Dining on the water

Hungry? Thirsty? Head for the waterfront

by Ann Smith

No sharks, no salt, no worries, Lake Michigan tee-shirts say. Where’s the one that says: Best waterfront dining ever? 

The shoreline boasts so many bars and restaurants with water views we might go broke before we visit them all. But try, we must. We’ll begin in Muskegon and highlight six standouts, working our way south.

The Deck
The Deck

The Deck, Muskegon

Is a party bar where you can dance in the sand on your wishlist? Head for The Deck where — at the height of the summer — bands play every night and there’s always sand and fun. Beach volleyball, liquor-laced slurpies, a big BBQ-and-more menu on an expanse of beach.  It opens for the season on May 17. What’s not to like about The Deck?

Bringing the wow factor is its location in Pere Marquette Park, a clean, sandy 27-acre beach that city crews rake daily. How many bars do you know of where you can come ashore from kiteboarding and ramble across the sand in your suit for a rum runner and half a rack of ribs?

1601 Beach St., Muskegon

Snug Harbor
Snug Harbor

Snug Harbor, Grand Haven

Want a break from the tourist buzz downtown? Two blocks from Grand Haven’s shops and musical fountain, Snug Harbor has a laid-back vibe, indoors and out. No bands, no flash, just a relaxed atmosphere, a Jimmy Buffett soundtrack and a menu that includes ramen, sushi, a raw bar and a roast beef club that’s been on the menu forever. 

The place seats 450. Half of those seats are on decks, some shaded by a pergola. The deck downstairs is on a lawn that slopes to the walkway along the Grand River. The view west stretches to the bright red South Pier Inner Lighthouse and Lake Michigan.

Boaters: tie-ups out front make it easy to arrive by water, order online and have meals delivered “curbside.”  

Snug Harbor is a great spot to linger over a late meal or cocktail while you wait for night to fall before strolling back toward town to take in the magic of the musical fountain. 

311 S Harbor Dr., Grand Haven


Noto’s at the Bil-Mar, Grand Haven    

Hankering for Italian food with a sunset on the side? Noto’s is not a corporate team’s idea of what that means; eight members of the Noto family bring authenticity to this lakeside restaurant and bar.

And when they say “join us on the beach” they are not kidding. That’s all that separates the place from Lake Michigan. Grab a spot under an umbrella and wiggle your toes in the sand.

Lunch and dinner are served indoors and out with traditional options like pizza and pasta. Other fare includes cioppino, polenta with roasted mushrooms, shrimp, scallops and fish. This menu hits both ways. There’s also lamb chops, burgers and weekend prime rib. Desserts include mascarpone cheesecake, tiramisu and cannoli. 

Located just south of Grand Haven City Beach, its parking lot is ample. So are the drinks from the bar. 

1223 S Harbor Dr., Grand Haven


Boatwerks, Holland

Happy with a small lake? Boatwerks’ enormous deck topped with a white canopy reminds us of a schooner about to embark on Lake Mac-
atawa, the body of water a few blocks west of downtown Holland. 

Sunset views are spectacular along the deck’s edge. The extensive menu includes lots of seafood. It’s among Holland’s “date night” places, and folks celebrating birthdays and anniversaries may dress up, but casual dress is common, too. There’s live music some nights on the patio.

Some diners may arrive by boat. Families with wiggly little ones along may appreciate the ducks that gather near the dock, and sometimes waddle across the deck, and the nearby municipal playground.

216 Van Raalte Ave., Holland

Coral Gables
Coral Gables

Coral Gables, Saugatuck  

Like to bop from one thing to another on a night out? Coral Gables saw you coming. 

This downtown rambling former hotel is a hive of bars, decks, dining and things to do — and only a boardwalk separates it all from the Kalamazoo River.

Have a meal on an upstairs deck or the deck at boardwalk level. Nip inside upstairs to catch a comedy show, cool off at the big horseshoe bar or see what they’re pouring at the tiki bar. In the Corner Bar and Grill below, check baseball scores or shoot some pool. Rent a paddleboard or kayak at Coral Gables’ dock. Watch the sun go down from the deck off the piano bar at Coral Gables’ next-door “annex.” Toast your tootsies by a fire pit and watch the river flow on by while enjoying a nightcap from Saugatuck’s only beach bar.

There’s nothing highfalutin about Coral Gables. The food’s fine, but the main draw is fun, and all those bars keep the party going. It’s a place where you can be yourself, straight from the beach, boat or shopping. 

For burgers, pizza, fried perch and the like, or appetizers to fuel a table of friends, head for the deck off the Corner Bar. Upstairs, Il Forno serves dishes like steak and lobster mac ‘n’ cheese. The Annex dishes up breakfast standards plus huevos rancheros and biscuits and gravy.

In May, comedians perform on Fridays and Saturdays. The frequency builds as the summer progresses. The same goes for the professionals who make the music happen at the piano bar one building over. 

220 Water St., Saugatuck

The Butler
The Butler

The Butler, Saugatuck

Does shade sound good with your meal-and-a-view? Where picnic tables once dotted the sunny lawn, The Butler opened a covered two-story patio that offers diners views of Kalamazoo Lake and its line-up of yacht club vessels. 

For the best sunset views, snag a table on the water sides of the patio building. The sun sets beyond the half-mile-wide strip of land that separates Kalamazoo Lake from Lake Michigan. Food is served till half an hour before closing time. Hours vary.

It’s known for its Butler Burgers (which diners have been enjoying since LBJ was president). Steak and seafood are on the menu now, too, but flip flops are still fine. Live music on the patio several days a week usually features rock-leaning local bands.

40 Butler St., Saugatuck