Best of Lake Erie

Our first annual issue celebrating everything that makes our region great

Tennis anyone? How about a burger and a brew? Maybe you’re in the mood for an overnight adventure, a pumpkin patch, some fabulous shopping or a glass of chardonnay with a view. There’s something to do, somewhere to explore and someplace

Best Day on the Bay

There are many places around Lake Erie that will stun you with their beauty. And there are plenty of places to slide, twirl and spin. Those looking to learn will find first-class science museums and nature centers in every big city around the lake.

But if you want all of that in one day, then Erie is your destination.

Our day starts at 10:30 a.m. at the Yellow Bike Rental Co. (1) in Presque Isle State Park (2) and continues with an hour-long bike ride through the park. There is the chirping of the crickets and the whirring of the bike chains. The breeze off the lake is cool and the sun shining through the trees is warm. We return the bikes and set out for a spin around Waterworks Pond on a paddleboat. On another trip, we’ll try out the 11 miles of hiking trails or rent a canoe or kayak, but we’re ready to take a rest at one of the park’s seven miles of beaches, which range from lively (beaches 1, 6 and 11) to relatively secluded (the Mill Road beaches).

Our next stop is just outside the park entrance — the Tom Ridge Environmental Center, (3) where exhibits highlight the animals and plants of Presque Isle. The Big Green Screen Theatre shows nature-themed one-hour movies and makes an ideal mid-day break. If you’re looking for food on the healthier side, eat here at the Sunset Café, which offers fresh wraps, salads and soups. If not, head to Sara’s (4), a fun diner right at the entrance to Presque Isle.

Go straight out of the Tom Ridge Environmental Center and you’ll run right into Waldameer & Water World (5), an amusement park that opened in 1896. The German name means “woods by the sea” and aptly describes the feeling at this family-owned park. We cool off at the waterpark, then settle into an evening of thrills.

Waldameer has 22 rides (plus kiddie rides) and we hit almost every single one — and many two, three or even four times — in our three hours here. Ranked sixth-best wooden roller coaster in the world, the Ravine Flyer II is the park’s biggest attraction. But we laugh through the entire Steel Dragon as free-spinning cars whip us up and down hills and high-banked turns. The kids can’t get enough of the Pirates Cove, a walk-through fun house and the Whacky Shack, a two-story dark ride filled with spooky fun. Chairlifts that run above the whole park and back give us an aerial view and a rest.

As the sun sets, we feel the magic of the midway. Finally, it’s cool enough to eat funnel cakes and French fries. The Ferris Wheel lights up. Little kids beg to go on “one more ride” — and then another. Parents pretend to mind giving in.

Our day ends late and, after all we’ve done, we should be exhausted. But Erie makes it easy to do all this — in one delightful day on the Bay. — Colleen Smitek

1. The Yellow Bike Rental Co. Does not have a specific address, but is located inside the park off the main road. 814-835-8900

2. Presque Isle State Park. A 3,200-acre sandy peninsula that juts out into Lake Erie like an outstretched hand. The highlight is the beaches, but almost every form of recreation — from ice-fishing to kite-flying — can be had. 1 Peninsula Drive, Erie;

3. Tom Ridge Environmental Center. The center has a 75-foot observation tower, too. 301 Peninsula Drive, Erie; 814-833-7424,

4. Sara’s. To be fair, they do offer turkey burgers and salads, but most people here opt for burgers and onion rings, topped off with a vanilla-orange twist. 25 Peninsula Drive.

5. Waldameer & Water World. All-day passes to the park are $23.50 ($16.50 under 48 inches tall) or $26.50 to the park and waterpark ($19 under 48 inches tall.) Or, Wally Cards can be bought for any amount and used for rides, food and games. Cash is accepted only at the ticket booth. 3100 W. Lake Road, Erie; 877-817-1009,

Beach Glass — Relish
Sisters Jennifer and Terri Reed opened their beach glass jewelry gallery in 1996, making them one of the first in the nation to dedicate themselves to the candy-colored medium. Sixteen years later, they continue to be one of the most sought-after beach glass jewelers in a crowded market. “Now it’s a full-blown industry,” Jennifer says.

So much so that the Reed sisters are planning a Great Lakes Sea Glass Festival in Erie, Pa., over Memorial Day weekend in 2013. They expect more than 50 vendors from as far away as California, and are planning a full schedule of lectures and talks.

One of the topics that likely will be addressed is the future of beach glass. The pretty chunks of glass — the most beautiful of which have spent decades being rubbed smooth by the water and sand — are disappearing from the shoreline. That’s because more and more products are made with plastic instead of glass, people litter less and less, and more people collect beach glass than ever before. “We call it nature’s vanishing gem,” Terri says.

Pieces are still plentiful enough that the gallery is always fully stocked with interesting pieces, ranging from bracelets and necklaces to cufflinks and rings. But because beach glass is becoming more rare along Lake Erie’s shore, the sisters have started making jewelry with glass collected from other parts of the world.

