We found out about this local favorite from Antrim County deputy Jon Wheatley, and since our first Creole omelet, we never miss the chance to pull off U.S. 131 to this homey little Mancelona café—even if it’s just for a heavenly slice of buttermilk pie. As Shirley sees it, it’s her honor and opportunity in life to make people happy. So if it’s 6:30 in the morning and you’re hungry for a fried chicken dinner, then a chicken dinner you shall have.

Local breakfast favorites?

We have a breakfast sandwich on a homemade pretzel bun, with egg, patty sausage, bacon and pepper jack, and American fries loaded with cheddar on the side. You can’t eat like that every day, but every once in a while you can!

How do you make your pancakes so tender?

They’re my grandma’s recipe—just 8 ingredients. They’re perfect.

You love to invent sandwiches—any irresistible new ones this winter?

The applejack turkey sandwich. It’s house-roasted turkey with apple butter and honey mustard, grilled onions and sweet peppers and pepper jack on a homemade sourdough sub bun. The apple butter and mustard are beautiful together—I use a zesty horseradish-y mustard.

Some of your favorite cozy things to fix?

Chicken livers and gizzards, roast pork with homemade stuffing, pot roast with homemade gravy.

Where did you get your cooking philosophy?

Raising five kids. My kids buy me books about food all the time. I read In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, and the author says go to the grocery store and look for the healthiest loaf of bread. Read the ingredients. Would your grandmother recognize it as bread? Would she recognize it as food? I packed all my kids’ lunches every day. They were mortified when I made their sandwiches on homemade bread. Then the other kids wanted to trade and all of sudden it was a commodity!

And tell us about your amazing chicken dinners.

I get a minimally processed chicken, not pumped with hormones. We soak it in salt water. We do our own seasoning and fry the chicken for 14 minutes. It’s phenomenal—so nice and juicy.

You take good care of kids at the restaurant.

We have cafeteria trays with separate compartments and kids can pick their entrée and choose three sides. And they get a fancy fork—a cocktail fork.

I take it you have a regulars table.

Every day eight to a dozen guys come and sit at the front table. They’re so much fun. They have breakfast, lip off a little. They have soup cans on a string for their intercom to the kitchen or a tiny coffee can with a [ice fisherman’s] tip-up to let us know they need coffee.

Shirley’s Café is open 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. 528 S. Williams (U.S. 131), Mancelona, 231-587-1210.

Photo(s) by Todd Zawistowski