Near the lake in the quaint beach town of New Buffalo, a rotating sign carries the silhouette of a shaggy mutt. A line forms near the door for the boring beachy fare, churned out at factory pace. The souvenir hoodies are out the door as fast as they can print them; the Stray Dog has become a destination in itself. I’ve seen their signature motto — Sit! Stay! — everywhere from Santa Barbara to Brooklyn. You probably have too. And don’t get me wrong, the Stray Dog is great at being what it is: the quintessential beach-town bar.
But I prefer it here, half a mile south, in the uncelebrated version of a beach-town bar. There’s no merch store, no zany southwest eggrolls, no Jägermeister dispenser, no television. Just ten velvety bar stools and endless respite.
Sitting in the bowels of New Buffalo’s boutique Marina Grand, Bentwood Tavern is a bar in a hotel, but it’s not a hotel bar. The Marina Grand has maintained its three stories of charm and independence, wrapped around the furthest corner of the town’s small harbor. Bentwood lies on the ground floor, through a short maze, tucked away at the back of the simple white building which, itself, is blocks away from the walkable area of the tiny Lake Michigan beach town — but it may as well be miles.
It’d be difficult to end up at Bentwood without going on purpose. Yet the restaurant is lively and the bar rail never lonely. For a third of the year, the outdoor tables are the perfect ending to a family outing on the boat, the slips just a short walk from the restaurant’s rear patio.
As the sun falls, the glow from boat cabins begins to dot the marina, connected like string lights by the marina’s lit dockways. New Buffalo families on the lake side of the Red Arrow Highway have a tradition on summer nights. Dozens walk from their homes to the edge of the sand to watch the sun fade over the horizon. At this time of night, you’ll see people lining the edge of one of the sixty or so beach stops. From Bentwood, you still get a taste of that hometown experience as you watch the sun set over dozens of masts, townhomes and a small sand dune.
But this time of year Bentwood doesn’t hibernate like the rest of my hometown. It merely changes form. It’s no longer a stop for weary boaters and city travelers looking to take a weekend off. Now Bentwood Tavern takes on its second life: town watering-hole. It’s dim, it smells of campfires, crisp air, woodfired pizza and bourbon. The frills are gone, the Illinois travelers are subdued — it’s taking a breath, as are its patrons.
The dock lights shine through the wall of windows over the empty marina. A Howie Day song plays in the background. I’m convinced there’s a first generation iPod locked away somewhere that’s never stopped repeating the college acoustic rock playlist of 2005.
A simple white tile walkway leads you through the bar, between the bar top and a few cozy booths. The slatted dark wood ceilings, leather chairs and dark slate fabrics play against the nautical feeling of the place. It looks a bit like Restoration Hardware had a love child with Vineyard Vines. If you’re looking for the grit and flavor of a smalltown dive, you won’t find it here. Bentwood is unapologetically tasteful, but it’s not bragging about it.
I sit down at the booth in the corner. I order my usual, a Oaxaca Old Fashioned with an extra serving of Michigan amaretto cherries. Alongside it comes something they call warm corn pudding and their famous rosemary pretzels. The menu is guilty of letting the Midwestern show, and that’s what I love about it. When the drink comes, my server sets down a chocolate milk and lemonade alongside — the signature of dad’s night out with family.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s February 2024 World edition.