Any jewelry that is made with glass not from Lake Erie is clearly marked. “For a lot of people it’s important that what they’re buying is from our shores,” Jennifer says. “They want a piece of Lake Erie.” 3835 W. 12th St., Erie, Pa.; 814-836-1827,

Window Shopping — Vermilion

Driving into downtown Vermilion is a heartwarming experience for anyone who remembers shopping on Main Street U.S.A. There are no chain stores at the intersection of state Route 60 (yes, Main Street) and Liberty Avenue.

Here in Vermilion, the retail establishments are tucked in charming storefronts. And the shops are as interesting as their owners, friendly people who stock far more than the usual T-shirts and knickknacks. In fact, what starts out as harmless browsing here can easily turn into a spending  binge.

We realize that budget-breaking possibility immediately upon stepping into Carolyn Marie Designs (1), an interior-design studio that also carries jewelry made by owner Carolyn Hammerschmidt. It’s hard to leave without one of her more organic pieces, a chunky amazonite bracelet that seems to scream, “Buy me!”

Keeping my purse closed doesn’t get any easier. I look longingly at lacy, light-as-air scarves at Sunset Farms Alpaca Boutique (2). As the hours pass, I stroll past a beautiful oak hall tree just inside the door to Lighthouse Antiques (3) and turn down a side street to check out the watches and fine jewelry at Cargo Jewelers & Gallery (4). I fight the urge to buy nail polish for my best friend’s Maltese at Sadie Jean’s Dog Boutique (5). But the biggest challenge to my willpower comes at The Silly Goose gift shop (6). Next to the cash register is the cleverest of flower-pot holders, a metal crab made by a regional artist with legs and claws of bent forks.

I finally give into temptation at Granny Joe’s Ice Creamatorium (7), an ice-cream parlor housed in a cute 1850s farmhouse that used to be a funeral home. And as I dig into a dish of mint-chip, I decide to take another look at that amazonite bracelet. — Lynne Thompson

1. Carolyn Marie Designs.
686 Main St., 440-967-9667

2. Sunset Farms Alpaca Boutique.
666 Main St., 440-963-7023,

3. Lighthouse Antiques.
651 Main St., 440-989-7060.

4. Cargo Jewelers & Gallery.
699 Toledo St., 440-967-4256

5. Sadie Jean’s Dog Boutique.
5489 Liberty Ave., 440-963-0900.

6. The Silly Goose.
657 Main St., 440-963-2100.

7. Granny Joe’s Ice Creamatorium. 5598 Liberty Ave., 440-967-3663,

Night Out — 
Downtown Cleveland

Cleveland’s known for its culinary scene. But with the opening of the Horseshoe Casino, the city now offers an even better night out. Start your evening on the lively East Fourth Street. Go upscale with dinner at Zack Bruell’s Chinato or Michael Symon’s Lola. Or grab a drink at the Wonder Bar and sip on the patio as you people-watch. The casino’s only a five-minute walk away and, even if you just play a few slots, it’s worth seeing. Housed in an 81-year-old historic building, the casino’s three floors feel intimate while reflecting the original Art Deco style of the building.,

Live Entertainment — the Round House Bar 
If you want to see Mike “Mad Dog” Adams’ hybrid music-and-comedy act on Put-in-Bay, you’ve got to go to the Round House Bar. It’s been his seasonal hangout for 33 years now — and the presence of stalwarts like him has turned the bar into an entertainment powerhouse on the island. General manager Paula Garsteck spends most of her budget on live bands, and she casts a wide, ambitious net: Musicians come from Michigan, Philadelphia and even Key West. “We are kind of the entertainment venue on the island,” says Garsteck. “It’s a fun, adult kind of vibe.” 228 Delaware Avenue, Put-in-Bay, Ohio; 419-285-2323,

People Watching — The Top Thrill Dragster at Cedar Point
The ride is only 17 seconds long, but the time between climbing into the coaster and shooting up the 420-foot hill must seem like an eternity. See the fear firsthand by parking yourself on the grandstand at the bottom of the hill. We’ve heard that, if you look closely enough, you can see some people’s hearts beat. We also talked with one girl who had to ditch the ride right before it took off because she thought her hand was accidentally broken by her terrified friend’s tight squeeze. One Cedar Point Drive, Sandusky, Ohio; 419-627-2350,

Canoeing — the River Raisin
Follow in the wake of America’s first inhabitants and explorers as you travel by canoe along the scenic River Raisin, which got its name from grapevines that grew along its banks. Also known as the world’s “crookedest” river, the waterway has abundant wildlife at every turn. In addition to renting canoes and kayaks by the hour, the River Raisin Canoe Livery offers half- and full-day paddling adventures that begin and end at their base near Dundee, Mich. The half-day trip snakes westward through bucolic farmland and offers the opportunity to spot blue herons, white cranes, ducks, muskrats, deer and the occasional bald eagle. 1151 Plank Road, Dundee, Mich.; 734-529-9029, 

Sailing — Chautauqua Institution’s John R. Turney Sailing Center
Each Monday, Gary Snyder welcomes beginner sailors, some of whom are such novices that they do not know which end of the boat is the aft. By the end of the week, the same sailors are knowledgeable enough to sail around Chautauqua Lake by themselves. “It’s incredibly rewarding to see them progress and learn a life skill in just a week,” says Snyder, the director of the school. “After five days they can rig their own boats and go sailing,” Snyder adds. With classes — for ages 8 and up — starting at just $150, it’s easy to see why this sailing program is popular enough that it often is sold out during the nine-week Chautauqua summer season. 71 S. Lake Ave., Chautauqua, N.Y.; 716-357-6392,

