MANCELONA, MI – As with a lot of the best small town diners, Shirley’s Cafe’s “curb appeal” is mostly in the number of cars, (most, in these parts are trucks, many carrying boats) that eagerly encircle it for much of the day.
What’s on the plate is sure to merit a stop at these social hives, where you’ll often find groups of men gossiping in coffee klatsches of a morning. There were two going at Shirley’s when I arrived, with some friendly cross-talk. Gail, a waitress with a crazy blonde topknot, burbled between them with a coffee pot, like a younger, less made-up Cyndi Lauper.
My “Pink Lady” breakfast was that rare meal for me: one so delicious I would have eaten it all if only it weren’t too big to finish. After I stopped from satiation I took a couple more stabs but didn’t manage to polish it off. It was Shirley’s homemade sourdough toast, topped with sauteed fresh spinach, roasted red pepper, griddled freshwater salmon from nearby Lake Michigan, two butter-basted eggs and a perfectly executed classic Hollandaise sauce. The accompanying hash-browns were really brown, not blonde, an all-too-common breakfast fail. In Chicago, I would have been happy to pay twice the $10.49 price.
It didn’t surprise me to learn that Shirley’s chef, Scott Houlihan, has been cooking since he was 11. Trained in a series of restaurant jobs starting with a quick promotion to line cook from dishwasher at age 16, he’s cooked in Orlando, Winter Park, for the top brass at Selfridge Air Force Base, and at the nearby Grand Traverse Resort and Spa in Acme. Now he’s putting all that experience on a plate at Shirley’s.
Owner Shirley Tracey, I would come to learn from a public radio piece, had a food background similar to mine. Like hers, when my busy working mother cooked, it was from boxed mixes or recipes read from the back of boxes. Like me, Shirley rebelled culinarily.
Excerpted from Order Up: Looking Good with a Tray of Cookies, from Peter Payette at Interlochen Public Radio.
Shirley’s family has been in the restaurant business around here for a few generations. It started when her grandma bought a cafe in Mancelona after World War II. But that didn’t mean cooking was an important skill in Shirley’s house. She says her mom would serve au gratin potatoes from a box.
“If she was really doing it up right, you’d have boxed au gratins and instant mashed potatoes,” she says. “That’s just how she cooked.”
Shirley has cinnamon roll recipes from both her grandmothers. These came from her mom’s side of her family tree.
Shirley can’t stand the idea of eating potatoes from a box. Pretty much any processed food is abhorrent to her, even the few items she grudgingly keeps on her menu, like American cheese. She says she’ll occasionally chide people for ordering it.
“If I had my way, I wouldn’t carry it,” she says. “But the customers love American cheese.”
Shirley Tracey got interested in food while working at a restaurant in Traverse City in the 1970s called The Beef Tree. As a server there, she tried foods she had never heard of, like borscht and snails.
“I never dreamed people ate snails because I was raised in such a small town,” she says.
She describes her food philosophy so eloquently on her menu that I’d hate to paraphrase:
Repeat my Shirley’s Cafe experience:
Info current as of 7/19
Phone: (231) 587-1210
528 S Williams St, Mancelona, MI
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