler and Chris Skellenger.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about Little Traverse Inn is that everyone is having fun. Robb Rich, who plays Bodhran with Swallowtail on occasion, enjoys the “feel” of the Inn and Pub. “It’s the atmosphere; it’s got a Scotland feel, like going to Scotland,” he said.

And even the staff, despite the hard work on busy evenings, are obviously enjoying themselves. Bartender and server Nate Sharpe, who calls boss Leask “a pretty good guy who makes you want to come to work” says that the inn and pub is a place for everyone, even staff, to have a good time.

Which is exactly what Leask dreamed of when he bought the inn in 2012. He enjoys nothing more than watching patrons who walk into the establishment knowing not a soul leave only after enjoying a lively conversation with others, singing along to the music, and bantering with the staff. He’s fond of a William Butler Yeats quotation: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” He expects to be meeting and greeting potential friends for many years to come, too. “I don’t see me doing anything else, ever,” said Leask. “I do love it here.”