Mountain Thrills — Holiday Valley’s Sky High Adventure Park
Fly through the trees, not down the slopes, at this New York ski resort’s latest attraction. The park, which opened last May, is comprised of ziplines and challenging bridges. If you’re a true thrill seeker, try your luck on Commando, the double black diamond course. Afterward, hit the 283-foot-high, 4,805-foot-long Mountain Coaster. You can control your speed on the way down, so it’s fun for the speed-demon kids and the slow-and-steady parents. 6557 Holiday Valley Road, Ellicotville, N.Y.; 716-699-2345,

Tennis — Lakeside, Ohio
Lakeside, Ohio, is a true tennis community. A 1-square-mile Chautauqua gated resort located on the peninsula between Kelleys Island and Sandusky, Ohio, Lakeside has 10 outdoor tennis courts on three surfaces: hard court, natural red clay and green Har-Tru. Every weekday during the summer there are round-robin tournaments for adults and free tennis lessons for kids. Lakeside’s five soft courts are easier on the knees, making it just as common to find a doubles match of 80-year-olds as it is to find a game of younger players. “It’s a great cross-generational activity,” says Lynne Hudson, tennis club president. “We have families where the grandparents play, the parents play and the kids play.” 236 Walnut Ave., Lakeside, Ohio; 866-952-5374,

Stingray Watching – Kalahari Resorts

Swimming with the dolphins, sure. But stingrays? Now through the end of September, Kalahari Resorts in Sandusky, Ohio, offers visitors the chance to enter a 6,000-gallon saltwater tank and interact with more than a dozen cownose rays. Although recognized for their stingers, the fish in this exhibit have been de-barbed and are described by Kalahari as “docile, playful ocean creatures.” The exhibit is part of Kalahari’s Safari Outdoor Adventure Park, which features more than 400 exotic animals, a zipline tour and climbing walls. Prices range from $3 for viewing the stingrays to $75 for the full interactive experience. 7000 Kalahari Drive, Sandusky, Ohio; 877-525-2427,

Summer Stunt —  Jay Cochrane  Nik Wallenda might have gotten all the attention when he crossed Niagara Falls this summer on a tightrope, but turn to page 64 to read about the walk a 69-year-old man took every day for 11 weeks this summer.

Island Adventure — Perry’s Cave Family Fun Center If you bring your children to Put-in-Bay, this is the one place you can’t miss. Ages 10 and under love nothing more than gemstone mining, bigger kids love the rock-climbing wall and all ages will be mesmerized by both the Butterfly House and the stalagmites and stalactites in the 52-foot underground Perry’s Cave. Throw in mini golf, a maze and an antique car museum and you have hours of entertainment. The best part? As much as there is to do, the place always feels peaceful and pleasant. 979 Catawba Ave., Put-in-Bay, Ohio; 419-285-2405,


Barnes Nursery

Harold and Jeanne Barnes started their business in 1950, with a crop of roses. Now, 62 years later, the third generation of Barneses has grown the business into a full-service landscaping company. “Our strongest asset is our staff of designers,” says Julie Barnes, a co-owner of the business. 3511 Cleveland Road West, Huron, Ohio; 419-433-5525,

Runners Up:

Erie Landscape. 2295 Elk St., Lake City, Pa., 814-392-5637,

Kettle Creek Landscaping. 5044 East Road, Union, Ontario; 519-782-3259,

Garden Center

Colasanti’s Tropical Gardens

Colasanti’s is a garden center on steroids. It’s a 35-acre fantasy land where your kids will drag you, instead of the other way around.
There are plants, of course. Fifteen greenhouses full, to be exact. But there’s also an indoor kiddie roller coaster, bumper cars, a miniature golf course and an arcade. 1550 Road 3 East, Kingsville, Ontario; 519-326-3287,

Runners Up:

Barnes Nursery. 3511 Cleveland Road West, Huron, Ohio; 419-433-5525,

Petitti Garden Centers. Numerous Northeast Ohio locations;


Creative Construction Solutions

Combining function with style. That’s what Creative Construction Solutions does best, which is why its two partners — Andy Simons and Dave Sooy — have been trusted with more than $500 million in projects in their combined 60-plus years of experience. Their portfolio shows baths, basements and kitchens turned into modern, beautiful spaces. 34985 Detroit Road, Suite B, Avon, Ohio; 440-937-2278,

Runners Up:

Dover Home Remodelers, Inc. 29341 Lorain Road, North Olmsted, Ohio;

Village Construction. 9040 Osborne Drive,  Mentor, Ohio; 440-974-7659,


Red Wine

Burning Kiln Winery produces wines using the Italian appassimento method of drying grapes in a kiln. Doing so gives the wines a rich, hearty flavor. 1709 Front Road, St. Williams, Ontario; 519-586-9858,

Runner Up: The Cabernet Sauvignon ($11.99) produced by Firelands Winery has a blend of chocolate, mint and cedar flavors and a blackberry finish. 917 Bardshar Road, Sandusky, Ohio; 419-625-5474,

