Head to Pellston for warm hospitality and honest food at Dam Site Inn. From the traditional chicken dinner to side dishes made entirely from scratch, get ready to be transported back in time at this classic Northern Michigan restaurant. Plus, at the bottom of this article, enjoy a special behind-the-scenes look at Dam Site Inn from our friends at 9&10 News during the “Inside the Kitchen” video segment.

This article first appeared in Traverse Northern Michigan. Find this story and more when you explore our digital issue library. Want Traverse delivered to your door or inbox monthly? View our print subscription and digital subscription options.

Wall decor at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Just south of Pellston on US-31, the early evening light that drenches silver aspen bark and roadside wildflowers is interrupted by an enormous orange arrow advertising “Dam Site Inn, Gracious Dining & Cocktails, One Block.” Our tires crunch into the nearly full gravel lot where we park beside a vintage blue Mercedes convertible piloted by silver- haired resorters dressed, like movie set extras, in gingham and linen for their Saturday dinner. The kitchen’s screen door swings open and leaks the echo of owner/expediter Steven Brinks calling to the line “four chicken, two perch, one whitefish” as rooftop exhaust fans above him broadcast an irresistible waft of the Dam Site’s signature fried chicken. We hustle toward the host stand and kick off this ritual of time-warp dining.

Navigating the wood-paneled vestibule inside the Dam Site Inn’s doorway is a lovable paradox of empty wine bottle–lined shelves and strategically placed ceramic kitsch. I linger over the labels of rare Burgundies and faded Champagnes, daydreaming about the bygone buzzes of those summer vacation feasts.

Entering the bustling restaurant with its vintage supper club vibe, however, requires a quick iPhone calendar check to confirm that it’s still indeed the 21st century. Directly right is a swank oval bar surrounded by polished wood paneling and circled with white mod high-back stools, gold starbursts and the palpable sense that Sean Connery-era James Bond could show up any second and order a vodka martini from bartender Shane Stahl, who’s been mixing drinks at Dam Site Inn for 40-plus years. Step left and this same retro aesthetic pervades the dining room where meticulously preserved 1950s Naugahyde upholstery lines the walls.

Serendipitously, we’ve timed our arrival as four small parties are happily tapping out after two rounds of all-you-can-eat fried chicken, and owner Olivia Brinks shows us to a window-side table draped with crisp linen and set with polished silverware and classic etched glassware. The Dam Site Inn feels like a living museum of 1950s style, including the best traditions of classic hospitality. We watch as Olivia’s father, Ray East, a former auto mechanic who took the Dam Site reins from his parents in the early ’90s, greets a dozen arriving guests by first name while Liza, our vigilant server, quickly lands freshly mixed drinks.

Servers at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Couple at the bar at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Table set up at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Family and hospitality are the foundational pillars of this iconic Northern eatery that launched its 69th season last spring. “I grew up in this place,” says Olivia with a proud smile as her youngest daughter, Holly, who’s 5, peeks around the corner at us. “I was packing cracker baskets at her age and already planning to take over by the time I was seven. We have generational employees as well. Jill, our fry cook, watched me when I was little and took me to my first concerts before taking over when her mom, Ladonna, retired 14 years ago.”

Olivia’s parents, grandparents and employees have also stitched themselves into the memories and traditions of generations of locals and summer residents who frequent the Dam Site throughout its six-month season from April to October. “We pride ourselves on taking care of our customers and a lot of them have their own traditions when they dine with us every summer,” Steven tells me. This customized service sometimes carries kitchen code- names like “Thigh Guy,” a habitual chicken devotee who gets extra thighs with his meal, and “Shrimp Guy,” who always orders chicken and takes exactly 15 fried shrimp to go, every time. Perennial eccentricities extend to the tableware, such as the 12-piece cache of special salad bowls from a 1970s wedding reception that has been used exclusively for the same family of regulars ever since.

We lean into the old-school appetizer offerings with a tiered relish tray garnished with stuffed olives and pickled vegetable salads, chilled jumbo shrimp with housemade cocktail sauce and deep-fried frog legs, followed by salads with proprietary Roquefort dressing and the signature wicker cracker basket. These classics are executed with fresh, high-quality ingredients, an important aspect of the Dam Site’s kitchen dogma. “We always try to source the best ingredients we can get,” Steven says. “Some restaurants have chosen to make sacrifices with the spike in food costs during the pandemic but we’ve stood by quality, and our customers have appreciated that.”

