As a young Polish immigrant, Stanley Smolak worked in auto factories in Detroit and Chicago but pined for the tree-studded countryside he left behind in Europe. In 1921, on a trip to northern Michigan, he found his dream location in Cross Village, \ a tiny settlement at the end of a scenic road known today as the “Tunnel of Trees.”
There, about midway between Petoskey and Mackinaw City, the self-taught artist laid the groundwork in the 1920s for a one-of-a-kind attraction—a rustic restaurant, tavern, curio shop and cabins. He named it Legs Inn for the inverted cast-iron stove legs that line the restaurant roof.
“The legs have been here from the very beginning,” says George Smolak, a retired engineer who, with his wife Kathy, has overseen the more than 80-year-old family business for three decades. “Uncle Stanley’s friend worked in a factory making them. He brought them up here in a truck, turned them upside down and put them on the roof as a decorative element.”
An avid nature-lover, Smolak drew on the craftsmanship of his Native American friends, the Odawas, to construct the complex from large logs, fieldstones and other natural materials in the 1930s. The quirky decor runs to fantastical creatures, carvings and totem poles Smolak handcrafted, with great pleasure, from limbs, tree roots and driftwood—or, as he called them, “nature’s oddities.”
Legs Inn, beloved by generations of travelers, is described on its historical marker as “one of Michigan’s most exuberant and unusual landmarks,” and the menu is as surprising and esoteric as the folk art. Polish fare is the house specialty, from pierogi, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage and nalesniki (Polish-style crepes) to Zurek, a traditional Polish sour soup with sausage, hard-boiled eggs and red potatoes.
For dessert, it’s hard to resist the pretty—and tasty—berry crumble cake called Polish Berry Szarlotka, although the Fudgy Wudgy Chocolate Cake and Salted Caramel Pretzel Crust Brownie may call your name, as well.
The cuisine is not all Polish, however. Fresh whitefish dishes, salads, burgers, and Old World-style goulash and chicken recipes round out the menu.
Patrons belly up to the bar for more than 100 international beers, with a dozen on tap; classic Polish beers, Okocim and Zywiec, are two of the most popular. Polish vodkas include Zubrowka, flavored with bison grass, rye-based Belvedere and potato-based Chopin. A Polish vodka-infused Bloody Mary and smoked whitefish spread are favorite meal starters.
On a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan, surrounded by lush gardens, the bustling outdoor patio is an attractive setting for diners who may spy a kitchen-hand running out to snip garnishes and herbs such as parsley, dill and sage, or to gather fresh kale, cucumbers, zucchini and tomatoes for the salads.
Since Legs Inn doesn’t take reservations and waits can stretch to two hours during the peak summer season, the sprawling yard, where children are welcome to burn off energy running or playing Frisbee, is an attractive spot for families. It’s fun to stroll around inspecting the flowers and folk art, and wooden swings and benches are a welcome place to relax and savor the views of the Great Lake, especially at sunset.
With space for 75 inside and double that outside, Legs Inn is open for lunch and dinner from noon to 10 p.m., seven days a week, from May 20 to Oct. 23. It serves more than 500 lunch and dinner meals on a busy summer weekend day, according to George Smolak, who is transitioning the business to his sons. The nearly 70-member staff includes many students from Poland, some of whom enjoy practicing their English with guests.
Time your visit to coincide with live music and dancing sessions by the Jelly Roll Blues Band, which has played Legs Inn several times a year for 25 years. “And on the closing Sunday of the season, we’re famous for our annual Halloween bash,” Smolak says.
IF YOU GO
Legs Inn is near the northern end of the Tunnel of Trees, a narrow, twisty, scenic byway and favorite fall color drive that stretches about 20 miles along M-119 from Harbor Springs to Cross Village in northwest Michigan.
For information: legsinn.com, (231) 526-2281
This article originally appeared in the 2016 spring/summer issue of Experience Michigan magazine. The contents of this article were checked for accuracy when it was published; however, it’s possible some of the information has changed. We recommend you call first if you have specific questions for the destinations, attractions or restaurants mentioned in this article.
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