By MARK NIXON
Hanging on wooden pegs behind the bar in are ceramic beer mugs, each crafted by a customer. The mugs were made about a block away at Your Creative Escape, a paint-your-own-pottery studio.
The personalized mugs are an apt symbol for small town synergy; what businesses and customers do to nudge their communities along.
Eaton Rapids Craft is the new kid on the block, and like the beer mugs, it shows one way a little town can reinvent itself. The restaurant/bar was once the Miller Ice Cream Parlor, a snug little place lording over a bend in the Grand River. Eaton Rapids Craft has taken the old building in new directions, with decidedly adult tastes in food and drink.
Full disclosure: Eaton Rapids is my adopted hometown. My wife taught language at the high school, from which three of our children graduated. It should be no surprise I want this community to succeed.
During three visits to this riverside restaurant, it became clear that this place is decidedly more upscale than any other eatery within the city limits. And as for views, only the English Inn, a few miles north of Eaton Rapids, can claim a better view of the Grand River. Eaton Rapids Craft Co. has the advantage of being right on the river bank, with a patio that takes full advantage of the view.
We begin with breakfast. I ordered a Southern Omelette — alternately called the ERCC Omelette — topped with sausage gravy ($9). Stuffed with spinach and cheese, it was more than I could eat. A dollop of dauphinois potatoes on the side was creamy and rich and crisp on the edges. Perfect.
Everything except the ice water reached the table with steam gently swirling from the plates. That is noteworthy, because on other occasions, Eaton Rapids Craft fell victim to the epidemic plaguing so many restaurants, i.e., food meant to be hot was not.
During one visit, our friend, Bruce and I both sent back our pork potato skin appetizers ($9). Both orders were decidedly lukewarm. Bruce later wrote me: “After sending back the potato skin appetizer for a reheating I fully expected the main course to be hot. I can only fault myself for not sending it back also. By the time I finished my pork belly it was very cold and had lost a great deal of flavor. The bread pudding didn’t suffer as much from the coolness but nonetheless would have been better warmer.”
Heat issues aside, most of our entrees and sides over three visits ranged from good to great. The Michigander salad ($9) was outstanding. It combined greens with dried cherries, goat cheese, red onion and tomatoes, drizzled with a raspberry vinaigrette.
Eaton Rapids Craft’s menu is definitely pork-centric, and for my money, the Braised Pork Belly ($15) wins the blue ribbon. Roasted Brussel sprouts, a daub of apple butter and a helping of savory bread pudding are fine complements to the pork belly.
Second place goes to (yes, more pork) the Pork Belly Flat Bread ($11) — caramelized onions, fig, chèvre and crispy chunks of pork, all topped with a dash of balsamic reduction. Wonderful, except it reached our table after, shall we say, a cooling-off period?
Honorable mention goes to the Mac n cheese with shredded smoked chicken ($14). It hit many of the right taste notes, but it ventured into dry territory. I like my Mac n cheese with a creamy interior. Check out Saddleback BBQ’s mac ‘n’ cheese in Lansing’s REO Town.
Eaton Rapids Craft Co. has an extensive, ever-shifting beer menu highlighting Michigan craft beers. If beer is your thing, this is a good place to sample various types of brews from Michigan’s burgeoning craft beer industry. The restaurant’s interior is light and airy, a far cry from those ice cream parlor days.
This old building has at least one quirk.
There is something akin to a half-step near the bar, as the floor ascends to a slightly higher level. The warning marks on the half-step are faded and worn, and while looking around at the decor, I tripped (but didn’t fall). I suggest the owners re-paint the warning marks, or add lights or signs or something. All that beer and a quirky half-step may not mix well.
