Mode's Bum Steer
Landmark and legacy
By Janice Binkert | Dec. 8, 2018
Although today’s downtown Traverse City boasts a large and bustling bar and restaurant scene, things were quite different when Anita and Bob Mode opened Mode’s Bum Steer on State Street over 40 years ago. Times and tastes have changed, the economy has had its ups and downs, and many food and beverage establishments have come and gone in the meantime, but Mode’s has prevailed through it all.
“We started Mode’s back in 1975, and back then there were very few restaurants in town,” said Anita Mode. “We’re the longest-running restaurant under the same family ownership in Traverse City. We lived upstairs for the first five years, and it was great, especially in the beginning, because if something happened, we were right here.” Bob passed away 11 years ago, but Anita and their daughter, Skylar, who now serves as the restaurant’s manager, are continuing the legacy.
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
The familiar tan brick façade of Mode’s, with its bright red awnings and the whimsical steer painted on the front, is almost as retro as its interior, which sports cushy red leatherette dining chairs, colorful faux Tiffany lamps, tufted green-backed bar stools, and red and green plaid carpeting. It’s part of the charm of Mode’s, giving it the feel of an old Chicago steakhouse. But it looked very different when the Anita and Bob took it over. For one thing, there was no kitchen in the building, which had previously housed a couple of different bars. There had also been a tack shop at the back at one time, and behind that a blacksmith. The basement was a coal chute — now it’s the restaurant’s banquet room.
“We moved the original bar down there and built the existing one in the dining room to replace it,” said Anita. “And eventually we built a kitchen, although it’s really small now that our menu has grown so much. We remodeled quite a bit over the years, a little at a time, because we couldn’t afford to do it all at once.”
The young couple was involved in every aspect of the business from the beginning. “I was the bartender, cook, waitress, everything,” said Anita. “Bob was in the kitchen most of the time. Gradually, we added more people and more menu items — it just kept growing, and it didn’t take very long. We were of course hoping for that, but we didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. We are very lucky to have longtime employees — some of them have been with us for 30 years or more.”
As the menu and staff grew, so did Mode’s clientele. Rattling off the names of many well-known Traverse City businesspeople and residents who frequented Mode’s through the years, Anita said, ““Everybody knew everybody in town back in those days. It was like one big party. They’d come in for dinner, and they’d be all over the place, table hopping, and the waitresses would say, ‘Where are you sitting for dinner?’ It was actually really hard for me to even charge people for their meals, because I knew all of them, and they were friends.”
Looking back, one anecdote in particular sticks out in Anita’s mind. “During the big snowstorm of ’78, we were the only place open in town. Bob had a four-wheel-drive Chevrolet Blazer, and he had gone out and picked up waitresses and cooks and bartenders and brought them in here to work. And somehow word got around, and people were cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and snowmobiling to get here. It was so much fun!”
Mode’s menu was created around the available space and the kitchen’s ability to produce certain things, Anita explained. The website puts it in a nutshell: Steak. Seafood. BBQ ribs.
“In the kitchen, we have the charbroil station and the fish station, with a cook assigned to each one. The salad and sandwich prep is done out front behind the bar on the electric grill. And everybody on the front-of-the-house staff is cross-trained. They all know how to serve, bartend, and cook.”
When you think of a traditional steakhouse, you also think of traditional appetizers, and Mode’s has them: jumbo shrimp (with homemade cocktail sauce), baked brie (with pineapple-horseradish chutney), and Chicago specialty escargot deJonghe (snails coated in garlic-sherry bread crumbs), for example.
One section of the menu is labeled “On the Lighter Side,” which is apparently relative in the steakhouse world, since it includes the very popular Polish sausage (on a roll with hot mustard and onion), prime rib French dip, a “BBQ pig” sandwich, and the McMode Burger (a cheeseburger with Canadian bacon and special sauce). And speaking of burgers, since the beginning, Mode’s have been made to order with 92 percent lean sirloin from the local Oleson’s grocery store, ground fresh every day.
