Quirky, comforting little places like the Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, are why you leave the Interstate. It’s not quirky in an it’s-so-bad-it’s-good sort of way—owners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White are in on the joke of its charm. Neither is it quirky in a calculated, corporate theme restaurant sort of way.
Instead, everything about the Travelers Club—the decor, the friendly, relaxed staff, the ambitious, multi-paged international menu—seems to have grown organically from the owners’ own travels and lives. You get the sense that the restaurant is the way it is because this is the kind of place they want it to be.
And the way it is is comfortable and charming. The whole place has a relaxed, slightly homemade, slightly shabby [in a hippieish good way] feel. Tubas, sousaphones, French horns and fluglehorns adorn the walls and ceiling, along with an assortment of world maps for the traveler in us all. In addition to the handful of tables and booths, there’s an outdoor garden patio with the world’s only Sousaphountain. The music, when someone remembers to put it on, is an eclectic mix.
The tuba collection [or museum, as they call it] grew just as organically. William is a tuba player. He started leaving horns around the restaurant to play with visiting musicians [speaking of WTF?] and ultimately decided to create a museum. Most of the horns on display are in playable condition.
An overnight Michigan road trip led us to the Travelers Club. We’d driven past it on previous trips, so when Marion found a positive write-up of it on Chowhound, we decided to give it a try for dinner. We liked it so much, we went back the next day for lunch.
As I said, the menu is ambitious. It goes on for pages and pages, embracing American classics along with latin, asian and middle eastern dishes. Pulling this off would be a feat for any restaurant; for a small place like this that does breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week, it is a formidable challenge. Not everything succeeds. But the stuff that is good is really good. And when we sent back a weirdly subpar gazpacho, the waiter cheerfully announced he would take it off the bill, without even being asked. Among the successes were the buffalo burgers and the ridiculously delicious Deluxe Nachos Grande with chorizo. There were plenty of excellent vegetarian offerings too.
A dinner special, Pescado en Tikin Xik—a fish dish from South and Central America, grouper fillet charbroiled in an achiote paste [a mixture of garlic, oregano, cumin, cinnamon, cloves, allspice and vinegar]—was wonderful, but just not plentiful enough. And let me clarify: We are not big eaters. But the fillets were tiny, probably weighing in at three or four ounces. We would gladly have paid a few dollars more than the far too modest price of $10.95 had another small fillet been added.
The prices across the board are insanely modest, even after factoring in my Chicago-trained threshold for wallet pain. This extends to the equally ambitious beer and wine lists. They serve 120 beers, all well-priced [although, of course, they were out of the first one Marion ordered]. And the well-chosen wine list—including more than a dozen Californias, a truly international selection of imports and even a few Michigan wines—has by-the-glass prices starting at $3.50 and topping out at just four dollars more.
It all adds up to this: Travelers Club International Restaurant & Tuba Museum is a delightful, cozy, quirky place that would quickly count us among its regulars if we lived there. Not precious, not hip. Just real. Best of all, it’s run by people you know you would end up calling your friends. And what more can a traveler ask for?
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