Iva's is located in Sterling, a tiny village north and west of the town of Standish. So you need motivation to get off I-75 or US-23 and drive a few miles off the beaten path to reach this community.
Is it worth it? It certainly can be. Iva's is regionally known for its homestyle chicken dinners, which many diners compare favorably with the more famous Frankenmuth Bavarian Inn chicken dinners. The chicken is served Southern style (floured and panfried), stewed or American-style (battered and fried), and if you order the "family" option you receive all-you-can-eat (starting out with two thighs, a wing and two breasts), plus bowls of potatoes, gravy, dressing, coleslaw and biscuits, and a plate of crudites, to go with your main course.
We stopped at Iva's recently after doing some business in northeast Michigan, and chose the family-style Southern-fried chicken. (Even though there are other menu items like steaks and chops, and I almost chose the chops just to be different. But my partner was an Iva's newbie so I wanted her to experience the signature meal.)
I'm a bit picky about fried chicken -- I don't come from a fried-chicken-loving family -- but I did appreciate the tenderness and done-ness of this chicken. It's very light on the seasoning, but the gravy is flavorful. My partner, who is also not a big fan of fried chicken, really enjoyed hers as well. We loved the sage-y dressing -- this is a loose dressing, not a crouton-based one -- and the sweet-tart vinegar-based, multi-vegetable coleslaw; in fact, we ate two bowls of that. The biscuits, interestingly, were wholegrain, and very good, especially with honey. Our only complaint about the meal itself was the crudite/relish plate, which consisted of one very briny halved pickle, a couple of forlorn shreds of carrot and two celery sticks; it really seemed a waste of time and effort to prepare as well as to eat. (My suggestion to them would be to offer a small dish of bread-and-butter pickles, which would really play into that old-time vibe.)
The ambience of the restaurant hearkens back to its early days as a boarding-house dining room for oil rig workers; 50's-era faux wood paneling, everything on the walls from religious artwork to the sort of metal sculpture that our parents and grandparents used to hang over the family sofa -- a little something for everyone.;-) A local radio station plays oldtime country music over the sound system, which I found annoying but is probably the music of choice in this area. When in Rome and all that...
Our server, dressed in an old-skool waitress uniform, was very polite and helpful, if a littlle sad, probably by the lack of guests on an early Saturday afternoon. (She told us that there were two local events in nearby towns that they hoped would bring more traffic into Sterling for the dinner service.) There were only two other tables being served when we were, and I found it disconcerting to look up from time to time and see the kitchen staff standing in the doorway just staring at us.
One potential eye-opener for new guests here is the cost of the dinners -- our chicken dinners were about $14, and a glance down the rest of the menu indicated that other entrees are right around the $12-and-up mark. Considering that we chose an all-you-can-eat option the price wasn't so bad, but a larger family used to chain buffet restaurants might experience a little sticker shock. (There are less expensive lunch options like sandwiches and soups available.)
The restaurant serves beer and wine, and while we didn't indulge on this day we were pleased to see Bell's Oberon, one of our best regional microbrews, on the beer list.
We both thought Iva's was worth visiting again -- maybe next time we'll choose a more adventurous menu option. And we do enjoy supporting businesses in Michigan's small towns. Iva's has been a local institution since the 30's, and we'd certainly like to to be around for a new generation.
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