April 17, 2024

The Same, But Different at Boyne River Inn

The latest incarnation of the 130-year-old local bar
By Geri Dietze | March 23, 2024

For several years, Boyne City residents and visitors were impatiently waiting for the reopening of the Boyne River Inn, a popular downtown landmark for a good drink, a great meal, and a river view. After a seemingly endless round of will it/won’t it, the iconic eatery finally reopened its doors in May 2023.

Part of the excitement is the knowledge that popular local chef Russell Yardley has returned, and not only that—he is now a partner in the enterprise.

From a young age, Yardley had a place behind the line in just about all of Boyne City’s favorite spots, and patrons would quite literally follow him from one locale to another. In 1975, the preternaturally talented 17-year-old, just out of his high school culinary program, started working at Boyne City’s Granary, and soon he was putting out 100-plus dinners by himself in what was Boyne’s busiest—and quirkiest—tablecloth establishment. (You had to be there.)

After working his way around all of Boyne’s popular eateries, Yardley decamped to Le Cordon Bleu, spending one year each in London and Paris, graduating first in his class in 1991. A stint as head chef at Stafford’s Pier in Harbor Springs further cemented his bona fides as an in-demand chef.

Yardley planned to buy the Boyne River Inn (BRI) in 2020, but the deal fell through. In the interim, he was tiling a bathroom (Yardley is a highly skilled stone mason) on a new vacation home owned by Igor and Juliana Ilijovski, Detroit area business owners. Discovering that their tile guy was also a Cordon Bleu chef who wanted to purchase the BRI, Ilijovski saw the place and offered to buy it if Yardley would manage it. Instead, they became partners and closed on the building in November 2022.

When the restaurant reopened six months later, Boyne City breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Subtle Changes

BRI aficionados have remarked that the place “looks the same, but feels different.” Or perhaps it looks a little different and feels the same.

The point is that no one wanted to change the place into something it wasn’t. Rather, patrons wanted to see new owners make updates where needed, be subtle about it, and keep the same vibe for which the BRI has always been known: a comfortable, friendly place with reliable food and drink.

“The BRI is the last local bar in town,” says Yardley, “and I didn’t want it to stop being a local bar.”

Inside, the room is a straight shot from the front door to the glass sliders overlooking the river, with a long bar on the left and seating on the right. The bar has been refurbished and modernized, and a banquette bench runs the length of the opposite side, freeing up some space in the center. The retro knotty pine walls remain.

“People like the changes, and [are] happy to see us back open,” Yardley tells us.

Significantly, seating capacity has actually been reduced from 117 to 80 to ensure that a quality product always comes out of the compact kitchen. “It was very scary to lose that many chairs,” Yardley says, “but I wanted to be able to keep the food quality high.”

Sensational Flavors

Just as Yardley has been intentional about the interior, so too has he been thoughtful about creating a menu that everyone can enjoy.

“I wanted to keep the traditional [menu],” Yardley explains, while he is also including a number of signature dishes from his tenure at other locations. BRI standards include the All-You-Can-Eat Fish and Chips and the half-pound BRI Burger, plus a roster of sandwiches, soups, salads, and sides.

Items from Yardley’s other kitchens include the Bricklayer Sandwich, a two-handed pile of ham, salami, and Italian sausage smothered with cheese; and Lemon Chicken, gently sautéed in lemon butter. And because this is a bar with a Cordon Bleu pedigree, beyond the bar fare, one can also expect a Medjool date appetizer, a charcuterie board, and fine, hand-cut New York strips.

The shiny red pizza oven, the one big addition to the original BRI footprint, serves up fresh pies based on a locally famous sauce and crust recipe.

A brightly colored menu board out in front of the restaurant proclaims daily specials—everything from Cajun Sockeye Salmon to a Sausage and Kraut sandwich—and can’t-miss deals, which could be a $5 mimosa, free dessert, or “wear an ice fisherman’s hat” from 2-5pm to get half of your meal.

Expect the full complement of beers and ales, from near and far, both small-batch and industry standards, plus quality wines by the glass and the bottle, from national and international vineyards, and hand-crafted cocktails both traditional and contemporary.

130+ Years of the Boyne River Inn

The BRI building dates back to 1893, but its timeline is not without some historical confusion. It has been the ongoing work of local historians Ed May and Patrick McCleary, and the late Bob Morgridge, to reconstruct the long story of 229 Water St.

After the original farmstead, the building that houses today’s BRI was built in 1893. Not much is known about it prior to 1911, but one record shows it as a bar and saloon; after that it was occupied by cobbler Joe Kozeny, but other material shows that it was a tavern at the same time. (Did Kozeny have a side gig?) In the 1930s, the site was called the Riverside Tavern, and by the mid-1940s, it was operating as The Spot under the ownership of Virgil and Clara DeLaney, followed by Harvey and Pat McLaughlin. Harry Robison bought The Spot in 1962 and changed the name to the Boyne River Inn.

It was under the ownership of Mac and Maryanne McNichols that the bar took on a new persona. The BRI hit its stride in the 1970s and 1980s when skiers would leave the nearby slopes of Boyne Mountain and head into town to party. The snowy streets were packed with cars, and the bar required bouncers to keep track of the occupancy limit. History was made at the BRI in those days—personal history, that is—and there are plenty of skiers who still tell the stories. Even Playboy took notice, calling the BRI the No. 1 après ski scene in the Midwest in an article about Boyne Mountain.

In the following decades the BRI settled down, from the 1980s and beyond, under the management of Bob and Kathleen Ruhs, it became known as a dependable hometown watering hole. After changing hands a few times in the last two decades, the BRI is now back and ready to make more memories.

Find the Boyne River Inn at 229 Water St. in Boyne City. (231) 222-4053


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