Legs Inn The pinnacle of rustic folk architecture in Michigan
Hunts' Highlights of Michigan, 1991

Northern Michigan is full of inspired folk-art creations. None is more improbable than Legs Inn in Cross Village, 20 miles north of Harbor Springs along the Lake Michigan shore. It's a Polish restaurant and bar created by Stanley Smolak, who came to America as a young man to work in a Detroit auto factory. He got to know the Ottawa Indians in Cross Village, which in the 1920s was still a center of the Ottawa culture. What fascinated him was the Ottawas' close connection with nature, and the intimate linking of the material and spiritual worlds.

In the late 1920s Smolak started work on the inn, which grew in stages to encompass many moods and environments. What's seen from the road verges on ugly. There's no landscaping to soften the busy exterior facade of small, irregular fieldstones, accented by totem poles and a fanciful row of curved upside-down furniture (sic) legs on the roof (hence the "Legs" of the name). Handpainted lettering on piled-up boulders advertises "BEER, LIQUORS, SOUVENIRS, DRIFTWOOD."

The Interior is far more compelling. The barroom is dark and grotto-like, easy to pass over on your way to the restaurant in the rear. The restaurant's picture windows overlook a beautiful rear terrace, pines, and a flower-filled rock garden. In the distance is Lake Michigan. It's a popular spot on summer evenings at sunset. Children can run around the extensive grounds and play while their parents linger over dinner and dessert.

The restaurant's atmosphere is cheerful and warm. There's a big stone fireplace and interlacing rafters of sticks. Dining areas are separated by screens of intertwined driftwood, glistening with shellac. Here and there primitive, pixyish faces painted on the driftwood peek out.

The food is Polish home cooking, the equal of Hamtramck or Chicago's favorite Polish restaurants. The cabbage rolls are outstanding. Whitefish is also available, along with European dishes like goulash and chicken in wine.

If you time your dinner visit right, you can stroll outside to enjoy the sunset over the lake, and then linger in the amazing grotto of a barroom. After your eyes are acclimated to the dark, you'll make all sorts of discoveries. Phone booths are made of hollowed-out trees. A lacey tangled lattice of shellacked roots above the balcony disappear into the dark. Faces and figures see like spirits emerging from branches and roots.

Smolak started Legs Inn in (the 1920s). His Depression-era art is based on found materials, inspiration, persistence, and hard work. "He claims that any man can do what he did if he only keeps his eyes open and his hands busy," stated one appreciative article. "For the world is filled with fine and great wonders, things which people take no notice of because they have eyes, yet do not see and hands that lie idle."

After Smolak's death, Legs Inn devolved into something of a dive. Today it has been rejuvenated into a family restaurant and local meeting place that's a refreshing change from the carefully traditional interiors so evident in nearby Harbor Springs and Petoskey. There's live music on weekends...and the Jelly Roll Blue Band Sunday evenings.

A LOVELY DRIVE TO LEGS INN.....is along the lake, through the celebrated Tunnel of Trees, narrow Route 119 that twists above the shoreline.

The overarching trees, the glimpses of Lake Michigan from the bluff, the aroma of cedars and pines - all combine to make this very special. Bicyclists favor the drive in morning, but traffic is rarely heavy or fast. Colonies of trillium cove the woods around Memorial Day for a spectacular show.

After dark, you're better off avoiding the twists and turns and taking the inland route back to Petoskey. Take 66 (Levering Road) east from Cross Village; in 9 miles turn south at 81. It eventually ends at the Harbor Springs-Petoskey Road.

-Mary and Don Hunt