Chelsea, Michigan is a charming southeast Michigan town with a population of just over 5,000. Perhaps you’re just passing through on Route 52 from Ann Arbor to Lansing, the state’s capital city, and you want to grab a quick bite to eat. Maybe you’re in town for a production at the Purple Rose Theater, owned by the Emmy-winning actor, musician, and playwright Jeff Daniels. In any case, you’ll find a surprising number of must-try restaurants in Chelsea, Michigan in historic buildings with an allure all their own.
The 5 Best Restaurants in Chelsea, Michigan
Best Fine Dining in Chelsea, Michigan
112 South Main Street // +1 734-475-0470
The Common Grill is a fashionable American Bistro with an emphasis on fresh seafood flown in daily. Chef-owner Craig Common heads up this un-“common”-ly good destination restaurant that makes it a must-try dining stop in Chelsea, Michigan.
The Common Grill has a seasonal menu with vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free choices. While the menu focuses on seafood, those who prefer poultry or meat have plenty of options. The Korean lamb ribs, blackened steak salad, and the grilled chicken club will please the landlubbers.
The wine list encompasses a variety of American wines, featuring many from California. If you want to experience Michigan during your visit, try some of the wines from the Traverse City region.
If you’re visiting from out of state, you’ll want to try a Michigan menu of Great Lakes’ offerings. House-made rosemary flatbread crackers accompany a smoked Lake Superior Whitefish pâté. It’s an appetizer with a distinctly Michigan flair. A black walnut-crusted Walleye that’s been pan-fried, accompanied with citrus butter, a wild rice pilaf, and sautéed spinach is another one of the Michigan-centered entrees. Lake Superior Whitefish is parmesan-crusted and comes with a roasted lemon-chive butter. orzo pasta with lobster, radicchio, cremini mushrooms, and garlic haricot vertes come as side dishes.
My favorite appetizer here is the Lobster Spring Rolls made with Asian slaw and Chinese mustard sauce drizzled over the top. The lobster is plentiful, as buttery chunks of lobster are studded throughout the roll. The filling is mixed with Napa cabbage, rolled in an egg roll wrapper, and then deep-fried. The Asian slaw is orange, red and yellow chopped bell peppers combined with Napa cabbage.
While many diners dress up in business casual attire to attend the local theatre after dinner, we felt at home in jeans. But dress doesn’t matter; it’s the food that shines in this excellent Chelsea fine dining restaurant.
Pro Tip: While planning your visit, consider the Purple Rose Theatre’s schedule. Common Grill takes reservations for groups of six or more, so if your group is less than six, it’s best to avoid dining right before a scheduled performance, as they can be busy.
Best Brewery in Chelsea, Michigan
115 South Main Street // +1 734-475-2337
Cedar planked, blond hardwood floors complement the exposed brick walls, for a cozy atmosphere. A gold couch and live plants in the entryway create a comfortable waiting area when there’s a wait. The latest they stay open is until 11:00 p.m. on Saturday nights, so it’s not your late-night hot spot. But this excellent Chelsea restaurant is definitely a great place to enjoy a meal with a local brew.
The evening I was there Chelsea Alehouse Marcella Golden Strong Ale was on tap. It’s a Belgian Strong Ale with 8% ABV – a 4-ounce sample was $2. Their mug club has over 1,000 members in it, where $100 gets you discounts on beer for life, among other things.
Trending these days is avocado toast. Chelsea Alehouse Brewery has taken this to the next level with a Toast of the Day. On the day I was there, the Toast of the Day was a Cuban. Using a piece of buttered and toasted baguette as the foundation, they piled on pieces of roast pork, a slice of ham, and Swiss cheese, all topped with house-made sweet pickle chips and then drizzled with a garlic and mustard aioli. The plate came with four pieces, which makes it a shareable appetizer.
Cudighi Sandwich, pronounced (Could-a-gEE), is a sandwich famous in Ishpeming and Negaunee, Michigan. While it’s the only place to get one in this area, even as a lifelong Michigander, I had never heard of it. It’s a flat cut mild Italian sausage, with marinara sauce, onions, red and green bell peppers, covered in mozzarella cheese, and it reminded me of a sausage and pepper Italian sandwich.
The menu lists their suppliers, with some items like the pretzels coming fresh from the bakery next door. They’re served with a beer cheese dip for a tasty appetizer or a nosh to accompany their house-made brew.
While the beer may be featured, this Chelsea, MI restaurant combines it with excellent regional and international food to make it where to go in town.
Pro Tip: Wednesday and Sunday nights have live music starting at about 8:00 p.m.
Best Cafe in Chelsea, Michigan
101 Main Street // +1 734-433-4226
Zou Zou’s Café is a French European-style café that took its name from a friend of the owner’s mother. It’s a fast-casual environment with counter service. Place your order, and the servers bring the food to your table. Their menu includes vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free options.