White Wine

The Gewürtzraminer-like Traminette ($12.99) from Johnson Estate Winery has the bright flavors of citrus and lime zest. 8419 W. Main Road, Westfield, N.Y.; 716-326-2191,

Runner Up:  The semi-dry Vignoles Wine ($11.99) from Arrowhead Wine Cellars is fresh and fruity. 12073 E. Main Road, North East, Pa.; 814-725-5509,


Lucy’s in the Sky ($9.99) from Liberty Vineyards & Winery is a sweet and sassy sipping wine that pairs well with John Lennon albums. 2861 Route 20, Sheridan, N.Y.; 716-672-4520,

Runner Up: Close your eyes when you try the Zinfandel-like Thirsty Elephant ($10.81) from 21 Brix Winery. Taste the strawberry cotton candy? 6654 W. Main Road, Portland, N.Y.; 716-792-2749,

Ice Wine

A hint of dark chocolate gives the Cabernet Franc Icewine ($29.95) from the Niagara College Teaching Winery a smooth finish. 135 Taylor Road, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario; 905-641-2252,

Runner Up: There’s nothing phony about Crystals of Chambourcin ($24.95), which Mazza Vineyards calls a “faux ice wine,” with an intense yet pleasant fruit aroma. 11815 E. Lake Road, North East, Pa.; 814-725-8695,

Specialty Wine

Maple Rush ($26.34) from Rush Creek Wines is made with pure maple syrup. It sells out quickly every year, so put your order in now for this sassy, full-bodied dessert wine. 48995 Jamestown Line, RR #2, Aylmer, Ontario; 519-773-5432,

Runner Up: Antioxidant-rich Dry Blueberry ($10), produced by micro-winery Blueberry Sky Farm Winery, is a blend of five different types of organically grown blueberries. 10243 N.E. Sherman Road, South Ripley, N.Y.; 716-252-6535

Winery for Exploring

Heineman’s Winery boasts an underground cave that is said to be the world’s largest geode.  Spend an afternoon spelunking and then relaxing with a bottle of Sweet Belle ($9.24), a blend of Catawba and Concord grapes that’s the winery’s signature vintage. 978 Catawba St., Put-in-Bay, Ohio; 419-285-2811,

Runner Up: Willow Creek Winery has 26 acres of biking and hiking trails that wind through landscaped greenery. Try the Merlot ($18.99). 2627 Chapin Road, Silver Creek, N.Y.; 716-934-9463,

Best Food

Tarsitano Winery & Café owner and chef Kenneth Tarsitano comes from a long line of foodies. Riesling rosemary ravioli ($21) and the Cabernet-marinated steak ($21) are just two of the wine-themed creations. 4871 Hatches Corner Road, Conneaut, Ohio; 440-224-2444,

Runner Up:  Ferrante Winery & Ristorante is known for its steamed mussels in Chardonnay wine sauce ($11) and veal with Merlot demi-glace ($19). 5585 state Route 307, Harpersfield Township; 440-466-8466, 

Best View

Enjoy beautiful views of Lake Erie from the back patio of the Lakehouse Inn & Winery. Or take a blanket to the beach and watch a glorious sunset while you share a bottle of Just Peachy ($15), a semi-sweet white wine. 5653 Lake Road, Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio; 440-466-8668,

Runner Up: The north coast of Lake Erie looks pretty from the 12,000-square-foot patio at Viewpointe Estate Winery.  We recommend the 2007 Cabernet Franc ($19.15), which has a delightful mocha aroma. 151 County Road 50 East, Harrow, Ontario; 866-372-8439,

Builder — Prete Builders is known for its high-end homes on the water in northern Ohio. The company, which started in 1978 with three employees, now employs 20. While the company’s focus is new-build private homes, it also delves into commercial work, remodeling and additions, and even churches. But it’s the coastline homes that have become recognized enough to earn Prete the Best Home Builder vote. The company’s willingness to incorporate whatever a client desires also gives it a high customer-service rating. 1605 State Road #60, Vermilion, Ohio; 440-967-8665,

Runners Up:

DiBenedetto Fine Homes. 26697 Brookpark Road Ext., North Olmsted, Ohio, 44070,

Kopf Builders. 31622 Forest Brook Oval, Cleveland; 440-933-6908,

Real Estate Agent 

Linda Armstrong — Re/Max Ohio

Linda Armstrong has helped more than 1,500 families buy or sell homes since she entered the real estate market in northern Ohio in 1986. She has worked with ReMax for nine years. “It’s all about relationships,”she says. “I try to put myself in each client¹s shoes, which means I take great care with each and every sale or purchase.” Her commitment has paid off: She has received numerous awards, including Realtor of the Year. “I’m grateful because my team works hard,” she says. “We’re committed to the highest level of service, and it’s nice to know that people recognize that.” 19 Sandusky Mall Blvd., Sandusky, Ohio; 419-627-9914,

Runners Up:

Tomi Johnson. Howard Hanna, 4054 E. Harbor Road, Port Clinton; 419-798-5132,

Suzanne St. John. Marsha Marsh Real Estate, 8840 Peach St., Erie;


State Park Sleepover — Maumee Bay

It hits you the moment you enter the lobby: the feeling that something fun is about to happen. Kids — and some adults — are scampering to and from their rooms in swimsuits. Bikes are being checked out. There’s a sign posting times for crafts, board games, a movie and a scavenger hunt. Ice cream is being ordered. Just a

typical day at Maumee Bay Lodge (1).

