After World War II, Civilian Conservation Corps crews finished construction on Giant City Lodge in Makanda. The restaurant there has been perfecting its fried chicken dinner ever since. The menu and prices have also updated with the times.
One big clue to a “recent” menu addition greets guests as soon as they walk through the front door – a colossal bison from a local bison ranch on display in its full majestic glory. Within steps of it is a copy of an early lodge menu posted on one of the hand-hewn timbers near the lodge office.
Like the tasty appetizers listed on today’s menu, these tidbits are just a teaser of what’s to be discovered in the dining room. “This is not just a restaurant. This is the lodge. It’s special to people for so many reasons. Of course, the chicken is one big reason,” Mike Kelley says with a grin.
Kelley is a third-generation concessionaire at the lodge. A 2016 graduate of Illinois Wesleyan University and a newlywed, he’s following in his father Mike’s and grandfather Richard’s footsteps to provide room and board to visitors for what together has been 39 years now.
“I’ve been working here since I was a little kid, just tall enough to see over the tables. I was coming down here on Sundays and holidays to help out, and then all through high school or home for breaks from college,” Kelley says. “I’ve been here just three years, and I’m just scratching the surface.”
Their touch on the lodge restaurant and the three dozen or so cabins is only one chapter of the state park’s history. Originally, the dining room was where the hostess station and bar are now located, and the first cabins – which are still standing – numbered eight. There are now four dining areas perfect for hosting large groups and dozens of cabins with satellite TV, air-conditioning and swimming pool access.
“We’ve enjoyed a great working relationship with the state that my dad and grandpa have developed,” Kelley says. “We also work hand-in-hand with the park superintendent, Calvin. He’s the one who makes the park so beautiful.”
The centerpiece of the lodge menu is the all-you-can-eat, family-style fried chicken dinner served at lunch and dinner.
Somehow servers balance mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, corn, scratch dumplings, slaw, biscuits with apple butter and a platter of crispy chicken on a single tray. If the bowl or platter empties, just ask for more.
Kelley estimates that their chicken dinner accounts for 80-85 percent of their dining room sales. To get an idea of how much chicken that is, Kelley says on a typical Sunday they serve up 1,500 to 2,000 pounds of chicken.
The rest of the menu is just as delicious. “People are shocked when they see the whole menu. They think we serve only chicken,” Kelley says.
Other popular favorites “that a lot of people don’t realize we offer” include the Thursday night all-you-can-eat barbecue chicken dinners with their secret proprietary barbecue sauce, Friday night all-you-can-eat fried fish dinner with hush puppies, and their Bison Bluff burgers and steaks from down the road.
While the Kelley family gathers for chicken dinners every Sunday when the church crowds begin to thin, Kelley does have a couple of personal favorites – the prime rib and pork shanks.
The desserts are served up with the same downhome, fresh quality that promises to make your stomach sing: cobblers of many flavors (including rhubarb) and a strawberry shortcake made with handmade pie crust strips that melt in your mouth, according to Kelley.
There’s another menu feature that even locals don’t always know exists – breakfast.
Hearty doesn’t begin to describe these breakfast options. Omelets stretch the whole length of the plate; the pancake stack is hard for most people to finish; and the fried country steak topped with sausage gravy is worth every step on the Giant City Trail. Depending on availability, a steaming plate of fried chicken livers with gravy on the side just might be available from the regular menu. Even the coffee is uncommonly good.
Sure, there are healthy options and a kids’ menu, but this morning feast matches the lodge’s stature.
While the food is a fantastic and satisfying reward, the journey to and from Giant City State Park is essential to any visit to the lodge. On beautiful winding roads, Giant City offers a visitor center, trails, bluffs, creeks, camping grounds, picnic shelters, horse stables, ball fields and playgrounds, and even a couple of prehistoric features. Of course, its geological history is its namesake, so a pre-meal hike on the Giant City Trail or a post-meal climb to the water tower observation deck round out the trip.
If that’s not an option, visit the lodge balcony for a unique view of the lobby or sit in front of the fireplace on the original Corps-designed and built couches.