Zou Zou’s makes all the soups and bread in-house except the bagels. The fresh-baked bread, the foundation of their sandwiches, makes them stand out from other sandwich shops.
They make their lean Polish ham and cheddar cheese sandwich with house-made bread, grilled on a panini press for a warm, gooey sandwich.
Another favorite is the grilled corn beef sandwich. They bake their brisket in-house, slice it, and stack it high on the sandwich. They melt Swiss cheese on top and cover it with sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. If you don’t appreciate sauerkraut, they will substitute coleslaw for the sauerkraut.
While the bakery case has a wide selection of baked items, I couldn’t resist the taste of France with their crepes. My favorite was the chocolate crepes – topped with a drizzle of chocolate sauce and a dusting of powdered sugar.
Enjoy a glass of wine or some beer with their live music on Wednesday through Saturday evenings, in a family-friendly environment. This small but charming café is one of the best places to go in Chelsea.
Pro Tip: Be sure to get some bakery items to go, so that you have some for a snack later.
Best BBQ in Chelsea, Michigan
125 South Main Street // +1 734-562-2565
Smokehouse 52 sits on Highway 52 in Chelsea, also known as Main Street, and that’s what the 52 refers to in the name.
This BBQ is light and smoky with the flavor coming from apple and cherry wood. The result is that it isn’t too heavy on the smoky flavors normally associated with BBQ, and even those who usually don’t like BBQ are pleasantly surprised. A choice of five types of house-made BBQ Sauce accompanies the meat. The unusual one here is the Root Beer BBQ sauce. They also have an All-American Sauce, Steakhouse Gold, 52-Alarm, which is spicy, but not as hot as it sounds, and Kiss and Vinegar. With such a variety, you’re sure to find one that you’ll love.
Since they smoke BBQ with authentic wood-fired pits, it’s appropriate that the much of the restaurant’s décor is wood. Recovered barn wood covers the back wall of the main dining room, while chicken wire covers slices of tree trunks decorating another wall.
Something you won’t always find in a BBQ restaurant is cowboy caviar. It’s corn, black beans, onions, red and green bell peppers, tomato, black-eyed peas, served with the Kiss and Vinegar BBQ sauce as the dressing on this corn salad. You can order this as a side, or it comes as a base under the honey citrus grilled salmon.
The pit beans are a combination of butter beans, red beans, and white beans. Smoked pork and apples are cooked into the beans to make a slightly sweet version of pit beans.
Chelsea is home to the manufacturing plant for Jiffy Mix. Jiffy is just down the street, and Smokehouse 52 BBQ supports that local business by making their cornbread from Jiffy mix. I suspect they add something slightly different than the package directions to make it their own because it’s particularly moist.
The peach cobbler consists of lightly smoked peaches that they slice and place in the bottom of a ramekin. The peaches are mixed with a caramel sauce and topped with cake crumbles made from Jiffy baking mix. The lightly toasted topping comes with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream. Smoking the peaches is what makes this dish special.
In addition to BBQ, Smokehouse has a diverse bourbon menu. Depending on where you are from, this BBQ may not be prepared the same way as your traditional standards, but it is definitely a high quality barbecue restaurant in Chelsea. Make sure you try this out!
Pro Tip: Order a combination plate to taste a variety of meats and choose your favorite for future trips.
Best Apple Fritters in Chelsea, Michigan
117 South Main Street // +1 734-562-2654
While Chelsea Bakery isn’t a full-blown restaurant, it’s an excellent place for a cuppa joe and a pastry for breakfast or a snack. I had to include it as a must-try restaurant in Chelsea, Michigan. Why? Two words. Apple fritters.
The apple fritters have a combination of warm fall spices like cinnamon, and a dice of a variety of apples. The baker combines this in dough and deep-fries it, and then covers it with a thin powdered sugar glaze. These are large enough to share for a snack, but they are so delicious why would you?
In addition to the apple fritters, cookies, and donuts, you’ll find a variety of savory offerings like fresh-baked pretzels and ham and cheese croissants that you can turn into a light lunch, especially if you pair it with one of those sweets for dessert.
A sitting area with exposed brick walls is covered with artwork from local artists, all of which is for sale. Sit and enjoy your apple fritter and by the time you’re finished, perhaps you have decided on a new piece of art for your living room. Where else but Chelsea can you buy art and find a fine local restaurant?
Pro Tip: Go earlier in the day for the most extensive selection.
Which of these restaurants in Chelsea, MI do you most want to try? Let me know in the comments section below!
Amy Piper is a freelance travel writer, photographer, and blogger. A native of Michigan USA, she has traveled to 41 countries and 42 states, most recently adding New Mexico to the list. She aspires to go to Antarctica and finally visit all seven continents. She specializes in food and multi-generational travel, frequently traveling with her husband, daughter, and two granddaughters. Follow her on Twitter @amythepiper.