When you’re craving Grandma’s chicken, Gingham Inn To Go in Spirit Lake is the place to stop! The popular restaurant brings years of Lakes Area traditions to the community and is one of the few places to find pan-fried chicken.
This Lakes Area tradition initially opened in the early 1900s near the Spillway in a little building along Big Spirit Lake and across the street from the Spirit Lake Fish Hatchery. The July 1, 1926, issue of the Spirit Lake Beacon talks about a new “café” called Gingham Inn located near the Orleans Hotel and how it offered an al a carte food service to its visitors.
Various news articles talk about Mrs. Mabel Burnside of the Orleans Hotel entertaining guests from around the state at the adjacent Gingham Inn, often serving fish dinners. Ten years later, in 1936, she removed the old building and built a dance pavilion in its place. Her desire was to move the Gingham Inn into the Orleans Hotel, but the hotel unfortunately experienced a fire that destroyed the Lakes Region landmark and the Gingham Inn tradition.
In 1961, “Honest John” Gross purchased Nelson’s Tavern from Neil and Bea Nelson in that location and reopened the Gingham Inn near the Spillway, with the desire to provide good food and “pan fried chicken served family style.”
The March 4, 1965, Spirit Lake Beacon shares, “John started the eating establishment some years ago when he, at least, became convinced that people would seek out good food, even though they might have to battle some foul weather and drive a few miles to get it. His original Gingham Inn, on the spillway to Orleans boomed from the start and the place soon outgrew its quarters.”
The building faced east and west, rather than the typical north and south. Gross quickly remodeled the space and filled it with tables that were covered in checkered red and white tablecloths.
In 1964, Gross purchased the current property on the corner of Hill Ave and 140th St. and across the street from the pumphouse. The desire was to build a building large enough to accommodate all guests.
The March 4, 1965, article continued, “Such was not the case, however, and many Sundays find diners lined up outside, waiting to get in and enjoy some of the fine food for which it is now famous. While a varied menu has been offered from the start, most people associate the Gingham Inn with ‘pan-fried chicken served family style.’”
It wasn’t long before the Colonial Lounge was erected, adjoining the eating establishment and they served cocktails in an atmosphere designed to make friends want to gather prior to their meal.
“John built the building the way he wanted it. He had several artist friends, and one painted the Queen on the wall,” said nearby resident and local historian Bob Boettcher. “People really started coming and you couldn’t even find parking. Many times, you had to wait in line. The food was so good.”
The beautiful space became home to Gingham Inn’s famous pan-fried chicken, gizzards and ribs.
“Another favorite was John’s hashbrowns. You would order white chicken and get a huge, round order of hashbrowns on the side,” Boettcher remembered. “One time I asked him what makes your hashbrowns so good, and he said, ‘I put milk in them!’ I had never heard of that before.”
Gross created the favorite chicken recipe, and Boettcher said he also had a popular salad recipe that was unique.
“It came from a lady who had worked at several restaurants, and she left it with John. It was slightly red and tasted like blue cheese. It was so good, but I know John was really tight with the recipe,” Boettcher shared. “John just had a way about him that people really enjoyed.”
In late August 1977, Gross shared in the September 1, 1977, Spirit Lake Beacon how it was time for his wife Marge and him to take a vacation. After 18 years in the restaurant business and 16 at The Gingham Inn, Gross sold the establishment.
“Harold Kormann, with many years of restaurant experience, will continue as manager under the new ownership,” he said in the article.
In 1988, Gingham Inn owners Mark Guritz, Scott Walmer and Gary Nelson opened a Gingham Inn, Too next to the Little C Store in the Maywood Square Mini Mall in West Okoboji near the Taco House. They were offering carry out and delivery of their special chicken and ribs.
Scott Walmer also ran Gingham Inn for a number of years, carrying on the tradition Gross had established.
In 1996, Tom and his brother Bill Naviaux purchased Gingham Inn from Walmer, and Bill and his wife Carol ran the popular sit-down restaurant for the next 23 years, before Tom bought out his brother in 2019. The original restaurant had a bar, big dining area and a small coffee area that continued to be popular with the locals. Opening into a large parking lot, people came from all over to enjoy the traditional chicken, famous coleslaw and delicious ribs, just like the 1960s.
“So much of the area has changed through the years, but it’s cool to still be selling the same type of chicken you could get when Gingham Inn first opened in the 1960s,” said current owner Tom Naviaux. “We’re a tradition and we’re thankful to still be able to offer our particular food to the area.”
Judy Wheeler and Tom ran the full-fledge restaurant for one year before they started transforming the property. Parts of the original restaurant were taken down and other areas rebuilt to turn the building into the Big Spirit Lake Resort.
Gingham Inn To Go opened its doors a year after the Big Spirit Lake Resort launched, with a small menu in a building to the south.
The menu features foods served since the 1960s, with the traditional chicken and ribs being many customers’ favorites.
“The chicken is made how Grandma cooked it back in the day and why customers come back year after year to enjoy it,” Tom said. “Most places have broasted chicken, so our pan-fried option makes it different than others.”
Dave Swanson has been cooking the chicken with Gingham Inn for almost 30 years and trains anyone new. The chicken recipe is the same as “Honest John’s.”
“People just love the chicken, and they will tell us that we are one of the first places they come to visit when they get to town, year after year,” Judy said.
For those still craving the popular pan-fried chicken, hours can be found on their website bigspiritresort.com or on their Facebook page Big Spirit Resort and Gingham Inn To Go.
For Bob, he still makes a trip to Gingham Inn To Go most Sunday nights.
“The chicken is just as good today as when John made it,” he remarked.