With towering skyscrapers, gorgeous state parks, and over 3,000 miles of the Great Lakes shoreline, Michigan has something for everyone. While visiting the state, make sure to try some of the region’s iconic foods and drinks.
Given its northern location and cold winters, the Great Lakes State features a lot of comfort foods to pass the time. From pizza with a buttery, burn cheesy crust to potato chips and fudge, here’s a look at the favorite culinary dishes and beverages in Michigan.
You’ve likely heard of New York pizza and Chicago pizza, but their lesser-known cousin is also worth a try. Detroit-style pizza is a square-shaped pie made in a deep dish. The cheese is spread across the entire top of the pizza, from edge to edge. The cheese and toppings (typically pepperoni) are then baked with another dollop of sauce, rather than on top.
The most famous Detroit-style pizza comes from Buddy’s Pizza. Originally known as Buddy’s Rendezvous, the restaurant was founded by Gus Guerra and Connie Piccinato. Legend has it that in 1946, the pair used a Sicilian dough recipe and a steel pan from a local automotive plant to create the nation’s first square pizza.
Buddy’s Pizza now has over a dozen locations throughout Michigan. Their original shop, located on Six Mile and Conant Street in Detroit, is still in operation.
Mackinac Island Fudge
Mackinac Island is a small piece of land in Lake Huron, between Michigan’s Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Native Americans were the sole occupants of Mackinac for many years until Europeans arrived in the late 1600s. By the mid-1800s, the island was a popular tourist destination.
Today, Mackinac Island State Park makes up about 80% of the island. Visitors can enjoy more than 70 miles of trails, breathtaking scenery, and historic buildings. One of the island’s biggest attractions is its variety of fudge shops.
In the 1880s, Rome Murdick and his family opened the island’s first candy shop and began making fudge on marble slabs. The marble gave the fudge a smooth texture and unique taste. It also allowed the fudge-making process to be viewed by the public, creating a draw for tourists.
Today, the 13 shops on the island produce more than 10,000 pounds of fudge every day during peak tourism season. Ryba’s Fudge, a popular chain on the island, operates four shops on Main Street. Ryba’s offers up to 21 rotating flavors of fudge that can be ordered online and shipped across the United States.
Coney Island Hot Dogs
When you hear “Coney Island,” you may first think of the neighborhood in New York, but in the Midwestern United States, the name refers to a type of restaurant. The first Midwestern Coney Island restaurant opened in Jackson, Michigan, in 1914. George Todoroff, a Macedonian immigrant, named it Coney Island in reference to the Brooklyn neighborhood, which many immigrants visited after landing at Ellis Island.
The original Coney Island restaurant was not trademarked, so many other restaurants with the same name began to appear throughout Detroit and the rest of Michigan. Most of the restaurants were opened by Greek or Macedonian immigrants. They all serve Coney dogs, though the recipe varies based on location.
Most Coney dogs feature a hot dog in a bun, topped with meat sauce, yellow mustard, onions, and sometimes cheese. Detroit-style Coney dogs are covered with beanless chili, while Flint-style dogs come topped with dry ground beef heart. Depending on the city and the restaurant, there are Coney dog variations for just about any meat-lover.
There are approximately 500 Coney Island diners in Michigan today. Two of the most famous are American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island. Greek brothers Gust and William Keros came to Michigan in the early 1900s.
Gust opened American Coney Island in 1917. William opened the Lafayette restaurant right next door just a few years later. Both restaurants have operated continuously in the same locations ever since and continue their friendly rivalry today.
Vernors Ginger Ale
Ginger ale is a popular mixer for alcoholic drinks, as well as a remedy for an upset stomach. There are hundreds of ginger ale brands sold all throughout the United States. In Michigan, however, if you’re going to have a glass of the sweet, bubbly soft drink, it had better be Vernors.
The story goes that in the early 1860s, James Vernor was a junior clerk at a drugstore in Detroit. He combined vanilla, spices, and ginger in an attempt to create a tonic that would calm the stomach. When he left to serve in the Civil War in 1862, he left the mixture in an oak cask.
Four years later, Vernor returned from the war to find that the oak had aged his tonic into a sweet, gingery elixir. He opened his own pharmacy and immediately began selling the drink at the soda fountain inside. It quickly became popular and Vernor allowed his ginger ale to be sold at other soda fountains too.
The Vernor family eventually sold the company, and the drink is no longer made in Detroit. However, you can find them at Meijer grocery stores throughout Michigan. Many restaurants that carry Dr. Pepper products also offer Vernors. Or shop online for Vernors (affiliate link).
The Upper Peninsula of Michigan is home to dozens of restaurants dedicated to the pasty. Pasties are pastry shells filled with a variety of ingredients, traditionally beef, pork, or chicken, often accompanied by potatoes.
