The Southerner makes Saugatuck a destination for fried chicken, classic cocktails
By Jeremy Gonsior
Ten minutes before opening time, customers were lined up by the small restaurant just up the river from downtown Saugatuck.
The rest of town was quiet — a handful of cars, a few people window shopping. The summer destination was clearly in transition to the offseason. But outside The Southerner on this cool September evening, the buzz in the parking lot was different.
Soon the staff opened their doors, and people of all ages entered one party at a time — some heading to the quaint bar to the left, while others were ushered to cozy dining areas with views of the Kalamazoo River.
Matchbox Twenty played in the background at just the right level. Our server arrived promptly and flashed a warm smile. I looked around, took it all in, and felt like I’d arrived at a wonderful dinner party.
That’s just the way Matthew Millar, The Southerner’s owner and chef, wants his guests to feel.
“We never want to take ourselves too seriously here,” he said. “We’re pretty laid back, casual. We want it to be a little loud, a bustling party.”
Known best as a fried chicken joint that leans local and artisanal, The Southerner recently completed its seventh summer season and has slowly developed a reputation for serving Saugatuck residents well.
“We have always wanted to be a part of the community, not just a summer joint,” Millar said. “We stay open year-round so we are here for the locals. Staff can work year-round and make a living.”
The Southerner’s roots trace back to the 1950s when many Appalachian families migrated north to Michigan seeking work in the auto industry. Millar’s family relocated from Tennessee to Detroit, where he was born. He slowly made his way across the state to the Grand Rapids area.
In the kitchens of various fine dining establishments, his cooking never lost his family’s Southern influence. Eventually, the two-time James Beard Award finalist decided to open a more relaxed place with a nod to his heritage. In 2015, Millar and business partners started The Southerner.
Like any restaurant, it was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. With staffing levels now closer to normal, though, they are back to serving dinner seven days a week and may phase in weekend lunch service during the offseason.
While the menu has a delightful mix of regional comfort food — shrimp and grits, braised collards, catfish poor boys — one item stands out in Millar’s mind.
“We are a fried chicken restaurant,” he said. “It drove the concept from the beginning.”
It’s deservedly popular, but not the only star. On my visits this fall the Blue Crab Calas appetizer — Carolina gold rice fritters served with creole remoulade — and Little Gem Salad with fried chicken tenders, Point Reyes blue cheese and a refreshing watercress dressing composed a meal worth going out for. A generous portion of mac and cheese was comfort food at its finest.
Over the years, The Southerner has added dishes influenced by the Lowcountry region, New Orleans, and even Texas, Millar said. But he still refers to the restaurant as “a love letter to Appalachia.”
Both the physical bar area and The Southerner’s bourbon list and cocktail menu were recently updated. Millar said the bourbon selection is one of the best in Michigan and the cocktails are fun, new twists on traditional drinks. Sampling cocktails — a smoky Whiskey Collins, Maple Old Fashioned, and the Corpse Reviver No. 2, a refreshing drink that packs a punch and is one of the bartender’s favorites — a friend and I lingered for nearly two hours talking with the bartender and fellow customers.
Millar hopes The Southerner will become a classic in its own right, an established restaurant in the area like Phil’s Bar & Grille. “We want to grow old here,” he said.