McGowan’s Menu: Shirley’s in the Woods Cafe

While not quite in the middle of nowhere, Shirley’s in the Woods Cafe does take a little effort to get to, unless you happen to live halfway between Grayling and Kalkaska on M-72.

But it turns out, a lot of people are making that effort to get to this little restaurant to try out their made-from-scratch meals.

John McGowan stopped in there for samples in this week’s edition of McGowan’s Menu.

No, there was no checkers tournament going on, on the day of our visit. Diners play checkers all the time on their tables during the short wait for their meals. There’s a checkerboard at each table. But people aren’t coming here to play checkers.

Most are coming here to enjoy the homemade bread, as toast with breakfast, or as part of their homemade sandwiches.

“Breads are fun, and I play with the recipes until I get them just where I want them. And of course, they’re my own. I give bread classes about once, twice a month in the winter time, during the off-season. And they’re free because I think everybody should know how to make bread. I think it’s a basic life skill,” explains Shirley. 

Owner Shirley Tracey, who also owns Shirley’s in Mancelona, bought this facility about four years ago.

Her daughter and son-in-law, who manage the place, will buy it from Shirley later this summer. Needless to say, those homemade breads aren’t going anywhere.

“The carrot wheat is my favorite. Cranberry walnut is probably one of the most popular. It’s wonderful in French toast, It’s wonderful grilled with the chicken salad sandwich, believe it or not. It’s very, it’s good just toasted.”

“And our French toast batter, and dip it in here.” Shirley’s daughter, Laura Sampson, spends most of her time in the kitchen. She’s making one of their unique breakfasts, the pretzel encrusted salted caramel apple French toast.

“Well, we take our homemade white bread, and we dip it in our egg-wash, our French toast batter, and then we dip it into crushed up pretzels. And we grill apples, and put those on top with our homemade caramel sauce, and then we put kosher salt over it all.”

Her husband, Bill, has learned the restaurant business from the ground up over the last four years, after years in landscape construction downstate.

Bill explains, “we’ve got a lot of one-of-a-kind, kind of items. Our apple jack turkey sandwich, it’s got apple butter, and honey mustard, with turkey, and roast onions and peppers, with bacon, our own home-roasted turkey, turkey breast.”

And one of their most popular lunch offerings in the summer time is the stuffed tomato.

“We make it with homemade chicken salad, and it comes with sweet potato fries, an infused olive oil, and a piece of grilled rosemary bread,” says Laura.

Despite their out-of-the-way location, Shirley says being near a snowmobile trail head helps in the winter. “But we do great with snowmobilers, there’s a lot of lakes right behind us here, Bear Lake, Cub Lake, Manistee Lake is right behind us here. So we get a lot of lake people, and the lake people love what we do because they like good food.”

Laura is a vegetarian, so she makes sure there’s always something they can enjoy, vegans too. She says dining out is an event for many and she wants them to feel visiting here was a good choice.  “I want them to feel at home, I want them to feel like they’ve been nurtured, amd they’ve been taken care of. I think that’s why we go out to eat, to be fed.”

“And I tell my guests, listen to your body a few hours from now. You will still feel wonderful. When you eat junk you crash and burn. Because, the pretend foods, they don’t nourish your body. Your body doesn’t recognize them like it’s going to recognize what I serve here. If that makes any sense,” says Shirley. 

Shirley’s in the Woods Cafe is located on M-72, halfway between Grayling and Kalkaska. They’re open Sunday through Thursday 6:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. and Friday and Saturday 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.