If you’re looking for hoity toity, this is not your place (although the restaurant (2) is quite nice). But if you come for golf, swimming, canoeing, biking, hiking, birding or even simply for the view, you will be enchanted.

On our visit, the temperature is pushing 100 degrees. So, after a half hour of sweaty biking, our first priority is to cool down. The large pool has a wide view of Lake Erie and, less than a quarter-mile away, an inland lake offers a sandy beach. A second beach, right on Lake Erie, is reserved for boating, but has a huge inflatable slide during the summer months and rents personal watercraft. The marina (3) is in the middle of it all.

After dinner and a canoe ride on a pond right outside our room, we turn in for the night. Our patio isn’t more than 200 feet from the water and sitting there is a peaceful way to end the evening. 

We wake up early the next morning and head for the 2-mile boardwalk trail through the woods and marsh. We hear crickets and birds and walk through grasses taller than our heads. The trail ends at the nature center, (4) which is within sight of the lodge.

If you asked the kids, they would say the pool (and its diving board!) made the trip. If you asked me, I’d say the hiking made the trip. If you asked the average husband, he’d say the golf made the trip. But the point is, the trip was made — and everyone enjoyed it. — CS


 Maumee Bay Lodge and Conference Center. Rooms start at $149.99 Loft rooms, including two double beds and bunk beds, start at $209.99. 1750 State Park Road #2, Oregon, Ohio;


 Water’s Edge Restaurant. Boasts a glass, wrap-around view of Lake Erie. Finish your meal with the Buckeye pie. Same address and contact info as the lodge.


 The Lodge
Marina. Offers
24 overnight
(starting at $55) and
seven transient slips ($35).
Call 800-282-7275 for reservations.


 Trautman Nature Center. Features a butterfly gazebo in summer and a research laboratory. 419-836-9117

Family Adventure — Point Pelee

It’s a short hike through the woods at Point Pelee National Park (1) and then you see it: the southernmost spot in all of continental Canada, a strip of sand, a literal point jutting out into Lake Erie.

The tide is fierce here, so there’s no swimming or even wading allowed, but it’s no matter: beach-going can’t compare to this. You’re walking into the lake, with waves rolling in on both sides of you and the wind whipping your hair. It feels peaceful and inspires awe — and it’s a stunning backdrop for a photo.

The neat thing is, the wind and waves shape the tip a little differently every day, so no two visits are exactly alike and the point can change dramatically from year to year.

From April through Thanksgiving, a tram shuttles visitors from the Visitor Centre to the Tip Trail, a 1-km loop trail that takes you to the very point of Point Pelee. Hiking and biking (2) are also options. In the fall, Point Pelee is considered one of the top places on the continent for birding (3).



 Point Pelee National Park. 1118 Point Pelee Drive, Leamington, Ontario; 519-322-2365,


 Point Pelee offers eight trails (only one for biking), ranging from 1 km to 4. Four trails explore the woods, while the Marsh Boardwalk offers cattails, lily pads and turtles. Canoeing also is available.


 Point Pelee offers spectacular birding in the spring, but it’s almost unparalleled in the fall when the point acts as a funnel for migrants following the shoreline south.

Look Out
Perry’s Victory & International Peace Memorial

Built almost 100 years ago, the 352-foot-tall Perry’s Monument on Put-in-Bay is a reminder of the long-lasting peace between the United States, Canada and Great Britain and a tribute to U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. It is also a tourist destination that offers sightseers a majestic view of Lake Erie, Ohio’s mainland, Michigan and Ontario from its open-air observation deck at the top. Up until this past July, however, the monument was closed for some much-needed repairs and renovations. 

In 2006, a 500-pound piece of granite fell from the observation deck of the memorial to the upper plaza below, putting a large hole in the ground. The National Parks Service shut down Perry’s Monument and a structural investigation was conducted. It was partially reopened in 2007 and 2008 after some temporary fixes, but it closed again in 2009 for a nearly three-year renovation project that addressed the capital of the structure and then the column itself. 

“There were various cracks and some small pieces of stone that could have potentially become dislodged,” says Harry Hunderman, renovation project manager. “Because of the potential safety hazard, these repairs were executed to ensure the public was safe when entering and departing the monument.” 

The National Parks Service spent about $5.4 million on the recent repair project. Now that it’s back open, you can ascend Perry’s Monument for only $3. For those 15 and under, it’s free. 93 Delaware Ave., Put-in-Bay, Ohio; 419-285-2184,

Barbecue — Three B Saloon
Barbecue, bacon and beer rule at Three B Saloon, a sparsely decorated building in the middle of a residential neighborhood near downtown Erie. But don’t let the unassuming surroundings fool you: This is a barbecue joint that even impresses southerners.

J.J. Brown’s mother is from Laurel, Miss., and he grew up as her second-in-command in the kitchen. The roofing contractor had dreams of opening his own restaurant for 16 years when the opportunity finally presented itself three years ago.

