Michigan’s Blue Water Area, affectionately known as the “Thumb,” sometimes feels like it’s been frozen in time. Days on the Lake is one of the region’s relics from the past, a harborside restaurant and string of lakeside cabins that cater to charter boat captains and fishing enthusiasts. The Days Bar and Grill is a lunch destination for many tourists visiting nearby Port Austin.
John and I popped in for lunch on Saturday of July 4th weekend and were lucky enough to grab two seats at the bar just as a group of fishermen brought in a freshly-caught haul of walleye. The restaurant offers a “Hook and Cook” special where you can have the kitchen either fry or blacken your catch. The special comes with coleslaw, french fries, or hush puppies and is served family style, that is, arranged in fried heaps on white diner plates. The group of fishermen handed over the clear bag of filets to the bartender, requested them fried, and quickly claimed the three remaining barstools. They ordered a bucket of Labatt Blues as though they planned to stay awhile.
I’ve been vacationing in the Thumb long enough to safely order up a bloody mary and know I will get exactly what I want—Zing Zang mix, well vodka, dill pickle spear, and olives. It’s a risk ordering a bloody at a bar in Detroit; you might end up with a thick, ketchupy concoction, garnished with a meat stick and cheese cube. But dive bars in the Thumb region tend to get it right; whether at Shelley’s or The Landing, the Blue Water bloody is thin, briny—almost vinegary— ready to cut through the most shameful of hangovers or a basket of deep-fried mushrooms. Days is no exception. I ordered mine spicy with a Budweiser snit.
While I love knowing I can get the bloody I want, I also know Days on the Lake is one of those places where you get what you get. Meaning substitutions, additions, modifications are frowned upon, and generally signify one’s outsider status. At a place like this, I prefer to blend in. So I always order the fish sandwich.
They elevate their fish sandwich by paying attention to something oft-ignored: the geometry of the fish. Sandwich lovers know that a fusiform fish and a round bun make for awkward eating, yet most restaurants maintain the status quo. The Days fish sandwich is served on a toasted oblong bun creating the perfect bread-to-fish ratio. Their bun encases every part of the fish ensuring each bite has equal parts lettuce, tomato, tartar, and American cheese; it is a revelation.
As part of an Independence Day special my sandwich came with a side of redskin potato salad instead of coleslaw. Although it was a delicious departure from the norm, I missed the cold crunch of the creamy slaw. But I didn’t dare ask for a substitution.
As we finished the last bites of our sandwiches, the kitchen brought out our fishermen friends’ Hook and Cook special. One of them noticed me eying the crispy golden piles of walleye, “Care to try some?”
“Are you sure?” I asked, playing it cool.
He asked the bartender for an extra plate and gave me a filet.
“It’s good just like that. Doesn’t need a thing.”
And he was right. Crispy, mild, flaky. Just the faintest touch of lake water.