A steaming plate of kielbasa, a Lake Michigan sunset, a big Polish welcome … the Smolaks serve it all up from the iconic and quirky restaurant, Legs Inn, near the Tunnel of Trees.
This article is featured in the September 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine. Get your copy.
“Twenty-six thousand,” booms a voice from across the quiet kitchen. It is mid-morning, and I’m at the kitchen door—the staff door, the family door—at the Legs Inn. The voice belongs to Mark Smolak, who has just walked by and poured a cup of coffee. He offers me a cup, and then does so again a few minutes later, not believing that I wouldn’t want a nice warm mugful. The brisk chill of early fall is discernible by now, all the way up M119 from Harbor Springs through the legendary canopy of golden-leafed trees. When I decline the coffee despite the chill, Mark seems uncomfortable, in the way that naturally hospitable people are, aware that he is partaking and his guest is not.
The conversation begins as though we are picking up in the middle of an old friendship. Mark hands me his phone to show me a stunning photo of the sunset, taken from the bluff overlooking Lake Michigan behind Legs Inn. Within the day or so since he posted the picture on Facebook, 26,000 fans had liked, shared, and otherwise adored Mark’s blazing pink and yellow horizon. This is the kind of sunset that draws applause every night of the summer and fall here, the kind that gives the westward facing coast of Michigan its bragging rights all year long, especially as autumn evolves, and the color is at its most intense.
We head to the restaurant dining room to wait until the rest of the family trickles in. Here the cashier’s desk makes for a quirky perusal of imported Polish candies that line the counter, along with an impressive array of every imaginable Legs Inn tchotchke you could want. And you do, oddly enough, find yourself wanting: the Eastern European hand-painted eggs; the trinkets shaped like white stove legs that reference the real ones that line the roof of the Legs Inn—thus the restaurant’s name; the wooden change plates carved with the image of this renowned cobblestone and driftwood building. But these little gems aren’t for sale. Turn one over to find a special tongue-in-cheek message just for you: “God knows that you stole this.” As with any souvenir, though, the thing itself isn’t as important as the desire to remember the trip, in hopes of coming back again.
Mark’s brother Chris Smolak walks in, hair still wet from the shower. The brothers’ commute from home to work is a far cry from what it used to be when they lived and worked in Chicago. Now, they just head downstairs from the family apartment above the restaurant. Their parents, George and Kasia Smolak, make the short commute downstairs right along with their sons. “Sure you don’t want some?” Chris asks as he pours the coffee, assuming from my empty hands that coffee was already offered, and declined.
While Legs Inn is unlike any home most of us have ever been in, varnished as it is from floor to ceiling with wood carvings both delightful and disturbing at every turn, still it’s easy to feel at home here. That’s because Legs Inn is, and always has been, a family affair. Sitting down to lunch with the Smolaks is like joining any big ethnic family for a meal: everyone talks loudly and at once, lots of good food is passed around (in this case, the “Taste of Poland” sampler that is hands-down the best-selling offering on the menu), and you leave feeling full, and satisfied, in every way.
Like any father proud of his forebears and his children, George Smolak relishes the chance to tell his story, which is rooted in the family’s immigration to the United States from Poland over the course of the last century. This is a story that began with George’s uncle Stanley, an artistic but hearty pioneer who built Legs Inn in the 1920s after searching for a place in Michigan that would remind him of his homeland. Stanley found his way from Chicago to Northern Michigan, a location that would allow him, as it has so many, to express his creativity—which for him meant making sculptures out of the trees that populate the region.
“We are a building named by the Michigan historical commission as one of the most unusual landmarks in the state.” George sits ramrod straight in his chair as he says this, gesturing out to the lake and back at the restaurant with hands as rich in character as the place itself. Clearly, he has told his proud story more than once, and in the presence of his sons. “Here comes the history section,” Mark says, disguising his words with a faux cough.
Razzing aside, Mark is also proud of the restaurant’s history—especially the chapter that includes his immediate family. This next-generation of Smolaks breathed new life into Legs Inn in the years since they started coming here from Chicago in the mid-1980s to take over the then-struggling bar and restaurant, ultimately returning it to its original glory, and then some, with the blood, sweat and tears inherent in the work ethic of an ambitious immigrant family. It’s no wonder Uncle Stanley’s crowning wood-carved achievement, an imposing, sharp-toothed amorphous creature that greets visitors in the stone entry of Legs Inn and graces the cover of every menu, is titled “Struggle.”
“Did you pick the pumpkins yet?” Kasia asks the family when she comes in for lunch. Her presence here is ubiquitous, a motherly calm that seems to keep the place humming along and the customers happy. The pumpkins that need harvesting are grown, along with other vegetables and herbs for the kitchen, in a massive garden situated on the bluff behind the restaurant.