Three B Saloon has quickly made a name in the region and beyond. It is known for its mouthwatering barbecue, creamy macaroni and cheese and piping hot cornbread. Everything is made to order, with Brown a constant presence in the kitchen. The roll of paper towels at each table is a must-have for hands sticky from tender St. Louis-style ribs, 16-hour smoked brisket or moist and smoky pulled pork sandwiches.

Even the dessert here isn’t an afterthought. Grilled pound cake — yes, grilled — is topped with pineapples and smothered in cinnamon and sugar, then finished with a sweetened condensed milk. Perfection.

It’s not just the food that people talk about when they recommend Three B’s, though. It is also famous for serving a slice of bacon with every beer. “We give $3,000 away in 

bacon every month,” Brown says. “That’s a lot of bacon.” 732 W. Fourth St., Erie, Pa.; 814-451-0007

Runners Up:

Fat Bob’s Smokehouse. 41 Virginia Place, Buffalo; 716-887-2971,

Ray’s Ribhouse. 17 Robson Road, Leamington, Ontario; 519-322-5940

Chocolatier — Tre Sorelle
Judi Horchler was ready to retire after 35 years in the education field. Around the same time, her sister, Jan Beck, found out she was being let go from her Fortune 500 company, a victim of a recession-related downsizing. “So we thought, Let’s give chocolate a go,” says Horchler, in her European-styled shop at the corner of Columbus and Monroe streets, on the edge of Sandusky’s waterfront district.

They operated a catalog business for a year, sometimes making chocolate until 2 a.m. in a rented kitchen to fill orders. Their success boosted the sisters’ confidence. They took the plunge and opened their own shop in 2007 in a 1916 Tudor-style building.

“We realized we might have something here,” Horchler says. “So we said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’ ”

Horchler, who holds a doctorate in education, and Beck, who has her master’s in business administration, are now certified chocolatiers. They handcraft their treats in their kitchen on-site, using fresh ingredients and local products whenever possible. One of the local businesses the sisters work with is

Firebirds Winery. It’s a pairing made in chocolate heaven. Visitors shouldn’t miss a chance to try Tre Sorelle’s merlot truffle, port panforte or raspberry champagne cream. 634 Columbus Ave., Sandusky, Ohio; 419-502-2462,

Runners Up:

Brummer’s Chocolates. 672 Main St., Vermilion, Ohio; 440-967-2329,

Fowler’s Chocolates. 100 River Rock Drive, Suite 102, Buffalo; 716-877-9983,

Summer Cocktail — The Village Pump
This isn’t your grandfather’s Brandy Alexander.

Actually, it’s Gary Fingers’ grandma’s recipe. She ran the Village Pump back in the 1940s and 50s, and somewhere along the line she started replacing the more traditional milk or cream with ice cream in this sweet drink, instantly creating an island favorite.

Now her grandson continues the tradition, which is such a favorite that they’ve made a YouTube video demo. The restaurant serves more than 1,000 meals a day in the busy summer months.

“But it’s that Brandy Alexander that people talk about,” Fingers says. “It’s the perfect hot summer day dessert drink.” The Village Pump, 103 Lakeshore Drive, Kelleys Island, Ohio; 419-746-2281,

Runners Up:

129 Lounge. 129 E. Front St., Monroe, Mich.; 734-241-4008

Bubbles’ Swim-Up Bar. Soak City Waterpark, 1 Cedar Point Road, Sandusky, Ohio;

Overall Dining — The Windjammer Inn
Chef Kim Saunders is a self-described foodie, passionate about each item on her menu. But Saunders — who spent the early years of her career not in the kitchen but in the dining room —understands that visiting a restaurant is not just about the food. It’s about the atmosphere, too.

“My background has given me a more rounded view of the restaurant experience,” she says. “So our goal is to offer top-notch food, [without] all the pretensions that go around that. Our food is meant to be enjoyed and savored, but we also want to create a sense of fun and community, too.”

Saunders bought the Windjammer Inn in 2006. It’s housed in an elegant home built in 1854 and includes a five-bedroom bed and breakfast. She moved to Port Stanley from Toronto and didn’t know a soul when she arrived.

“I had heard about this place, and it just kept tugging at me,” she says. “So I came and saw it, and a week later it was mine.” 324 Smith St., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-782-4173,

Runners Up:

Bolles Harbor Café. 13986 Laplaisance Road, Monroe, Mich.;

NaGoya Japanese Steakhouse & Sushi. 3975 E. Harbor Road,
Port Clinton, Ohio; 419-734-6400,

Fine Dining — Chez Francois

The view of the Vermilion River makes Chez Francois a winner before a drink is served or a menu perused. But the haute cuisine proves a fine dining experience worthy of its beautiful surroundings.

“Everything is made from scratch with the freshest ingredients we can find,” says chef John D’Amico, who has owned the restaurant since 1987.

The restaurant, which was recently renovated and includes a beautiful outdoor patio, is housed in a building where sails for tall ships were once made.

