AS GREAT AS ANN ARBOR’S restaurant landscape is, sometimes you crave a change of scenery. When summer comes and you feel the need to get out of town–to roll down the windows and cruise while listening to a few mood-enhancing tunes en route to dinner–roadhouses rule. This is the first of a pair of venerable destinations: Stivers between Dexter and Chelsea.

Before polishing off Stivers’ justifiably famous prime rib and the better part of a pitcher of beer, I’d never been “Stiverized,” as the fifty-five-year-old restaurant’s T-shirts put it. According to the upbeat server who waited on me, I still haven’t achieved that distinction.

“You can’t get Stiverized on beers,” she told my table, shaking her head with far more sympathy than failed merry-makers typically get. “If you remember it, you weren’t Stiverized.”

As best as she can recall, my server earned her shirt on her twenty-first birthday, pounding back shots at the bar that figures into countless local stories of recklessness and rowdy ways. Twenty years ago, Stivers was where my friend’s seven-year-old sister went looking for the bathroom and found a stripper–stripped. Stivers’ bar is undoubtedly what my mother’s beautician had in mind when she advised her not to wear any jewelry if she planned to join me for a meal there.

Stivers is lively: when I visited the restaurant for lunch on a recent weekday morning, the newly smokeless bar was crowded with two dozen men downing mixed drinks and cheering wildly while watching The Price is Right. Indeed, hard liquor’s so integral to the Stivers experience that the restaurant keeps just three brews on tap. But upstanding eaters who’d let a little good-timing deter them from the Chelsea institution are missing out on supremely good American food–and perhaps the best value in the county.

Stivers sits hard by I-94 and feeds plenty of road trippers who presumably use the aging highway map posted inside the front door to estimate the distance to Milwaukee. It’s their good luck to stumble upon just the sort of restaurant travelers hope to find when they persuade their less adventurous companions to forgo another fast food stop.

There’s nothing fancy about Stivers’ wood-paneled dining room, where the bare tables are set with wicker baskets piled high with plastic-wrapped saltines and bread sticks. The only visible frill is an undersized salad bar. If Stivers has changed much over the past half century, a stranger wouldn’t guess it: without a smidgen of irony, the restaurant sells $1.35 rolls of Rolaids at the cash register.

I can’t imagine too many diners need them. Nothing I sampled was oily or greasy–including a terrific chicken-fried steak, pounded thin and dolloped with a peppery sausage gravy. Paired with fried potatoes scattered with sweet onions and two perfectly fried eggs, the dish made for an astoundingly good $6.95 breakfast.

The crisp American fries, like many of the best offerings at Stivers, are house made. A lengthy list of daily specials is posted on whiteboards around the restaurant, and the lineup fluctuates rapidly according to orders and the kitchen’s inspiration. On my first visit to Stivers, we chose a table beneath one of the boards, which is a bit like sitting by the tote board at a racetrack: servers scurried over no fewer than three times to erase and add items. The perch went first. Then the cod was eliminated. A new soup was scribbled in place of the bean and ham.

The menu revisions reflect Stivers’ commitment to freshness, a devotion any diner can taste. A simple club sandwich was ennobled by just-cooked bacon, emerald green lettuce, and fresh, lightly toasted bread. A whitefish filet was cleanly fried, and creamy coleslaw came with a true cabbage crunch. Even the dishes designed to make use of leftovers are satisfying: a beefy soup with fat noodles and hunks of steak was especially good.

Befitting a restaurant that’s inadvertently retro, there’s no shortage of red meat at Stivers: the sharply focused entree menu consists of little more than grilled sandwiches, fried chicken, fried seafood, fried fish, and beef in fourteen different guises (including a hamburger patty on the “diet plate”). Our server smartly steered us away from a pork chop, which she swore she’d never even seen, to a wonderfully flavorful Delmonico steak.

But the standout may have been the burger, a perfect balance of seasonings and quality meat. Don’t bother with the cheese: the juicy burger’s dynamic all by itself.

For dessert, Stivers offers a changing selection of house-made fruit pies, cream pies, and–on certain lucky nights–cinnamon-dusted rice pudding. None of the desserts is priced at more than $3, which means a couple can have a pair of steak dinners, salads, desserts, and a couple of pints for $40. That’s an indisputable bargain.

The regulars at Stivers may be swilling stiff White Russians and partying hard, but the food at this can’t-miss restaurant proves the kitchen staff’s working even harder. Go to Stivers, have fun, and–as the thoughtful servers always remind guests on their way out–be careful on the roads.

11 S. Fletcher Road

Mon.-Sat. 7 a.m.-midnight, Sun. 8 a.m.-midnight

Appetizers $3.50-$6.50, salads $3-$6.95, sandwiches & burgers $3.75-$5.45, breakfast entrees $3-$7.99, lunch/dinner entrees $6.95-$8.95, steaks $15.50-$17.95, desserts $2.35-$2.70

Wheelchair friendly