With my wife and daughter out of town for the weekend, I decided to spend quality bonding time Friday evening with my son. He’s a rapidly growing 12-year-old boy, so when I asked him what he wanted to do, he of course responded, “Go eat.” My son is a picky eater, and my wife and I have been trying to get him to try new foods and flavors. It was a gorgeous summer day, and I had little desire to visit our usual haunts. So I decided that it was time to make a pilgrimage to Cross Village and introduce my son to Polish cuisine.
Before I go any further, I am going to post a disclaimer. I am NOT an expert on Polish food. I don’t know how to pronounce ‘Nalesniki’ or fully understand what a Pierogi is. So I won’t speak to the authenticity of the menu. I’m also not a professional food critic. I am a 43-year-old man that loves to eat and drink. And as a 43-year-old-man that loves to eat and drink, I fully enjoy the food at Legs Inn. But that doesn’t matter. Because here is the thing about Legs Inn, dining there is not about the food, no matter how authentic or delicious it is. Dining at Legs Inn is about the journey to Cross Village and the atmosphere of the restaurant.
If you open Google Maps to get directions to Cross Village from either Petoskey or Harbor Springs, your GPS will send you north along either State Street or Pleasantview Road. Either direction is a charming ride through farmlands and forest. To truly appreciate your Legs Inn experience, however, there is only one route. M119, the famed Tunnel of Trees, a 20-mile trek along Lake Michigan that twists past 137 curves. When planning your trip, ignore the mileage. Plan to spend at least an hour for the journey, though I would recommend two hours.
The Tunnel of Trees starts on the western edge of Harbor Springs, at the top of the bluff. The natives called this stretch of land along the shore between Harbor Springs and Cross Village Waganakising. The French missionaries called it L’Arbre Croche. The names mean Land of the Crooked Tree, because of a large crooked tree that was visible for miles and marked the center of a Odawa village. All along the road is scenic overlooks, providing unparalleled views of the coast, Beaver Island, and area lighthouses.
For the first five miles, my son and I snaked along the Lake Michigan shore past gentleman farms and million dollar ‘cottages’. It was a charming drive, full of scenic overlooks and beautiful vistas.
We stopped at Pond Hill Farm, a vineyard, store, greenhouse, and petting zoo. Their gourmet farm market sells products primarily harvested from their farm; canned goods, handcrafted soaps, fresh produce, flowers and more. Upstairs, their Harbor Springs Vineyards & Winery offers a tasting room that serves up locally made wine, cider, and beer. It was 5:40 pm, and they closed at 6pm, so we only briefly toured their farm and watched a couple of men launch gourds into the goat fields.
Once we left Pond Hill Farm, the road passed historic one-room schoolhouses and tiny cottages. We twisted around Horse Shoe Bend and Devil’s Elbow – a flowing spring ravine called Motchimanitou by the Odawa, who believed the ravine was home of evil spirits that only came out at night. I wanted to stop at the Good Hart General Store for a few pops, but they closed ten minutes before we got there. So we continued our journey. After Good Hart, M119 enters the forest.
This is my favorite stretch of road in Michigan, regardless of the season. In the winter months, after a new snow fall, the canopy overhanging the road is blanketed by thick snow and ice. In the spring, the trillium is in bloom, covering the forest floor in brilliant whites and purples. In the autumn, the leaves of the towering giants – oak, maple, ash, elm and walnut – are painted scarlet, gold, crimson and umber. On previous trips through the forest I have seen deer, wild turkey, hawks, porcupines and even bald eagles. Today we were too busy rocking out to AC/DC’s Shoot to Thrill to watch the forest too closely.
At the end of the Tunnel of Trees, is Cross Village. A tiny little village that consists of a few homes, a lovely old cobblestone church, a massive cross overlooking Lake Michigan, a few gift shops, and little else.
By far, the number one reason that people visit Cross Village is because of Legs Inn.