Chez Francois’ outstanding location and cuisine has been recognized nationwide. Power and Motor Yacht Magazine awarded it Second-best Waterfront Dining in America, and the Food Network featured D’Amico’s beef Wellington on the show “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.” 555 Main St., Vermilion, Ohio; 440-


Runners Up:

Athenaeum Hotel. P.O. Box 66, Chautauqua, N.Y.; 800-821-1881,

Zinc Brasserie.
142 Columbus Ave., Sandusky;

Big City Dining — The Greenhouse Tavern
Greenhouse Tavern and its chef Jonathon Sawyer have become quite the phenomena, with the restaurant named one of the Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the United States by Bon Appetit in 2009 and Sawyer heralded as one of Food and Wine’s top new chefs in 2010.

It’s the right kind of attention for Cleveland, and the town is lucky to have the superbly talented, incredibly versatile and sweetly humble Sawyer in its backyard. It’s not just his food which shines. The restaurant, much loved by foodies, is accessible to everyone, with vintage bicycles hanging from the ceiling, a $44 chef’s tasting menu and both vegan and carnivorous options to choose from. 2038 E. Fourth St., Cleveland; 216-443-0511,

Runners Up:

Roast. 1128 Washington Blvd., Detroit; 313-961-2500,

Rue Franklin. 341 Franklin St., Buffalo; 716-852-4416,

Cheap Eats — Mackie's
After a morning on a Port Stanley beach, nothing hits the spot like Mackie’s orangeade, so adored by its flip-flop-wearing fans that the owners patented the recipe. 

Mackie’s has been around 101 summers now. The Lale family has owned it for 37, serving hamburgers and hotdogs to barefooted beach lovers. “People grew up coming here in the summers, and now they bring their kids, their grandkids,” Greg Lale says.

Be warned: Lines can be long. Splashing in the waves and building castles on the shore leaves families famished. “We’re busy all summer long,” Lale says. 124 William St., Port Stanley, Ontario; 519-782-4390

Runners Up:

Eddie’s Grill. 5377 Lake Road E.,
Geneva, Ohio; 440-466-8720

Monroe’s Original Hot Dog. 1111 W. Front St., Monroe, Mich.; 734-241-1612,

Burger — Jack's Gastropub

A  turkey burger served with grainy Dijon mustard, peach and roasted red pepper chutney and topped off with ... cottage cheese? 

Surprisingly, the combination works at Jack’s Gastropub, where featured burgers of the week, including the turkey burger with cottage cheese, are often suggestions made by customers and turned into reality by a creative kitchen staff, says Trevor Loop, who owns and operates the restaurant with his wife and three siblings. “We like to experiment,” he says.

But it’s the fresh ingredients that really make the burgers shine at Jack’s. A local baker brings by buns three times a week. Then each 6-ounce patty is handmade and grilled to perfection. During the busiest time of year the restaurant goes through 250 pounds of meat a week.

“The secret to a good burger is a good sear, with a little caramelization to keep it moist inside,” Loop says.

And what’s a good burger without a good beer? Jack’s delivers here, too, offering customers a list of 40 Canadian craft beers to choose from. 31 Division St. S., Kingsville, Ontario; 519-733-6900,

Runners Up:

Firebirds Wood Fired Grill. 680 Millcreek Mall, Erie, Pa.; 814-864-1599,

McGeady’s Town Pub. 39 S. Monroe St., Monroe, Mich.; 734-243-1220,

Coffee — Erie Island Coffee Co.

New to the coffee scene, Erie Island Coffee Co. opened its downtown Cleveland location just three years ago after launching its first store on Kelleys Island.

 But the locally owned shop, with its friendly atmosphere and top-notch brews, has quickly become a Cleveland mainstay. A second location — complete with a drive-thru — has since opened in Rocky River, Ohio, and Erie Island Coffee Co. roasts are available in Heinen’s 17 grocery stores.

“All of our blends are roasted in Cleveland,” adds co-owner Annalie Glazen. Various Cleveland locations, 

Runners Up:

Mr. Smith’s Coffee House.
140 Columbus Ave., Sandusky, Ohio; 419-625-6885,

Spot Coffee. Various Buffalo locations,

Best Perch — Knechtel's

Knechtel’s owners know a lot of its business is due to its location. “If you go any further you’ll be in the lake,” said Diane Natte, who runs Knechtel’s with her father and four siblings.

But it’s not just the view that keeps visitors coming back for more. The lightly breaded perch, fried to yummy perfection, is its true star attraction.

In the busy summer months, Knechtel’s, an ultracasual restaurant where meals are served on paper plates with plasticware, goes through 300 pounds of Lake Erie perch a day.

“We get it delivered fresh every day,” Natte says. “That’s part of the secret to why it’s so good.”

Get takeout from the window to eat in the picnic area. A lot of diners come in swimsuits, hungry after a morning of splashing and sandcastle-building. 

“We see

it all,” Natte says. “We’re a Port Dover tradition, and our perch has always been a favorite.”

