At Northern Michigan’s Classic Restaurants, Time Stands Still
A sunken bar from 1953 is waiting for you.
By Alex Beggs
Photos by Mae Stier
You should not be in a rush. It’s summer in Northern Michigan, a precious, limited edition season, mosquito-less and magnificent. (I mean, mostly mosquito-less–let’s not split hairs.) The lake is as turquoise as the Caribbean, so cold it makes you feel a cosmic connection to all the asparagus you’ve ever plunged into an ice bath after blanching. (This is the only time you’ve felt like asparagus.) Hopefully you’re reading piles of books and spitting cherry pits and watching sunsets like they’re prime-time TV. There isn’t much to do here, and we should all be so lucky.
When it’s time for dinner, you’re grilling farmstand finery and on special occasions, hitting up old-school restaurants that refuse to give in to a pesky little thing called time. These classic spots, scattered along the arc of Northern Michigan, share DNA with Wisconsin’s vintage supper clubs: They’re family-owned, often situated down a rural road, and serve the best food around from an unchanging menu. Somewhat confoundingly, Michiganders don’t seem to use the term “supper club” so much. But the vibe is the same, if you know what you’re looking for. Age-old institutions like the Dam Site Inn, Legs Inn, and Grand Mere Inn are good places to start. On one May weekend, I hit up two.
Saturday Night at the Dam Site Inn
No longer an inn, no longer on a dam, the Dam Site Inn in Brutus, MI, looks like a stretched-out midcentury house with one too many screened-in patios. It sits on a swath of green lumpy landscape that was once a dam until the water was restored to its original flow pattern in 2018. Yet the flow pattern of yearly visitors, some of whom have been dining here for more than 70 years, is still running strong.
Enter through the wood-paneled hallway, past the plush moose dressed in grandmother’s best dress and shawl. Stop when you see the sign “HELLO ALL YOU LOVELY PEOPLE.”
In the old days, the staff here used to greet every customer with a glass of orange or tomato juice. Today, I’d like something…clearer.
The bar at the Dam Site Inn is what I imagine awaits me after St. Pete checks my ID at the Pearly Gates. Mad Men set designers could not have replicated this scene, which has been largely untouched since its 1953 construction. In the center of the room, a sunken bar awaits, rimmed with pristine, original white leather. You press your forearms against it when you lean forward, and the feeling is sensationally squishy, like hugging my Michigan grandma, whose house smelled exactly like this restaurant, a combination of buttered noodles, wood paneling, and eau de mildew.
“It’s sophisticated and grooOoovy all at the same time!” said a local reporter in a 2014 news segment. The original white Saarinen tulip chairs are a point of pride, with dolloped seats that swivel so you can take in the view in one tipsy spin. Their homemade blue cushions are nearly flattened from, I’m estimating, 100,000 butts. A previous owner’s connection to Ford explains the shiny, boomerang-printed vinyl used as wallpaper. It has an almost puffy look. I order a Beefeater martini from Shane, who’s worked at the Dam Site for 40 years, wearing a name tag, white shirt, and tie. In swift seconds, it appears, glimmering with microscopic pieces of ice from the shaker. Perfect.
There’s a web of dining rooms with a hodge-podge of carpeting, from the cozy, cabin-like room with a huge fireplace to the outer patio rooms lined with windows. That’s where my partner and I sit for dinner, at a sunny table that looks out on three bird-feeders as hopping as the restaurant. (Sadly we’re not at the “haunted” table, where owner Steven Brinks tells me he once came down from the apartment upstairs to lock up one evening and found the candles re-lit.) No ghosts, just the bobbing heads of young Amish boys riding a pony cart up and down the road; they sell jams, honey, and pony rides in the parking lot and are known to come to the kitchen door at the end of the evening in hopes of leftover fried chicken.
It’s “the best fried chicken in the world,” per that local news report. And arguably, the definition of “world” used there is a little blurry, because sometimes the world feels very, very small when you’re in rural Michigan. This chicken is shallow-fried in large, rectangular pans with custom lids that allow the bird to fry in oil on one side while it steams on the other side. The process creates fluffy skin that reveals moist, juicy chicken. It comes with unlimited side orders of mashed potatoes and gravy (favorite), green peas (untouched at my table), bouncy homemade buttered noodles fragrant with chicken broth, and flaky biscuits.
“We try to strive on comfort food, you know.”
