Grass-fed beef. Kale. Goat cheese. Focaccia bread. This may sound like the start of a shopping list for a trip to Whole Foods, but these ingredients are featured in the recently revamped menu at downtown Lansing’s Midtown Brewing Co.
“My goal is very selfish,” explained Marc Wolbert, the bar’s general manager. “I like to eat, I like a variety and I like to eat healthy.”
Midtown Brewing Co. is one of a growing number of local bars that are hoping to appeal to Greater Lansing’s blossoming foodie culture. Many local diners, especially young professionals, are seeking out places that straddle the line between upscale eatery and casual pub. Others are looking for healthier, environmentally conscious fare. Wolbert and his crew are hoping to pull from both groups, offering creative entrées with a focus on fresh, locally sourced ingredients.
“I really look at where our food comes from,” he said. “America has slipped toward a dark culture, where our only concern is flavor and not how it gets to our plate.”
Wolbert’s favorite item on the menu is the Mutha Ducker, a beef burger dressed up with fried goat cheese, cherry-walnut conserve, arugula and house made duck pastrami. (“We can barely keep it in stock,” Wolbert said.) Other offerings include a grilled fig salad with kale and beef tenderloin and a lobster and truffle oil pizza.
Midtown sources many of its ingredients from local retailers, including produce from Williamston’s Fox Run Farm and Lansing's Smith Floral. Wolbert has found the restaurant industry as a whole seems to be catching up with consumer demand for local options.
“A lot of wholesalers are getting into the idea of local food,” he said. “I’m able to get locally sourced foods from my distributors.”
Wolbert credits Midtown's executive chef, Karrie Brewer, with pushing him to be more creative with the menu. He and Brewer had a son earlier this year, which also changed Wolbert's perspective.
“It’s the responsible thing to do,” he said. “I’m a new father, and I’m getting older. I have to be careful about what I eat, and other people are facing the same situation.”
Over in Okemos, the recently opened Henry’s Place is hoping to give diners an alternative to national chain restaurants and the Meridian Mall food court. The bar’s menu, explained general manager Henry Kwok, was designed in response to a changing dining culture.
“People aren’t eating massive meals anymore,” Kwok said. “They want sharable plates. A lot of our items are meant to be shared.”
These items include standbys like pub wings, as well as “elevated” fare like French fries tossed in truffle oil and Parmesan cheese. The slate of sandwiches features a mushroom and Swiss burger with fresh sautéed mushrooms and a gyro sandwich with feta cheese and house made tzatziki sauce. The pub’s burgers feature fresh, hand-pattied beef and sturdy brioche buns.
Henry’s Place opened in August. It still doesn’t have a proper sign out front and is working off of a limited “launch menu,” but Kwok is preparing to roll out a full menu and daily specials later this year. The pub is a spinoff of Asian Buffet, the neighboring restaurant owned by Kwok’s parents.
For his part, Kwok is disappointed that it has taken the local dining scene this long to catch on to using fresh, local products.
“The ingredients have always been out there,” he said. “But places take the shortcut.”
But Kwok knows it’s easy for a restaurant to price itself out of the market in Greater Lansing. While big firms like Jackson National Life and MSU Federal Credit Union have brought an influx of young professionals, there is still a blue-collar core in the region that’s still recovering from the 2008 recession.
“Incomes overall are lower, and people have to be conscious about how much they spend,” Kwok said. “We want to offer something affordable, so friends can get together.”
An Okemos native, Kwok often found himself driving to Metro Detroit to seek out quality food.
“A few years ago, I couldn’t eat around here,” he said. “I’d go to Ferndale, be cause the restaurant scene was so strong.”
Kwok hopes the region’s recent restaurant boom means that Greater Lansing has turned a corner.
“Everything became stagnant in ’08,” he explained. “Now you’re starting to see a revitalized restaurant scene. There’s so much competition, and people want to get better.”
Even Crunchy’s, the classic burgerand-beer bar just off MSU’s campus, is doing its part to raise the culinary tide. A three-time Best Burger winner in City Pulse’s Top of the Town awards, the pub is still looking for ways to improve its signature product. It recently switched from sesame seed buns to stronger brioche buns and has added creative variations like a Black & Bleu Burger with bleu cheese and Cajun seasoning and a bacon avocado burger.
“We’ve tried to improve our food without gauging our customers,” said owner/ general manager Michael Krueger.
While Krueger thinks the dining scene is improving overall, it’s not an across-the-board shift.
“In some places it is getting better, but in others it’s not,” he said. “Places have bottom lines they need to meet, so they cut corners. Other times an owner is trying to squeeze every penny out of their place.”
Crunchy’s tries to revamp its menu every fall before students arrive, responding to food trends without getting too far from its signature items. Other recent introductions include a black bean burger to give diners a vegetarian option and a gluten-free pizza crust.
“We used to rely heavily on the bar,” Krueger said. “But now we sell a lot more food. We get a lot of families for lunch and on the weekends.”