15 Walker, Port Dover, Ontario; 519-583-1908

Runners Up:

Jolly Roger Seafood House. 1737 E. Perry St., Port Clinton, Ohio; 419-732-3382

Syd’s Place. 2992 W. Lake Road, Erie, Pa.; 814-838-3089

Ice Cream


A 112-year-old family recipe featuring cooked vanilla is the secret behind the yumminess of Toft’s ice cream, says Chuck Meisler, whose family is now in its fifth generation of operating Toft’s Dairy, just outside of Sandusky on U.S. Route 6. The ice cream parlor attached to the working dairy is a treat in and of itself, with old-fashioned school desks lined up against one wall for patrons to relax while they lick towering cones of ice cream.

But if you can’t make it there, don’t fret. Ice cream parlors in Port Clinton and Fremont operate under the Toft’s name, and the ice cream is packaged for sale in many grocery stores in the region as well. 3717 Venice Road, Sandusky, Ohio;

Runners Up:

Mitchell’s Ice Cream. Various Ohio locations,

Twins Ice Cream Parlour.
1028 Bay St., Port Rowan, Ontario; 519-586-7994

Walleye — Don's Lighthouse
The Lake Avenue restaurant, housed in a beautiful landmark building just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Cleveland, has been around for years. But that doesn’t mean it has let itself go.

Don’s does its seafood dishes really well. But it does its walleye to perfection. The Great Lakes Walleye, which manager Kraig Sternquist says is fresh from Lake Erie, is a generous portion encrusted with pretzel crumbs. It is served with whipped potatoes, sweet corn succotash and whole-grain honey mustard aioli. Heaven in your mouth.

The murals on the walls might give diners something to talk about if their business lunch isn’t going as smoothly as they’d hoped, but if they’ve ordered the walleye, at least they’ll

have that to smile about. 8905 Lake Ave., Cleveland; 216-961-6700,

Runners Up:

Brennan’s Fish House. 102 River St., Grand River, Ohio; 440-354-9785,

New Sandusky Fish Co. 235 E. Shoreline Drive, Sandusky, Ohio; 419-621-8263

Microbrewery — Great Lakes Brewing
Great Lakes Brewing made 1,000 barrels of beer its first year in operation in 1988. Now, 24 years later, the company brews 110,000 barrels annually. The owners of the brewery embrace its Lake Erie roots, the good and the bad, choosing regional names for its beers, such as the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, the Commodore Perry IPA and the Burning River Pale Ale. “People in the region have a really strong allegiance to our brand,” says Marissa Desantis, a spokeswoman for the brewery. “People just love our beers.” The brewpub is a full-service restaurant. Don’t forget to look for the bullet holes in the taproom, rumored to have been made by Elliot Ness. That’s one way to get a beer named after you. 2516 Market Ave., Cleveland; 216-771-4404,

Runners Up:

The Brewerie. 123 W. 14th St., Erie, Pa.; 814-454-2200,

Railway City Brewing. 168 Curtis St., St. Thomas, Ontario; 519-631-1881,

Pizza — Chet and Matt's Pizzza

Feeling adventurous? Try the spaghetti and meatball pizza. Or go the more traditional route with a cheese and pepperoni pie. Either way, diners win. Fresh ingredients, homemade sauce and just-tossed crusts combine for a slice of heaven.

This independent, locally owned restaurant has been going strong for 16 years, says Chet Leser, who owns the 260-seat pizzeria with his brother, Matt.

Don’t want to eat out? A drive-up window and delivery service are also options. But visiting is half the fun: kids especially love the full-size goalpost and working high school scoreboard in the parking lot. 1013 E. Strub Road, Sandusky, Ohio; 419-626-6000,

Runners Up:

John’s Wildwood Pizzeria. 105 Erie St., Edinboro, Pa.; 814-734-7355,

Olde Town Pizza House.
195 Cleveland Ave., Amherst, Ohio;

Sunday Brunch — Peek'n Peak
You won’t need to eat again all day after feasting at the Sunday brunch at Peek’n Peak Resort and Spa, which is almost as well known for its Sunday nosh as it is for its popular ski slopes and golf courses. The buffet just keeps going and going and going, with appetizers, hot entrees and a seafood station worthy of a beachside resort. While at some restaurants quantity can mean a sacrifice in quality, that isn’t true at the Peek, where freshly cut meats, sweet cornbread muffins, rich appetizers, and a never-ending array of desserts will keep you coming back for more. Servers keep the party going by offering sparkling wine and Bloody Marys. 1405 Olde Road, Findley, N.Y.; 716-355-4141,

Runners Up:

The Feve. 30 S. Main St., Oberlin, Ohio;

The Pufferbelly Restaurant. 414 French St., Erie, Pa.; 814-454-1557,

Waterfront Dining — The Boardwalk Marina
Park your boat at the dock, then go explore at the Boardwalk Marina, which was expanded in 2007 and has many deckside restaurants and bars to choose from, with choices ranging from a takeout window to tableside service.

A can’t miss: The creamy and rich lobster bisque. There’s also live music, shopping, cold beers, frozen margaritas and a harbor taxi available to boaters. No matter the choice while here, the panoramic view — especially at sunset — is beautiful and the people-watching opportunities unparalleled. 341 Bayview, Put-in-Bay, Ohio; 419-285-3695,

Runners Up:

Jackalope Lakeside. 301 Lakeside Ave., Lorain, Ohio;

Rum Runners Cove. 2 State St., Erie, Pa.; 814-454-7160,