“It’s such a tradition to have the same food that we've had for years and years and years,” Brinks told me when I asked why we still had to serve those peas, “and breaking that tradition feels kind of wrong.” There are too many customers who’d be upset. Every morning, Brinks cuts 80 pounds of noodles, which will be the most popular dish to disappear every night. “We try to strive on comfort food, you know,” he said. Oh, I know.
When our elaborate relish tray arrived with canned peaches, cranberry sauce, corn relish, pickles, olives, and beets (might have forgotten a few here), I wondered if a little change would be nice. I wanted to swap the cranberry sauce for a beer cheese, and spice up the sweet corn relish. But this is why I’m not in charge. They know their audience at the Dam Site, and truly, we’re mostly here for the atmosphere. Brinks’s daughter, who declared her dream in second grade to one day be the boss of the place, will have the responsibility of carrying the restaurant into the future. On the way out, I spoon a handful of butter mints from a crystal candy dish into my hand, thrilled to be reunited with those pillows of dissolving sweet chalk, as delicious and antiquated (well, maybe even stale) as I remember. And I guess that’s the point.
The Long Way to Legs Inn
Do not, under any circumstances, listen to Google Maps when you enter the address for the Legs Inn in Cross Village. You’re taking the scenic route that makes all other scenic routes wither in comparison: the Tunnel of Trees. On this winding, forested stretch of M-119, you drive slowly through yes, a tunnel of trees that lean towards each other in permanent embrace. Where we actually are is Waganakising: Land of the Crooked Tree. The Odawa people have lived in this part of Michigan for countless generations. Eric Hemenway, director of archives at Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, told me that when the US government tried to relocate them to Kansas in the 1830s, members of the tribe visited Kansas, saw no trees, and came back (among many other factors for staying). There are several pockets of tribal-owned land here, throughout Emmet and Charlevoix counties.
“We persevered, and we’re still here to this day,” he said.
I was thinking of this history as we drove past grand, rustic cabins and mansions that line this road overlooking the sapphire sparkle of Lake Michigan. Along the drive there are nature preserves with donor names, some with names in the Anishinaabe language, that do important ecological work and create public-accessible trails.
Going through the Tunnel of Trees, especially during the height of summer, slows down your drive to the Legs Inn, but it’s a required appetizer. It sets up the push-pull between nature’s beauty and man’s craving for it that lingers in the background of any Michigan summer vacation. It began when colonists arrived with a hunger for lumber and continues now, as the popularity for this view has made it expensive to live in, with limited housing supply, making it hard to sustain the people whose labor holds all of this up.
But hey, the Legs Inn is hanging in there just fine. Let’s get to dinner.
“It’ll all happen too fast, because some of us can’t outrun time.”
The Legs Inn is named after the white antique stove legs that founder Stanley Smolak, an artist, woodworker, and Polish immigrant, decided would make a memorable decor choice. They stick up from the arch-shaped building like little spokes. When he built it in 1921, Smolak enlisted the help of locals, including the Odawa community, with whom he was so entwined, he was nicknamed “Chief White Cloud”. Generations of tribal members have worked at the restaurant since.
The pine interiors of the restaurant almost glow orange. And, as you might expect, taxidermy is everywhere–a cozy lodge feel that would make Ralph Lauren weak in the knees, the wood shiny from years of oiling. A giant clock reads: TIME TO ENJOY YOURSELF AT LEGS INN. The bar of Legs Inn drew me towards it like the Bermuda Triangle, where I surrendered to a gin and tonic.
“We’re a little understaffed right now,” said third-generation owner Mark Smolak, when he led us to a table outside, an unobstructed view of cloudless sky, glittering water, blooming lilacs, and green expanse. (Since May, they've fully staffed up with international students on J-1 visas.)
When I asked Hemenway what he wished more people realized when they were soaking in that view, he urged a basic awareness “that this has been an Odawa place for thousands of years, not hundreds. And that it still continues to be the home to the Odawa to this very day.” You might feel like you’ve time traveled to the past when you’re here, but it’s only one small sliver of the past in Cross Village.
The place was soon packed with families. Kids were running around the grass, an orange cat rollicking with them, while parents drank Polish beer and ordered too many pierogies. The kielbasa and fried potato pancakes suffer no picky eaters.
In my experience, the move is to show up at around 5, but there are picnic tables and Michigan-shaped adirondack chairs if you need to wait. It’ll all happen too fast, because some of us can’t outrun time. My memory is a blurry mix of soft foods and stunning scenery, and I’ll have to go back before I forget it. But at the Legs and Dam Site Inns, time met its match.