On the other hand, now that the weather has finally warmed, on our next visit we’ll likely opt for the riverside patio. I look forward to it. As Bruce said to me: “Maybe when the weather warms up the food will also.”SHE ATE
By GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
I think we may have found a unicorn. Outdoor seating (on a patio that features low-maintenance, sustainable materials and is the dream patio of Mr. She Ate), attentive service, live music, fantastic food, and the sound of water rushing by. Yes, it’s 17 miles or so from Lansing. Take yourself a leisurely drive south on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and get to the Eaton Rapids Craft Co for dinner. Baby She Ate is only 6 months old and he’s been there twice.
We walked in and immediately remarked to each other that the place was packed on a Wednesday evening. The menu is limited, which I love, because I don’t need a wet burrito and spaghetti and meatballs being offered to me from the same establishment. I’ve always said that if I open a restaurant, I won’t overwhelm people with too many choices.
The menu is divided into a few sections — starters, tacos, greens, dips, sandwiches and chef’s specials. I wanted everything, but I’m nothing if not a creature of habit and immediately eyed the fish tacos. These didn’t come with anything on the side, which was fine, because the three tacos were a large enough portion. The corn tortillas were lightly crisped and wrapped around large pieces of tempura cod. The tempura breading is a perfect preparation for fish tacos, as it’s light and doesn’t give you a greasy, super crunchy bite of all breading and no fish.
The slaw in the tacos was fresh and crunchy, and the mango salsa cut through the fried fish and brightened up the dish. I certainly didn’t come to Eaton Rapids anticipating great tacos, but I also wore a pantsuit on Election Day 2016. The world is a weird place.
My friend had the pork belly flat bread, which includes caramelized onions, balsamic vinegar, chevre, and crispy brussels sprouts layered on top of the super thin, crunchy bread and fork-tender pork. She lamented that so many restaurants sucker you into ordering their crispy brussels sprouts, and what you actually receive is a mealy mess. These kept their promise, she said, and in between bites of each other’s food we promised to return soon.
So I grabbed Mr. She Ate and did just that on a Friday evening. We sat outside. We luxuriated in the atmosphere. We stood with the baby and rocked side to side to get him to calm down while the other ate a sandwich with one hand. Teething is a treat.
We started with the poutine. Admittedly, the menu item is called “waffle poutine,” and I completely disregarded the word “waffle.” I was surprised to see the waffle strips topped with short rib gravy, a fried egg, and cheese curds, and I found the waffle to be too sweet. The gravy was heaven, the meat incredible tender, and the egg was just 10 seconds too rare for me. I love a runny yolk, but not a runny white.
Upon advice from our server, I chose the Southern Hippie sandwich with grilled chicken instead of the traditional fried chicken. My sandwich came on a toasted hoagie roll slathered with avocado ranch and piled high with a crunchy slaw and juicy grilled chicken. I imagine that the breading on fried chicken would be unnecessary with such a thick bread, and I appreciate the tip of subbing grilled chicken. I had a side salad and was thrilled to see actual dark leafy greens instead of the slimy iceberg and bagged shredded cheese that is ubiquitous in so many other establishments.
Mr. She Ate’s fate was sealed when he spotted something called “Boss Hog.” His sandwich was the antithesis of mine — root beer braised pork, BBQ sauce, fried pickles and muenster cheese on a bun. After tasting this, I think it’s fair to say that well-prepared, properly seasoned, fall off the bone tender meat is a hallmark of Eaton Rapids Craft Co. All three of my experiences, from the pork belly flat bread to the poutine to the Boss Hog, met this standard, and that attention to detail isn’t lost on this eater.
As we continued to trade the baby back and forth every few minutes and tried to wind up our meal without becoming a nuisance, the owner heard us order a slice of chocolate cake for dessert and told our server that he wanted to pay for it. He appreciated us coming out, he said. I appreciate his food, his ambiance, his clean bathrooms and the chocolate cake. I’ll be happy to return to Eaton Rapids.
Eaton Rapids Craft Co.
204 N. Main St, Eaton Rapids, MI 48827
Monday-Thursday 3 p.m.–12 a.m.
Friday-Sunday 11 a.m.–12 a.m.
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