Fifteen years ago I wrote a snarky column in the Lansing State Journal, insisting there were good restaurants around here, but not any great ones. The headline? “Dinner is (yawn) served.”
“There should be a banner over Interstate 96,” I wrote. “Welcome to Greater Lansing, home to many well-meaning restaurants.”
The response was as divided as this year’s Republican Party. “About time someone said it,” several cheered. Others skewered me with language befitting a Trumpian tirade. One restaurant owner has refused to speak to me from that day forward.
The column was based on my fictional Theory of Relative Sameness, which holds that restaurants exist in a comfort bubble as long as customers allow it. Well, a lot has happened to our restaurant scene since 2001. The bubble is about to burst — if it hasn’t already.
There are plenty of reasons, but I believe it boils down to a new generation of diners who expect more from restaurants and young chefs who expect more from themselves.
Distilled to a single word: adventurous.
Millenials may not understand this, but there was a time when “surf and turf” on the menu was considered exotic. Such was the state of haute cuisine, Lansing-style, not so long ago. To be fair, this was likely the same in similarly sized cities across the country.
These days, the dining landscape in Greater Lansing can be roughly categorized into the past, present and future, with specific examples co-existing in the same culinary universe. Let’s break it down.
The past: There are still several dining spots that seem to be an outtake from “Back to the Future.” Coral Gables’ menu epitomizes that vibe. The restaurant has been around since the 1950s and owned by the same family since 1968. Coral Gables embraces the past, and adventure is not in its vocabulary. In a 2013 review, I said, “Dining at Coral Gables these days is mainly about comfort food with a side order of nostalgia. The Swiss steak is a bellwether for most of Coral Gables’ entrees. Nothing daring or adventurous — certainly not pretentious — but sturdy, well-prepared food in generous portions.”
Some restaurant-goers crave the past above all else, opting for the dining equivalent of a favorite but frayed sweater. You can be Indiana Jones, or watch him on your flatscreen while noshing on meatloaf. Your choice.
The present: The Knight Cap is more like a bridge between the past and present. For decades, it was the place where political and business deals were sealed over Manhattans and rib-eye steaks. In recent years, though, the menu sank into doddering predictability.
Then, last year, along came the father-son team of Leo Farhat Jr. and Gregory Farhat. The difference is clear when you hit the front door. Still as small as ever, the interior is now brighter, bolder and less like a smoke-filled room where aforementioned political schemes are hatched. (They probably still are, but at least the surroundings are cheerier).
I wouldn’t call the Knight Cap’s menu avant-garde. But the seafood is as good as any you will find in this town (Order the diver scallops. If you don’t like them, could you please send me the leftovers?) The Scottish salmon and the pistachio-encrusted walleye fillet are both excellently prepared.
There’s still a lot of “old school” ingrained in the Knight Cap (oysters Rockefeller, Caesar salad, etc.) but it is clear this venerable old place is evolving into a venerated new place.
The future: Here’s where adventure is prepared daily. In places like Red Haven, Cosmos, Meat and the Creole, diners are invited on a wild ride with the kitchen staff.
They serve seasonal vegetables — the way Grandma did — and toss in smoked ham or goat cheese or marinated onions — which Grandma didn’t do. They understand the value of fresh herbs, like rosemary scattered on fries at East Lansing’s Red Haven, and high-quality cheese, like the triple crème brie on bruschetta at Cosmos in Old Town. Southern staples like collard greens become a thing of beauty at the Creole in Old Town. Even an old stand-by like macaroni and cheese is elevated to something more. Williamston’s Tavern 109 does an outstanding take on the childhood favorite by adding pulled pork, bacon, chives and panko crumbs.
It’s not all high-end meals that are standouts. The Good Truckin’ Diner in Reo Town has some killer breakfasts, such as the Hangover: biscuits and gravy with house-smoked pulled pork and lightly fried eggs.
There is no obvious common denominator among these restaurants of derring-do, except an unspoken creed: This is ours, not somebody else’s.
That’s why Old Town barbecue hotspot Meat takes pains to remind diners its meats are all slow-smoked on site for a half-day or longer. It signifies authenticity, like the artist’s signature on an oil painting.
But I don’t want to be overly giddy about what these local kitchen artisans are churning out. The sameness bubble may be gone, but if they gaze eastward toward Detroit, west to Grand Rapids or north to Traverse City, they will find restaurants they should aspire to like.
My advice, for what it’s worth, is for our restaurants to study the competition. And I don’t mean just the places across town. If they aren’t already, our local chefs should be taking road trips to places like Selden Standard in Detroit, the Twisted Olive in Petoskey or San Chez in Grand Rapids.
I urge them to play with their food, just as a child might play with an imaginary friend. Imagination — that’s the ticket. And I imagine that right now, in some Lansing-area kitchen, a chef is already concocting our next adventure.