Legs Inn is a Northern Michigan institution. In the 1930s, Polish immigrant Stanley Smolak hired local Odawa craftsman to build the inn using locally gathered timber and rocks. Smolak decorated the inn with furniture and ‘oddities’ that he personally constructed from tree roots, limbs, and driftwood.
My son and I checked in at the hostess stand and I was actually pleased to hear that they had an hour long wait. It gave us time to explore. Our first stop was, of course, the bar. A man passed by with a Bloody Mary, adorned with sausage, olive, pickle, and celery. I quickly said, “I’ll have one of those.” My son ordered a root beer. I have to be honest in saying that I was extremely disappointed in my drink. Their Bloody Mary mix came from a plastic jug and there was little or no spice to it. Still, the sausage was incredible and, after sharing half with my son, we knew we were going to be in for a dining treat.
After wandering around the gift shop and checking out the pool tables, we made our way out back. Kirby Snively, a local folk artist and friend of ours, was playing on the back deck. He was taking a break so I was able to catch up with him for a minutes before he continued his set. Kirby plays every Friday night, and is well-known in the area. My son and I found a place to sit and listened to a few songs before walking through the gardens to have a look at the lake. What a view! In the distance are three lighthouses and a number of small islands. It was 7:00pm, so the sun was not ready to set. But I can’t imagine any place in Northern Michigan with a better view of the setting sun.
After an hour we were seated. Our waitress was a charming young woman from Warsaw with a thick accent. I struggled to say her name, Justyna (pronounced Ew-Stine-Ah), but my son picked it up quickly (he’s 12 and she is extremely pretty).
We ordered a plate of Babcia’s Potato Pancakes with sour cream and apples and the Taste of Poland meal to split. Justyna recommended that we add the Bigos and the Zurek Soup. I had no idea what they were, but we agreed.
The soup came first. It was a thick soup in a white rye and meat sauce with large chunks of eggs, kielbasa and potatoes. “The first taste isn’t very good,” my son said as he sipped it. “But the aftertaste is amazing.” He was right. At first the soup is a bit off putting, but once you swallow you are left with the lingering delicious flavor of pepper and sausage on your tongue. Justyna dropped off some hot bread, which we used to soak up the soup. The bread didn’t last long, and I was about to order more, when Justyna arrived with our meal. We had been seated for not more than ten minutes before our dinner was served. My son thought it was some sort of record.
I am a huge fan of potato pancakes, especially smothered in sour cream and/or apple sauce. The Legs Inn potato pancakes were the best I have ever had. I ate one before my son could even figure out what it was he was looking at on his plate. I told him he had to eat at least half of one before starting on the sausage, which he was ‘starving’ to try. He took a bite and immediately ate the whole thing.
I also love stuffed cabbage, so I cut my son a small piece of the golabki and claimed the rest for myself. He devoured the sausage, leaving me only a sliver to sample. Both were so good, and we were so hungry, that we ate them without fully savoring the flavors. We were split on the pierogis, I loved them, especially dipping them in the red sauce on top of the golabki, he didn’t care for them.
The true hero of the dinner was the Bigos. Here is what the menu reads, “Slow-cooked hearty Polish Hunter’s Stew made with sauerkraut, cabbage, Polish Smoked Sausage and mushrooms, served with kopytka dumplings.” I heard stew and thought it would be a meat soup. It isn’t. I can more accurately describe it as a plate of sauerkraut with stuff mixed in. We actually saved the Bigos for last and, if we weren’t both still hungry, neither of us would have likely tasted it. It doesn’t look like the most appetizing of meals. But once we tried it, we were both hooked. When I went to take the last bite, my son playfully stabbed my hand with his fork and proclaimed ‘dibs’.
It was a tremendous evening. My son and I talked about things other than sports, I learned that he is interested in girls but even more interested in trying to figure out what is going on in their heads. We bonded. We ate. We had fun. For us, Legs Inn wasn’t a meal, it was an experience.
Legs Inn is open from mid-May to mid-October. During the summer, they are open for lunch and dinner from noon-8pm. On most Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings they have live music playing. You can visit their website at legsinn.com