You don't have to be Irish to appreciate the Irish Hills of southern Michigan, where lush green rolling hills and tranquil lakes meet in panoramic splendor. But what you should be is a NASCAR fan who loves crowds and has a loud cheering voice.
If you put your ear to the ground and your imagination in high gear, you can almost hear the roar of the engines long before the cars hit the track. The Michigan International Speedway complex (you can check the schedule at mispeedway.com) and the thousands of people it draws each summer bring a sizeable chunk of business to the area that like the rest of Michigan is suffering economically.
I feel a twinge of guilt for never having been to a race. After all, I live 20 minutes from the excitement and am an advocate of supporting local businesses. But snubbing the races doesn't mean I am a stranger in the neighborhood.
I may not be familiar with what goes on at the track, but I do know a few places to eat that are an easy drive when you are going to or coming from MIS.
Captain Chuck's, at the north end of Devils Lake on U.S. 223, opened three weeks ago in the building that was the Other Side eatery. Owner Chuck Kreutz, who also owns the six Gino Pizzas in Toledo, is finalizing the menu that will feature fresh fish, burgers, and, of course, pizza, including barbecued chicken pizza, the most popular.
He plans to continue Taco Tuesdays with fish tacos. Mr. Kreutz is not new to the lake district. He has a home at Round Lake.
The Beach Bar at Clark Lake is a popular gathering place for many Toledoans, who rave about the steaming hot soups even on a hot day. On race days take-out orders are popular.
Tomato and fish chowder are menu leaders, and on Friday night crab bisque scores high. New to the menu this summer, just in time for NASCAR racing, is an oriental chicken wrap with mandarin oranges, rice noodles, and an oriental dressing. A Hawaiian ham sandwich with pineapple is also a 2010 menu addition. Several large-screen televisions are tuned to sports.
Jerry's, on Egan Road off U.S. 12 overlooking Wamplers Lake, is one of the largest Irish Hills restaurants. With a seating capacity of 300, including an outdoor deck, NASCAR vendors often select it for private parties.
Jerry's food choices run the gamut from Armenian specialties that honor the owner's heritage to barbecued baby back ribs, crab cakes, and steaks. Armenian favorites include hummus, baba ghanoush, and lamb kabobs. Jerry's is open seven days a week and features live entertainment on weekends.
At Harold's Place at the corner of U.S. 12 and Onsted Highway, updates this season include an outdoor seating area and an indoor bar. Harold's business is off to a running start at 6 a.m. every day with oversize omelets.
Lunch and dinner favorites are the whitefish and specialty burgers. The Friday night fish fry features Alaskan pollock. Harold Lyon is celebrating 33 years in the business.
CoCoNuts, with a tropical name and menu to match, is on U.S. 12 about 10 miles from MIS.
The Florida Keys theme was a natural for Stephanie Cheever and Steve Hathaway when they moved to the Irish Hills from Florida to be near their families.
Several menu favorites are repeats of the ones they served in their restaurant in Key West, including conch and clam chowder, Caribbean whitefish, and Key Lime pie. Drinks include mai tais, rum runners, pina coladas, and designer martinis, including Key Lime. CoCoNuts is closed in winter.
The Country House, near the corner of highways 52 and 50, is not as close to MIS as some of the other choices, but it's convenient when you are en route from Toledo.
No matter how many new things are added to the menu, it still is best known for the broasted chicken that has been a feature since opening day 44 years ago. Owner Mark Donley, who represents the third generation in the business, notes that baby back ribs also are big sellers. The Country House now has a beer, wine, and liquor license.
Randy's Roadhouse on U.S. 12 six miles east of MIS, features, as the name implies, all styles of barbecue. It is in the former location of the Golden Nugget.
Outside the barbecue pit, owner Randy Bahlau offers unusual regional fare. Hoochee Coochee, a dish he learned to make in Louisiana, is new to the summer menu. It is angel hair pasta with shrimp, scallops, crawdad tails, and tasso ham in a cream sauce with baby spinach. Catfish gets Cajun treatment.
A second Randy's sit-down restaurant is on U.S. 52 in Adrian, and an express take-out barbecue unit on U.S. 12 is near the entrance to Wamplers Lake.
The motorcycle crowd may know the Artesian Wells Sports Tavern, at the corner of U.S. 223 and U.S. 127, better than the average motorist does.
Town and Country, a Harley Davison dealership, is adjacent to the restaurant, and both attract scores of cyclists year-round. All-you-can-eat walleye and rib dinners are featured every day. Rib-eye and sirloin are main steak choices. Banquet facilities are available.
This is a good place to watch the race away from the track. A large circular bar centers the main dining room, with several large TV screens. The shooting water spumes near the parking lot are clues to the source of its Artesian Wells name.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: email@example.com.