“I have to commend the two boys,” Kasia says (her husband George corrects her immediately: “Sons,” he says, “not boys.”). Kasia explains how her sons have succeeded in moving the restaurant forward, bringing a bit of lighter fare to the Polish menu, with an emphasis on healthy, high-quality food, even an organic garden. “That’s all my sons’ thing, the next generation,” she says. Later, when everyone has left the table, she says quietly, “Even though it’s not always easy working with family, there’s so much good about it.”
The whole family launches into how everything grows like crazy up here, each one weighing in on the reasons why: the purity of the water, the air, the sandy soil … No doubt it is all of these elements combined, like the family itself, that make a garden, or a restaurant, or a landmark destination, grow. What’s good for the food is good for the people, too. “I have so much more energy here than in Chicago because there’s no pollution here,” Kasia says. “I’m old, and I’m just not tired!”
Kasia tells her sons about news from some of the summer staff who’ve recently left, signaling the end of the season. The talk is so personal, it sounds like she is referring to her own family. “They’re not blood,” she says, “but they’re like family to us.” Every summer the Smolaks host a group of college students from Poland who come to Michigan for the summer to wait tables at Legs Inn.
Everybody wins with the program. The students get to enjoy the million-dollar vistas while they receive good pay for their work and a family-like welcome from the Smolaks—when George says they come back each year because they’re treated with respect, Mark interjects that “it’s better than respect. It’s a family feel.” In turn, the Smolaks and visitors to Legs Inn have the opportunity to interact with servers who know and love the many classic Polish foods on the menu (“we hardly have to train them,” George says), and who speak with passion and authenticity about their lives in Poland. “These young people and our diners, they open their worlds up to one another,” George says, showing off the photos he’s received from the travels his staff members have made around the country before they headed back to Poland in the fall.
Today our server for lunch is Tashina, a native not of Poland, but of Cross Village. Her bloodlines, she says, are Ottawa and Chippewa Indian, and she comes from a family that has been working at Legs Inn for generations. George’s Uncle Stanley forged strong friendships with the Ottawa, even being adopted into their tribe and being named a chief (“Chief White Cloud”). Tashina’s mother and sister have also worked at Legs Inn, so there is a kind of reciprocity that feels, she says, “like the family has adopted me.”
Tashina brings huge plates of Polish food to the table, starting with a taste of the bigos, hearty huntsman stew, and a traditional tangy white borscht, zurek. Then, a rich assortment of golabki cabbage rolls, smoky kielbasa with house-made sauerkraut, and the star of the plate, tender potato or meat-filled pierogi topped with sour cream. The kielbasa, it’s no surprise, is made by the best Polish sausage maker in Chicago, where the largest Polish population outside of Poland proper lives. Dessert is a huge slice of szarlotka, berry crumb cake dusted with powdered sugar and served warm with a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. It’s traditional to chase the whopper of a meal down with a cold Polish Okocim lager, one of the hundred craft beers Chris Smolak has curated for the bar.
The food is as labor-intensive to make as it is for a non-Pole to pronounce. And like everything at Legs Inn, its goodness is the result of a lot of hard work. Beata (or to you and me, “Betty”) is in Cross Village from Poland by way of Chicago to cook the specialty dishes in the kitchen. Beata’s family is scattered between Chicago and Poland; one son stayed when the rest of the family came to the United States. “It’s not the land of opportunity to everyone,” Kasia says as she tells me Beata’s history. “New beginnings are hard.” Every week Kasia takes Beata and the others to Petoskey to shop and eat their favorite American meal: pepperoni pizza.
Beata makes a thousand pierogi every day. Watching her in action is a lesson in economy: she pulls off a big piece of dough, shapes it oblong on the well-floured work surface in front of her, and rolls a section of the dough with a heavy marble pin until it becomes thin and stretchy. Perfectly measured scoops of seasoned, cooked potato mixed with farmer’s cheese are placed at precise intervals, 10 across the far edge of the dough, which is then folded up over the potato, sealed evenly around each one, and cut out with a special circular tool, like a cookie cutter. Every small, rough scrap of dough along the cut edge is tucked under and rolled into the next round without anything wasted or lost, and the process begins again.
The pierogi are poached, about 50 at a time, and later sautéed, deliciously, in a little butter before they’re served. George wishes the pierogi could be served directly from the poacher to the plate, the way his mother made them in Poland. “We just can’t do it here with the quantity,” he says. “But maybe someday my sons will figure out how we can offer them the old-country way. That would be good, don’t you think?” It would be more than good; it would be like home.