Mode’s Angus beef — prime rib, porterhouse, filet mignon and other cuts, charbroiled and served with a baked potato, wedge salad and Texas toast — is what the restaurant was built on and what brings in many old and new customers. Another signature dish is fresh walleye, sourced from the northernmost shore of Lake Superior.
“When we’re out, we’re out,” said Anita. “And you want to run out. That’s how we keep it fresh.” Other popular entrées include Atlantic salmon (broiled with dill sauce and parmesan cheese or blackened), twin lobster tails (with drawn butter), and rack of lamb (baked in Grand Marnier sauce). Salad dressings, tartar sauce and cocktail sauce are all made in house, along with a host of other condiments.
The first establishment to occupy the space that is now Mode’s Bum Steer — Hoolihan’s Bar, way back in 1902 — is renowned for having gotten the first liquor license sold in Traverse City, which Mode’s still has today. “We’re not the oldest bar — that’s Sleder’s,” said Anita, “but we have the oldest liquor license. Back then, it cost $416.67, which was a lot of money at the time!” In the modern era, Mode’s bartenders here have maintained a reputation for making excellent drinks of all kinds, especially steakhouse classics like martinis, Manhattans, sidecars, and whiskey sours.
SPREADING THE WORD
“There are so many wineries, breweries, distilleries and new restaurants here now — but they bring a lot of visitors to Traverse City, which is good for everyone,” said Anita. “You know what’s really nice? Word of mouth, and we get a lot of it. People have come in, more often than you’d think, and say, ‘We didn’t know where to go to eat in town, and we were discussing it at the winery, or wherever. There were people around us who overheard us, and they all said, ‘Mode’s!’ And the Grand Traverse Resort and the other motels and hotels in the region send people here all the time. Because they know their guests are going to get a good meal. We’re very appreciative of that.”
Anita confessed that though it’s not always been easy operating a restaurant, and that doing it as a couple has its own challenges, she wouldn’t have done anything differently. “I don’t know if the business will stay in the family when I decide to retire — time will tell — but Skylar does a wonderful job as our restaurant manager. She really runs the place now, and I’m in the background doing bookwork. And my grandson is coming up — wrapping potatoes just like Skylar and her brothers did when they were kids!”
Asked what she thinks is the secret to the restaurant’s popularity and longevity, Anita insisted that it’s no secret at all: “We’ve kept our prices pretty reasonable compared to a lot of places, and we serve good food. It’s place where people can come and relax, sit and talk, eat and drink, and linger. We don’t take any reservations, so they don’t have to feel rushed. We’ve had engagements, we’ve had breakups, we’ve had all kinds of stuff happen here. It’s a place that’s a little more intimate — it’s not rowdy and loud. Sure, we get busy, but everybody has their own space. We just have a really wonderful clientele. This place has been good to us. We’re very fortunate.” Mode’s loyal customers would no doubt say the same.
Mode’s Bum Steer is located at 125 East State St. in downtown Traverse City. (231) 947-9832, www.modesbumsteer.com
We had such a great restaurant association downtown from the start, and we used to all meet once a month at one of the members’ places — it was really nice. Today, a lot of the restaurant owners and staff come in here after they close, because they know we’re open later than anyone in town, and they can still get a drink and something to eat. It’s great, because we all know each other. We don’t get together as much as we used to do when there were only a handful of us, but we keep in contact and work together.”
CHRISTMAS “STEER” FOR KIDS
With Christmas just around the corner, Mode’s is experiencing another wave of generous giving from customers, who make donations annually to help Anita and her staff buy toys to bring to the Traverse City fire station, where the firemen distribute them to underprivileged children in the area who might not get a gift otherwise. “They find out the ages of the kids, and match the toys to the ages — and then they hold a wrapping bee here at the restaurant before they go out to play Santa,” she said. “We’ve been pairing with them and Radio Shack for years to make this possible.”