For weekenders heading to one of Michigan’s many lakeside resorts, traveling away from the city can feel like traveling back in time. At least that’s how the proprietors up there hope it will feel. The 20-room Gordon Beach Inn in Union Pier, owned by Devereux Bowly, a Chicagoan and past president of the Hyde Park Historical Society, advertises itself as “a step back in time.” One reviewer even went so far as to call the decor “Amish”–despite cable TV and Jacuzzis, to say nothing of up-to-date paper-thin walls. The soothing hearth in a lobby hung with hunting trophies recalls the days when the inn was a sportsman’s lodge, and the core of the building does date back to the 20s, but the space can’t help feeling like a set from the nearby “Antique Village,” the latest addition to Union Pier’s strip of antique malls.

Jenny’s Restaurant, now in its second year at the inn, echoes the nostalgia with which the resort is marketed in the decoration of its walls but nowhere else. Over the tables at this exquisitely unpretentious bistro are reproduced snapshots of local vacationers from the 30s and 40s–unnamed souls on permanent holiday. But if the inn tries vainly to take us back to the past, Jenny’s enriches our present, importing good tastes from many worlds to coexist in this unlikely one.

The basis of chef Jennifer Drilon’s menu is midwestern fare prepared in the traditional French manner: steak frites, roasted chicken Panisse (after Berkeley’s famous kitchen), fresh fish, and more. Drilon’s aesthetic is simple: “I don’t like to cook real fancy, froufrou food.” A few Italians are invited to the feast, usually in the guise of pasta: wild mushroom lasagna is a menu regular. Then there’ll be an ethnic wild card or two–Caribbean catfish perhaps, with pepper, cilantro, and mango relish, or maybe a Thai beef salad–whatever the chef’s craving this week. To read the menu at Jenny’s is to wonder where on earth you are, and to be glad you can be so many places at once, so affordably (most entrees cost little more than $10). But with its no-nonsense elegance, this place is thoroughly Chicagoan.

Sure enough, the chef is an expatriate. As Jennifer Smith, she was a partner in Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You chain of restaurants: executive chef at Cafe Ba-Ba-Reeba! in the trendy tapas bar’s early years, first pastry chef at Ambria, and developer of the Corner Bakery. But Drilon says the big-city cuisines she misses most are Thai take-out and sushi, which explains both the restaurant’s eclecticism and its appeal: under one roof it duplicates the range of delights available to urban diners.

The best meals at Jenny’s tend to move from the raw to the cooked. Carpaccio is not for the faint of heart, but the rest of the menu is really just a footnote to these shavings of sirloin marinated in olive oil with suggestions of tomato and parmesan. Even vegetarians will blush a rare color, then give in. Gravlax attempts to give fish lovers a comparable delight, but fish is Apollonian, steak Dionysian.

Salads follow–deceptively simple combinations of pronounced tastes. Walnut and beet is pleasing, but could be more tart; an occasional special featuring cantaloupe, Boston lettuce, and mint would make a delightful addition to the regular summer menu. The wine list at Jenny’s is reliable if unremarkable, blending midpriced California and French labels with local Michigan wines. Between the red and white Cotes du Rhone, most of a meal’s many flavors are happily matched.

Standards head the dessert menu (fruit tarts on that famous pastry), sometimes with a twist. Profiteroles stuffed with ice cream instead of custard and topped with hot fudge leave one tasting the pastry shop and the ice cream parlor all at once–a neat trick. As for coffee: all the boutique permutations are available, to be sure–espresso, cappuccino, cafe au lait. But Jenny’s is a place where you can trust a strong cup of black coffee, and let the other guy show off his Italian.

It was Drilon’s husband and business partner, Daniel, whose entrepreneurial spirit sparked the couple’s relocation from Chicago, and during their first months at Union Pier they commuted daily from Rogers Park. After a successful year at the Gordon Beach Inn, the Drilons now have a second restaurant outside Michigan City, Indiana, at the Creekwood Inn. Jenny’s at the Creekwood Inn, run by Daniel Drilon, features excellent cooking, with more seafood and spicing reminiscent of the apprentice chef’s Guamanian heritage, but prices are substantially higher and the atmosphere less amiable.

Both restaurants prepare breakfast, primarily for guests of the inns. Again the menus are eclectic, though fewer liberties are taken with the sacrosanct morning meal. Pancakes are a staple, and among the egg options is one of Mexican inspiration named after Orizaba’s, a more casual lunchtime venture of Daniel Drilon’s in nearby New Buffalo.

The success of Jenny’s is its assumption that everyone is as interested in food as the chef herself. Drilon’s touch is surest and least obtrusive when she is most playful, and the atmosphere of her first restaurant–unlike that at the Creekwood Inn–is accordingly easygoing. Several times an evening the good-natured elder sister of the kitchen can be seen wandering through her dining room, as if she’s misplaced a cat. Drilon might have come to the country to grow a garden and bake bread, but she brought her innovative taste with her, to keep us company when we visit.

Jenny’s, in the Gordon Beach Inn, 16220 Lakeshore Road in Union Pier, is open 9 to 2:30 and 6 to 10 every day, till 11 Friday and Saturday. Call 616-469-6545. The Creekwood Inn, at the intersection of Routes 20 and 35 in Michigan City, serves breakfast to inn guests only (7 to 10 weekdays and 8 to 11 weekends) and dinner from 6 to 9 Thursday through Sunday. Call 219-872-8357.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen Longmire.