Clinton Inn: Hidden Lake roadhouse
ďWho built these towns? Why here?Ē asked my husband as we cruised US-12 on our first road trip of the season, heading for the fabled Hidden Lake Gardens in Tipton. One of the towns along the way is Clinton, which sprang up in the late 1820s at a corner of strategic importance and natural bounty--where the Chicago Road met the River Raisin. The hospitality industry helped put Clinton on the map; one of its early roadhouses, built in 1831, was important enough to be targeted by Henry Ford, who had it taken apart and rebuilt for his Greenfield Village, where it now stands as the Eagle Tavern. A thriving town at the turn of the twentieth century, Clinton faded as newer routes took away its traffic. Itís now pretty, uh, sleepy, especially in the off-season. On that first visit, at around 1 on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in very early spring, there was not a soul on Main Street.
We headed to the Clinton Inn, whose imposing clock tower has dominated the two-block downtown since 1901. Although the inn has had many owners over the years, its old-time essence is intact. Itís even a little spooky--creaky wooden floors, narrow hallways, high tin ceilings, and unsmiling portraits of abstemious ancestors registering across the ages their opinion of the eight kinds of martinis now available at the bar.
We found brunch set up in one of the two dining rooms and joined what felt like a local after-church crowd as neighbors greeted neighbors. The offerings were familiar standards including eggs Benedict, home fries, French toast, waffles, carved roast beef, and a basic selection of fruits and salads alongside a dessert table. Most dishes were well executed if not exceptional, but a few stood out. Rashers of bacon were perfectly crisped and piled high; cooked-to-order omelets were skillfully rendered with sauteed mushrooms. The blueberry muffins were fresh, a welcome respite from sugary, industrial mega-muffins. The hot drink selection included a variety of organic green teas.
We left fortified and continued on to Hidden Lake Gardens, about a ten-minute drive from the inn. This was the real object of our excursion: 750 glorious acres on the edge of the Irish Hills. If the Clinton Inn had seemed in another century compared to Ann Arbor, Hidden Lake Gardens was in another country (but less than forty-five nonfreeway minutes away). That first day we checked out the small conservatory and hiked to work off brunch, up the hills along well-marked paths, back down, and around the lake, where the honk of an endangered trumpeter swan echoed around the hills.
The next week we went back to hike the trail up 1,061-foot Cobblerís Knob with dog Tansy enthusiastically leading her human pack. Along the way we passed a kettlehole carved out of the landscape by receding glaciers, where we were astonished by what sounded like thousands of frogs in the craterís boggy recesses. It was still too early for flowers, but bulbs were already poking their shoots out of the ground, and buds jammed the branches. May is spectacular here, opening with the gardenís tens of thousands of daffodils and moving on to magnolia, crab apple, and cherry trees in bloom.
Beat and hungry after the long hike, we nearly headed to Tecumseh, where we like the slightly goofy Tea Garden Cafe and the ambitious Evans Street Station. But we decided to take the direct route home and hit the Clinton Inn again for an early supper. I chose a dish I imagined might have been on the menu 100 years ago--a chicken potpie with a biscuit topping. Although apparently homemade, with chunks of chicken breast and cubed potatoes, it lacked almost any seasoning, and the herb-cheddar biscuit was leaden. My husbandís respectable burger and fries proved the wisdom of a simpler approach to ordering.
Is this food worth a special trip? Probably not, but Hidden Lake Gardens definitely is, and the Clinton Inn has a unique quirky charm worth a stop on your way there (especially Sunday brunch). As we left, there wasnít much life on Clintonís Main Street. This time we found ourselves asking not who built these towns and why, but whatís next for them?
104 West Michigan, Clinton
Tues.-Thurs. 11 a.m.-8 p.m., Fri. & Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Sun. brunch 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Sun. dinner 2-6 p.m. Closed Mon.
Appetizers $2.75-$7.50, lunch entree salads $6.25–$7.95, sandwiches $4.95-$7.25, lunch entrees $7.25–$9.75, dinner entrees $7.50-$16.95, desserts $3.75–$4.50; Sunday brunch $8.95 (adults), $4.95 (children ages 5–12),
$1 per year (children ages 1-4)
Published in the Ann Arbor Observer, May 2007