Woods Restaurant on Mackinac Island- A Dining Adventure by Guest Blogger Brenda Horton

Brenda Horton was a long time Mackinac Island summer resident who recently sold her home to spend all of her time in Florida near her grandchildren. We were so glad to have Brenda and her husband Ted visit us this summer during their vacation and experience Grand Hotel and Woods Restaurant.

 Woods Restaurant – A Dining Adventure on Mackinac Island
Written by guest blogger Brenda Horton
For six summers my husband Ted and I were blessed to have a home on Mackinac Island.  We would make the drive up from south Georgia each year on Mother’s Day weekend and come home after the Grand Hotel closed at the end of October. Being summer residents, we had many opportunities to eat at island restaurants over the years, and we had many favorites. Some we chose for the casual atmosphere, some for the proximity to the water, and, of course, we always returned over and over again to those with better-than-average food and service.  Like most people though, there were one or two restaurants we saved for very special occasions – when we had visitors or family coming, or when Ted and I had an anniversary or birthday to celebrate.After a couple of years of showing visitors our magical island, we began to get repeat guests.  And when we’d ask where they’d like to have dinner, the overwhelming answer would be, “Oh, we have to go back to the Woods one night!”  And so we would.It would be an understatement to say the Woods Restaurant provides an excellent dining experience.  With menus choices like Parmesan-Citrus Crusted Pacific Salmon and Lobster Bucatini Carbonara (and desserts like the Grand Pecan Ball and the Vanilla Bean Doughnut), it’s easy to see why just reading the menu can get your mouth watering and your tummy rumbling.
But . . . . make no mistake . . . the Woods is much more than a dining experience.  It’s a dining ADVENTURE!I was thinking about all this as Ted and I prepared to meet our taxi in front of the Grand Hotel recently.  As I dressed (you may dine in casual attire at the Woods, but Ted and I decided to “dress up” for this dinner), my mind flowed back several years to our first Woods adventure.  We were going out with a couple from our condo group, and when the taxi pulled up the sky was threatening rain.  Our twenty-minute ride through the woods was filled with chatter and a little nervous laughter about what we’d do if it started to rain really hard.  Our luck held though, and we arrived dry and hungry.I remember having an excellent glass of wine, an awesome meal, and service second to none.  The weather was chilly that night (it was fall), and both huge restaurant fireplaces were ablaze, with logs crackling and sparks dancing upward into the chimneys.  Laughing groups and couples young and old arrived while we ate – always talking excitedly about the trip out from town – what they’d seen, what the taxi driver told them, and what the horses did (this last part was especially exciting to any children on board).It had been raining for nearly an hour when we boarded the taxi for the return trip home.  It was nearly 9:30 and very dark.  We slid between the clear plastic drapes the taxis use to keep riders dry and wrapped our legs in the woolen blankets they keep on board for cold nights.  Within five minutes we were riding through pitch-black woods with rain pounding against the plastic.  Our driver was huddled on his seat, expertly handling two horses as he told us stories about life as a Mackinac Island taxi driver.  From that he deftly transitioned into island ghost stories.  Instead of worrying about being cold and whether we’d get wet, we laughed and sang and told stories of our own.  In short, we had the time of our lives . . . and it all started with the decision to make a reservation at the Woods!

