A delicious reason to rise and shine in Elk Rapids
By Craig Manning | Nov. 16, 2019
Not so long ago, Jamie Wentworth was 99 percent certain her restaurant had burned to the ground. Wentworth, who owns The Local in Elk Rapids, was heading home from the restaurant with her husband, Drew, when they got a call from a friend saying the building was on fire. As Wentworth tells the story, she immediately started bawling, fearing that she’d lost her dream and her business in a matter of minutes. As it turned out, the cloud of smoke that had seemed to emanate from the restaurant was coming from next door, where a neighbor had attempted to start the engine of his RV, only to have it burst into flames. The Local itself was safe, protected by a line of trees that separated the restaurant’s lot from the neighboring property.
It’s thanks to that line of trees — which Wentworth says her husband had wanted removed when they initially bought the property — that The Local will be able to celebrate its five-year anniversary in 2020. The restaurant opened in June 2015, serving a breakfast-and-lunch menu of comforting American fare in a small 42-seat diner-like setting. For Wentworth, that grand opening was the realization of a true lifelong dream.
“I've been in the restaurant industry all my life,” Wentworth told the Northern Express. “I grew up with it, and it's just one of those things where, when it's in your blood, you just can't seem to step away.”
Not that she didn’t try for a little while. Until five years ago, Wentworth was serving as an orthodontist’s assistant, helping put braces on kids. She already had her eye on the small building that would one day become The Local, situated east of downtown Elk Rapids. While the building kept coming up for lease, though, it didn’t hit the market until late 2014. When it did, Wentworth and her husband decided to take the plunge and buy the building. “I kind of just did it on a whim, and it's been a great five years,” she said.
What’s in a Name?
“The Local” is an apt name for this particular restaurant, for more reasons than one. When Wentworth first opened the doors, her goal was to source all her ingredients from around northern Michigan. That aim ultimately proved more difficult than she expected, particularly in the winter when local produce in many categories is harder to come by. In particular, Wentworth says she had trouble finding a local producer that could keep up with the literal dozens of eggs she goes through in any given breakfast rush. “It became too much of a struggle to find everything I needed to keep each item on the menu all the time.”
Still, The Local tries to stay true to its name by focusing on using only high-quality Michigan products. For instance, Wentworth sources all her breakfast meats from Ebels General Store in Falmouth. “They have just a remarkable product that I can’t rave about enough,” she said. “It's pricier than a lot of the stuff out there, but in this town, I figured that if I was going to do another breakfast restaurant — because there are three of us now — then I needed to set myself apart. That's just how I do it: with fresh Michigan products that I might have to pay more for, but that make everything better.”
The Local is also the definition of a “local haunt.” While Elk Rapids sees a lot of tourist traffic during the summertime, Wentworth says that The Local always retains a friendly atmosphere where it feels like everybody knows everybody else. The restaurant boasts a small, tight-knit staff, most of whom Wentworth says have “followed each other around from restaurant to restaurant for 20 years. Now that I have my own place, they’ve just come to work for me.”
Wentworth describes her “fun, friendly” staff as the kind of people that locals establish a knowing rapport with, and that many customers are regulars who stop in for breakfast or lunch on a monthly or even weekly basis. Even in the summer, when out-of-towners stop in, Wentworth says many of them are the same families from previous summers.
Wentworth herself works to cultivate an environment that is friendly, caring, and welcoming to all. Though she’s the lone cook in the kitchen throughout most of the year, she still finds a minute here or there to come out into the dining room and chat with guests. The Local also boasts an open kitchen, with a window behind the bar from which Wentworth can converse with customers even while she’s whipping up an omelet or fixing a sandwich.
Those relationships with local customers often go beyond just pleasantries, too. Wentworth says that, in the off-season, The Local depends largely on a clientele of retirees who live in and around Elk Rapids. “And because we have an older clientele, we have sadly lost a few over the years. I always go to their funerals, and their families are sometimes surprised. They’ll say ‘Oh, you fed him lunch once a week, but you came to his funeral?’ And I say ‘Of course I did.’”
Familiar Favorites Made Better
When asked how she would describe the menu at The Local, Wentworth says her strategy is to take familiar breakfast staples or lunch sandwiches and tweak them “just a smidge.” Case-in-point is the restaurant’s single most popular dish: the banana bread French toast. Wentworth starts with fresh-baked banana bread, serves up three substantial slices, and then dredges it in cornflakes to create “a nice crunchy outside with the warm banana bread inside.”
“This past summer, I sold almost 300 loafs of banana bread French toast,” Wentworth said. “I baked so much banana bread I thought I was going to go crazy.”
On the lunch side, look for the “Elk River,” Wentworth’s twist on the classic Reuben sandwich. The sandwich features all the trademarks of a Reuben: the shaved corned beef; the swiss cheese; the sauerkraut. But The Local’s version substitutes Russian dressing for fry sauce — a to-die-for concoction of ketchup, mayo, and pickle juice — and replaces the trademark rye bread with homemade cheddar jalapeno bread. In fact, most of The Local’s sandwiches are served on the famed cheddar jalapeno bread. While many first-time patrons assume the bread will be extremely spicy, Wentworth says the cheesy bread tempers the kick of the peppers and brings through the flavor without delivering too much heat.
When asked what her favorite thing on the menu is, Wentworth points to the Meguzee Point, her version of the Monte Cristo sandwich. Stacked high with shaved ham, turkey, and swiss cheese, and served on French toast with a dusting of powdered sugar and a side of raspberry jam, the Meguzee Point is, to this writer’s taste buds, a true decadent delight. For Wentworth, it also doubles as a tribute to her long history in the restaurant business.
“It seems like a million years ago, but I used to work at Dill's Old Towne Saloon in Traverse City,” Wentworth said, citing a now-shuttered northern Michigan restaurant, once famous for the “Golden Garter Revue” dinner theater show. “They had a Monte Cristo on the menu, and I swear that, for however many years since I've worked there before I bought this place, I would always find myself saying 'Man, I just want a Monte Cristo so bad.' So I brought it back, and it is probably my favorite thing on the whole menu. I would eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, anytime of the day, all day.”