With views of the Straits of Mackinac, a lively patio and covered upper deck, plus an iconic bar with a backdrop of dancing pink ponies, it’s hard to choose where to sit in Mackinac Island’s Pink Pony. The island’s infamous bar and grill opened in 1948 inside the Chippewa Hotel Waterfront. It’s been a Main Street mainstay ever since.
It’s where sailors fresh off yachts, couples relaxing after a bicycle ride and newlyweds dressed in tuxedos and wedding gowns pony up to the bar beside longtime locals and world travelers. Families and day visitors often stop in for breakfast, lunch or a Pink Pony rum runner on the patio, while overnight island guests and boaters stroll in for late-night revelry.
Nathan Shayne, the Chippewa’s owner in the 1940s, came up with the concept and name. He wintered in Scottsdale, Arizona, and his favorite bar there was called the Pink Pony.
Patrons come for the views of Mackinac Island State Harbor, the ferry docks and freighters streaming through the Straits of Mackinac, but the Pink Pony staff prides itself on the food, service and dining experience. The restaurant has a 90% retention rate for its employees. Many come back year after year, said Brian Bailey, general manager of Chippewa Hotel and Pink Pony for the last 23 years.
“There are four different dining areas depending on what you feel like, but the same menu within those four areas,” Bailey said. “Our patio is one of the busiest patios in the state. We’re right on the water. It has a really nice feel, and we have our own kitchen for that patio, so the food comes out really fast.”
The Pink Pony’s tagline is “Yachts and yachts of fun.” It features pink with blue walls and nautical décor that celebrates the island’s history and unique way of life. The bar also is the unofficial finish line for Chicago Yacht Club Race to Mackinac and Bell’s Beer Bayview Mackinac Race, according to Bart Berkshire, front office manager at Chippewa Hotel Waterfront and Lilac Tree Suites & Spa.
“Once you cross the actual finish line, the real finish line is when they come to the bar and have a couple of drinks,” Berkshire said, commemorating his 10th season on the island. “It’s a fun atmosphere. We try to keep it very fun and lively because it is summertime and it is on Mackinac Island.”
Although executive chef Anthony Williams leaves the island in the winter for Colorado, he returns every season and has worked at the Pink Pony for 20 years. Its kitchen staff makes all the condiments, sauces and soups from scratch, and uses locally sourced produce and other ingredients as much as possible.
“We have a prep kitchen that goes 24 hours a day,” Bailey said. “It’s all homemade; nothing comes out of a box.”
Pink Pony serves American fare, ranging from burgers and salads to fresh fish, Southern-style baby back ribs, New York strip and filet mignon. Fresh from local suppliers, whitefish can be ordered broiled, beurre blanc or beer battered.
Some of its most popular menu items include the smoked whitefish dip and whitefish tacos, a Thai crunch salad and Boursin-stuffed chicken, Berkshire said. “We have perfected some of those dishes. We have a really good kids menu, too. The hardest part is we have a lot of options on our menu. It’s hard to decide what to go for.”
Voted Michigan’s most iconic bar and grill by Thrillist, the Pink Pony has more than 20 beers on tap, plus two taps for cocktails. A wide variety of cocktails, including its own rum runner and bloody mary recipes, and a late-night menu are offered.
“It’s what we are known for here,” Berkshire said. “We have a very special secret recipe.”
The Pink Pony also is a popular music venue for tourists and locals looking to kick back and relax or party into the early morning. The patio features music Memorial Day to Labor Day, and the bar’s stage showcases live entertainment every day, plus has televisions airing sporting events.
A Pink Pony gift shop adjacent to the restaurant has helped expand the brand, along with good reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations. Everything has a pink horse on it, and the shop sells trendier items from Vineyard Vines and Helly Hansen.
“Now, we are almost a destination within a destination, and that’s pretty cool,” Bailey said. “The quality of our food and really great consistent service keeps us relevant, and it doesn’t hurt to have a really great location on the water with a patio in a beautiful historic building.”
IF YOU GO
7221 Main St., Mackinac Island
Open 8 a.m.-2 a.m.
May 3 through Oct. 27
Nightly entertainment from 3-6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m.-1:30 a.m. in the bar and 3-6 p.m. on the patio during peak summer months.
Marla Miller is an award-winning journalist who lives in Norton Shores and enjoys the lakeshore lifestyle.