Waiting for our taxi at the foot of the Grant Hotel front porch.
Waiting for our taxi at the foot of the Grant Hotel front porch.
The trip to the Woods from the Grand Hotel starts out with a ride up past the West Bluff summer cottages . . .
The trip to the Woods from Grand Hotel starts out with a ride up past the West Bluff summer cottages . . .
. . . and then a leisurely walk through the Annex, a beautiful island neighborhood of summer cottages and lush gardens.
Ok.  I’m going to ask you to flash forward a moment right here because as soon as we were seated that evening, I realized it would be nearly impossible to give you a real sense of the Woods – at least its dramatic interior – while it was filled with diners.  Before we’d even ordered our salads I’d decided I would need to ride back up to the Woods a few days later and take some photographs before customers arrived. So that’s what I did.
In ____ Carlton Varney, designer for all things Grand Hotel, was asked to totally renovate and decorate the structure that had once served as a playhouse for the former Stonecliffe owners' children. His decision was to turn it into a Swiss Hunting Lodge, and the Woods Restaurant was born.
In 1991 Carlton Varney, designer for all things Grand Hotel, was asked to totally renovate and redecorate the structure that had once served as a playhouse for the former Stonecliffe mansion owners’ children. The Grand Hotel wanted to create a restaurant away from town and totally different from any of their other island restaurants.  Varney’s vision was to create a Swiss Hunting Lodge, and under his watchful eye, Woods Restaurant was born and opened in 1992.
Entering the Woods, you step into restaurant's expansive lobby, where mounted trophies - both foreign and domestic - are displayed.
Entering the Woods, you step into the restaurant’s expansive lobby, where mounted trophies – both foreign and domestic – are displayed.  The ones you see here and almost all of the deer, moose and ducks exhibited throughout the restaurant were taken for their meat by islanders during the appropriate hunting season.  The Woods provides the hunters a place to display their trophies which, in turn, adds to the hunting lodge appeal.
Our first stop is usually the bar for a before dinner beverage, but . . .
Our first stop is usually the bar for a before dinner beverage, but . . .
. . . we would often ride up to the Woods in the afternoon to sit inside and have a cold drink and a bag of hot popcorn. All the ribbons you see displayed at the Woods were won by the Musser family dogs in numerous shows over the years. The Mussers have owned top showing Wirehaired Terriers and West Highland Terriers. And then, of course, there was Sadie, the Mussers' Scottish Terrier who won the Westminster Best of Show in 2010!
. . . we also love to ride up to the Woods in the afternoon – to sit inside and have a cold drink and a bag of hot popcorn. All the ribbons you see displayed at the Woods were won by Musser family dogs in numerous shows over the years. The Mussers have owned both top showing Wirehaired Terriers and West Highland Terriers. And then, of course, there was Sadie, the Mussers’ Scottish Terrier who won the Westminster Best of Show in 2010!  Sadie has her own Trophy Room at the Grand Hotel.
A few feet from the bar is America's oldest duck pin bowling alley, and I can't tell you how many children love to bowl a game while waiting for dinner. Speaking for our family, the grownups enjoy it just as much as the kids.
A few feet from the bar is America’s oldest duck pin bowling alley.  Children love to bowl a game while waiting for dinner, and – speaking for our family – the grownups enjoy it just as much as the kids.
The person you will talk to when you call for a reservation - and the first person you will speak with upon arriving - is Neil Cargill, a Grand Hotel employee for 26 years and Manager of the Woods for 12 years. In Neil's hands you know your Woods evening will be perfection because he will accept nothing less.
The person you will talk to when you call for a reservation – and the first person you will speak with upon arriving – is Neil Cargill, a Grand Hotel employee for 26 years and Manager of the Woods for 12 years. In Neil’s hands you know your Woods evening will be perfection – because he will accept nothing less.  Neil returns to is native Jamaica at the end of each season.
The Woods dining room.
The Woods dining room.
We love being seated in any of these little corner tables . . .
We love being seated at any of these little corner tables . . .
. . . that are tucked away in several areas of the restaurant.
. . . that are tucked away in several areas of the restaurant.
A larger group may be seated on the "balcony" . . .
A larger group may be seated on the “balcony” . . .
. . . which overlooks the dining hall.
. . . which overlooks the dining room.
A window view is always good . . .
A window view is always good . . .
. . . and a table snugged up next to the ceiling high fireplace would be perfect on a cold October island night.
. . . and a table snugged up next to the ceiling high fireplace would be perfect on a cold October island night.
Trust me on this . . . anywhere you are seated will be perfect.
Every seat in the house is pretty much perfect!

OK.  Back we go to our evening at the Woods.

