Consider the Source
For two-time James Beard Award semi-finalist, Matt Millar, there was a clear moment during the grad school application process when he realized his true calling was not in academia.
Working in restaurants to make ends meet like so many other college students, Matt soon realized that he much preferred working in a kitchen over comparative studies of English and Russian literature.
The Southerner, his latest culinary venture with co-owners Katie and Jonathan Fris, is a heartfelt homage to Appalachian cooking. And while the menu items feature down-home Southern fare, Matt considers what he’s learned from his fine-dining executive chef experiences to hold true—that better tasting food is directly connected to better sourcing of raw ingredients. This is why Matt remains committed to using only seasonal, local produce, meats, and dairy from nearby Michigan farms in his dishes.
What do you hope that people come away with after dining at The Southerner?
Southern hospitality actually exists. It’s a real thing. Tourist destinations can be so busy and overwhelming, so we wanted to provide a true sense of hospitality for our guests—an environment that’s genuinely happy from the inside out. I want our guests to feel like they’re getting a big hug.
From your own menu, what’s the one thing you feel everyone who walks through your door should try?
We’re pretty proud of our biscuits, but ultimately this is a fried chicken joint. We’ve joked that we’re the only restaurant that could take the burger off the menu, and no one would notice. In the winter, we have this really great mushroom and dumpling dish. We created it for vegetarians and our more health-conscious friends, but I wish everyone would try it. And Katie’s cocktail program here is really stellar. She’s done an amazing job of getting us some rare stuff—our bourbon list is one of the best in the state.
What’s unique about the food scene in Saugatuck/Douglas?
We’re just surrounded by agricultural abundance and have such diversity in the things we grow in Michigan. I appreciate that there’s a big commitment here now to cooking what’s at arm’s length. By eating what’s grown in our fields, it puts people more in touch with the agricultural world. All the farm stands we have here and all the events—it’s just a great place to enjoy food.
What would you tell someone planning a trip to the area who’s a foodie?
Fall is absolutely the best time to be here, especially for food. In September, the beaches aren’t crowded, but it’s still warm. And it’s harvest time. People forget that fall is when everything is at its peak and becomes available locally at our markets.
I really like Waypost Brewing. They don’t serve food, but I think they make the best beer. Salt of the Earth has great live music, cocktails, and woodfired pizzas. And the Farmhouse Deli & Pantry always has amazing food with a lot of healthy options.