Dam Site Inn sign

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

sign at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Seating at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Following 2019, the restaurant’s most successful year on record, skyrocketing food costs (up to 40 percent higher) are not the only curveball that the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown at Olivia and Steven. Like restaurants all around the North that rely on summer tourism for the bulk of their revenue, Dam Site Inn’s limits have been tested by mandated closures, restrictions and dire staffing shortages. The lifting of capacity restrictions last summer allowed the restaurant to once again fill their seats, but the normal seasonal staff of 45 was reduced to 27, and the dining room ran the week of July 4th with only five servers instead of the usual fourteen. “We just want to hug the staff who have stayed with us,” Olivia says, her eyes watering, “but the customers have been so grateful and patient that it keeps us all going, even if we’re running triple time.”

The Dam Site’s operations are the product of routines perfected through decades of practice, and the short-handed staff is hardly noticeable in the flow of service as we watch a parade of platters and overfilled bowls head for our table with the evening’s dining focus: All-you-can-eat fried chicken. The chicken with handmade buttered noodles, mashed potatoes, buttermilk biscuits, green peas and golden chicken gravy has been the menu mainstay of this country eatery for almost seven decades. While many restaurants have pivoted to broasting pre-cut birds, the Dam Site still skillet fries theirs the old-fashioned way, with undeniably better results.

Fifty thousand pounds—that’s 30- to 65-pound cases each week—of fresh whole chickens roll through the kitchen doors within two days of slaughter, where Steven and team hand cut and sort them, saving the livers and gizzard for the Inn’s most popular appetizers. The pieces are individually seasoned, floured and pan fried for 23 minutes at 325 degrees in two enormous electric skillets divided in half with custom-welded two-inch sides, each of which exactly fits 10 breasts, legs, thighs and wings. When those 23 minutes expire, what leaves the skillets are tender, golden-brown pieces that are moist inside, crispy outside and delicious enough that, like me, you’ll be inspired to test the limit of all that you can, in fact, eat. (The resident record goes to a long ago Pellston High School football player who started what was either a very short or very long prom night with 33 pieces of the Dam Site’s finest—approximately four whole chickens—only, legend has it, to discover he had forgotten his wallet.)

Fireplace at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Dam Site Inn menu

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Dam Site Inn family at table

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Similarly, no shortcuts are taken with the side dishes as Steven begins every day making enormous batches of noodles and buttermilk biscuits entirely from scratch. Weighing his dry ingredients on an antique sliding kitchen scale, Steven mixes his doughs in a huge commercial stand mixer, rolls them to spec and then punches biscuits and cuts noodles by hand. The mashed potatoes are smooth and gratuitously buttered, the green peas never mushy. Between shifts, the kitchen is made spotless. “We believe one of the best ways to make consistently delicious food is in a clean kitchen,” Steven says.

Well into our second platter of chicken, I’m starting to contemplate surrender, but I persevere, buoyed by a bottle of Brys Estate dry riesling, whose bright acidity provides the satisfying contrast to the richness of the meal. Pouring the last glass, my eyes dart around the dining room to try to locate the door to the cellar where, beside an expensive wine cooler that one infrequent regular installed to keep his private stash at perfect temperature, sit bins 65 and 66, which house what Olivia and Steven refer to as “The Rothschilds”—one surviving bottle each from original cases of 1959 Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Lafite Rothschild, two of the world’s most collectible wines from one of the greatest vintages of the last century and a $3,400 supplement to your $27.95 chicken dinner. I like to think these bottles, like the restaurant itself, are time capsules, perfectly preserved relics that are just as delicious today as they were 50 years ago.

As the plates are cleared away and the few surviving pieces of chicken delivered in a paper takeout bag printed to look like old newsprint, it is bittersweet to leave the warm glow of the dining room for the night air. The East/ Brinks family’s dedication to preserving a perennial tradition of warm hospitality and honest food lets us live, if only for a few hours, inside an idealized postcard of Northern Michigan summer—one where we can enjoy gracious dining, cocktails and endless platters of pan-fried chicken.

Dam Site Inn family

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Appetizers from Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Wine at Dam Site Inn

Photo by Jacqueline Southby

Tim Tebeau, a wine importer and longtime writer for Traverse, lives with his family in Petoskey, where he works remotely as sales director for Eagle Eye Brands.

Jacqueline Southby is a photographer and videographer based in Traverse City.

Behind the Scenes at Dam Site Inn

In partnership with our friends at 9&10 News, here is a special look at Dam Site Inn. These special Inside the Kitchen segments give us a look inside some of the best restaurants in Northern Michigan. You can also view the video and full story on 9&10’s page here.

Photo(s) by Jacqueline Southby