We both loved the Lobster Cream Soup . . .
Ted and I were seated in one of our favorite spots, and we soon got down to the pleasurable  business of ordering dinner.  We both loved the Lobster Cream Soup . . .
. . . followed by the Baby Spinach and Feta Cheese Salad - presented beautifully.
. . . followed by the beautifully presented Baby Spinach and Feta Cheese Salad.
As an entrée, I ordered the Lobster Bucatini Carbonara with Artichokes, Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Soft Poached Egg.
As an entrée, I ordered the Lobster Bucatini Carbonara with Artichokes, Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Soft Poached Egg . .
. . . and Ted ordered the Prime Beef Tenderloin Medallions.
Dessert for us both was the Vanilla Bean Donut.
Dessert was the Vanilla Bean Doughnut.  We BOTH ordered one, and we both ate the whole thing!  It is too decadent to even talk about except to say – don’t pass it up the next time you’re at the Woods for dinner.

As usual, our entire meal was fabulous – everything cooked to perfection and served by staff trained to anticipate our every need.

As we were preparing to leave, I picked up a few crayons (left on the table so children can entertain themselves drawing on the paper tablecloths) and left a message of our own.
As we were preparing to leave, I picked up a few crayons (left on the table so children can entertain themselves drawing on the paper tablecloths) and left a message of our own.
Throughout the evening Darryl Dybka – a former Grammy winner who has played, arranged, produced, and composed for Frank Zappa and Chet Atkins, among many others – had been entertaining at the piano.  As we were leaving, Darryl was playing a beautifully arranged rendition of Irving Gordon’s Unforgettable, and I thought “how appropriate.” Our evening at the Woods was another unforgettable dining adventure to add to our memory book of special occasions.  Whether your night at the Woods begins from downtown, from the Grand, or from anywhere else on the island, once you’ve experienced your own Woods adventure, you will find yourself returning again and again.
Trust me on that.
Trust me on that!

12 thoughts on “Woods Restaurant on Mackinac Island- A Dining Adventure by Guest Blogger Brenda Horton

  1. That was so beautifully written. Your pictures depicted a place I want to see. We have never eaten at the Woods but absolutely will in our next visit to the Island. Thank you for the wonderful tour!

  2. The Woods is my wife’s and my favorite restaurant. We’ve been to Mackinac Island numerous times (most recently for our 20th anniversary, made wonderful friends there, and eaten at just about every restaurant there. The Woods is an adventure. There’s no place like it anywhere. We will treasure the memories made there and can’t wait to return.

  3. This makes me want to visit in October when I’m on the Island! Does anyone know whether or not they allow guests to just visit for dessert and drinks?

    1. Absolutely Ashley. However, Woods does close earlier than other island establishments so you will want to make sure and check the website to make sure it is still open.

  4. Brenda,
    In all the years we have visited the Island, we have never taken the ride to the Woods to eat. It looks fabulous and we certainly will eat there when we return. Thank you for your eloquent description of the ambiance, history and the photos.

  5. We love the Woods! We make a trip to the Woods every time we are there. We always stop in for glass of wine and Neil is there every time to greet and serve us. Wonderful place.

  6. The Woods truly is unique place to visit!
    Although we have not dined there we have stopped in on our treks about the island for a break not a couple cool beverages
    We may just have to make it one if our dining experience on our visit to the island in a
    couple of days.

  7. What a lovely description with fabulous photos of I’m sorry to say, a restaurant we missed on our recent trip to The Grand Hotel.
    It will definitely be on our “bucket” list for the next trip.
    Your description and pictures are perfection plus a good looking couple!

  8. the WOODs IS must for the last 12 yrs of Coming to the island– a dinner there is like no other -food Amazing! service impeccable-ethereal feeling to be there! during day-we hike up from mission point and sit at the bar and talk to Neil who is so gracious and funny! cold beer or wine and popcorn and maybe a hot dog -just a place like no other thanks for bringing this beautiful restaurant to life to the people who have never been to the island-back again in aug -god willing-it just gets into your heart doesnt it?

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