In the 1840s, Cornish miners immigrated to the Upper Peninsula to work in the tin mines. Pasties were a convenient meal, as they could be heated up on a shovel over a lamp or fire. The dish was so prevalent among the miners that many of them began putting their initials in the crust, so they could differentiate theirs from everyone else’s.
Even after mining ended, pasties remained popular on the Upper Peninsula. When the Mackinac Bridge opened in 1957, the dish spread to the Lower Peninsula and popped up at restaurants throughout the state. May 24th was named National Pasty Day, though the holiday is only recognized in Michigan.
Modern-day pasties have much more variety than those of the 19th century. You can find pasties filled with vegetables, jalapeños, and cheese. Some bakeries and cafes even offer dessert pasties.
For a taste of the traditional dish, Lehto’s Pasties is a popular choice. The restaurant has been operating in St. Ignace, Michigan, since 1947. They offer three varieties of pasties: beef, chicken, and veggie. Most Michiganders eat their pasties with ketchup, but gravy is also a common option.
Like Coney dogs and pasties, the packzi (pronounced “pownch-key”) is another dish brought to Michigan by immigrants. And just so you know, pączki is the plural form of pączek, so no “s” goes on the end. During the Middle Ages, people in Poland made rich pastries just before they gave up certain foods for Lent.
When Polish immigrants came to the United States and settled in Midwestern cities like Detroit, they brought their recipes and traditions with them. Paczki were traditionally filled with pork fat. Over time, however, they got sweeter. Modern-day paczki resemble jelly- or custard-filled donuts. They’re often coated in powdered sugar.
Today, Paczki Day is celebrated every year on Fat Tuesday in Michigan. Pastry lovers line up for hours at local bakeries all throughout the state. Hamtramck is a small, traditionally Polish town in the Detroit metro area where Paczki Day is a major event.
New Palace Bakery is a popular pastry shop in Hamtramck with many flavors of paczki. On Paczki Day, they open in the wee hours of the morning– sometimes as early as 3:00 am.
Better Made Potato Chips
Michigan loves potato chips– possibly more than anywhere else in the United States, aside from probably Pennsylvania (the snack food capital of the world). In fact, Michigan produces more potatoes for potato chips than any other state.
At one point in the 20th century, there were 31 different potato chip companies operating in Detroit. Over the years, many of those companies ended up closing their doors for one reason or another. One manufacturer, however, has lived to claim the title of Detroit’s favorite potato chip.
In 1930, two Sicilian immigrants, Cross Moceri and Peter Cipriano, founded the Cross and Peters Potato Chip Company, which later became known as Better Made. They sold their potato chips door-to-door, as well as in retail locations. The chips quickly became a hit. The company expanded and improved its processes, allowing them to produce 100 pounds of potato chips at a time.
Over nearly 100 years, Better Made established itself as a Detroit staple. Today, the chips can be found on grocery store aisles and in vending machines all throughout Michigan. They sell flavors like red hot, dill pickle, garlic, and more. The company also produces a variety of other snack foods. You can buy the chips online too (affiliate link).
Vlasic pickles can be found just about anywhere in the United States, but in the mid-1900s, the company was local to Detroit. In the 1920s, a Croatian immigrant named Franjo Vlasic opened a creamery that sold milk, ham, and pickles to the Polish community. In 1950, Vlasic bought a pickle plant in Imlay City, and one of America’s most popular pickle brands was born.
By 1977, Vlasic sold 25% of all pickles in the United States. Even today, the pickles are made with Michigan-grown cucumbers and processed at the Imlay City plant. The plant produces a number of pickle flavors, including dill, bread and butter, sweet, and Xtreme Heat.
You certainly don’t have to travel to Michigan to enjoy the crunch of Vlasic pickles (affiliate link), but there’s no denying that they’re a Great Lakes State classic.
Michigan is the leading producer of tart cherries in the country, growing more than 90,000 pounds each year. The Northwest Lower Peninsula, in particular, is a hotspot for the fruit. The state grows so many cherries that Traverse City is referred to as the “Cherry Capital of the World”. Every July, Traverse City holds the National Cherry Festival.
The Cherry Festival is a weeklong affair celebrating all of Michigan’s cherry varieties. More than 100 events take place during the festival, including air shows, pit-spitting contests, parades, farmer’s markets, and cherry pie-eating contests.
If the Cherry Festival doesn’t coincide with your trip to Michigan, you can still find excellent cherry products throughout the state. The Grand Traverse Pie Company offers 12 different kinds of cherry pie, including cherry berry, cherry peach, and sugar-free cherry.
From immigrant-inspired baked goods to homegrown fruit and vegetables, Michigan is home to plenty of can’t-miss fares. When traveling in the Great Lakes State, don’t miss their most iconic dishes and drinks.