Feb. 23 2011 12:00 AM

New City Market bar offers good food and drinks — and some prime peoplewatching opportunities

What's on the menu at Waterfront Bar & Grille: a California Reuben, a fruit cup and a provolone spinach dip with baguettes from the City Market. Joe Torok/City Pulse

In late mid-winter, there are more geese squawking in the ice-cold Grand River outside the new City Market than there are shoppers hunting for produce inside. Unlike the old days, though, a corner of the urban barn glows with activity even in the frozen grip of winter, as a gaggle of thirsty city-dwellers migrate to the Waterfront Bar & Grille in regular flocks.

Kyle Barnes is a neophyte bartender who’s excited to have found a part-time night job in a relaxed atmosphere. Barnes says the Waterfront’s appeal is its ability to attract patrons of all ages.

"It’s like a bar in your basement," he says. Like any other bar worth its salt for the amateur anthropologist, peoplewatching is half the fun

They come for a power lunch, for an afternoon drink at happy hour, or an evening on the town. The mid-career lawyer in her pantsuit and don’t-you-dare-get-in-my-way gait; grizzled construction workers drinking away the labor of a hard day’s work at the nearby Accident Fund project; the go-getting intern who wants — needs — to be seen anywhere and everywhere.

Waterfront’s menu caters to lighter eating, perfect for lunch after a brisk walk from a downtown office. Sandwiches are both affordable and flexible: Each costs $7.50, and may be made as either a wrap or a panini.

Waterfront patronizes the folks just beyond its walls. Bella Harvest, a City Market vendor that sells organic and locally produced fruits and vegetables, is often tapped to supply Waterfront’s lettuce and tomatoes. Come summertime, those fresh local tomatoes, sprung from rich, black, organic soil, are truly without peer.

Daily specials are a point of creative pride for the Waterfront team. Barnes says a recent heart-stopping concoction, thought up by chef Joe Gaurua, was a major success. A couple hours before Waterfront opened, Gaurua sliced a glazed donut and began piling on slices of roast beef, cheddar and bacon before slathering it all with some horseradish sauce.

"Chef will let someone sample something right before we open," Barnes says, "and if it’s good, it’s a go for the special board."

A more conventional special is the California Reuben, with turkey, cole slaw and tomato on City Market-made bread, grilled panini-style, toasted with characteristic undulating texture. In the dead of winter, a sandwich may be accompanied by a cup of white chicken chili ($3), or some other homemade soup.

Two males came in from the cold, dressed in casual office attire and chatting over drinks and a bowl of complimentary crisp and salty snacks. One stood taller than the other in a subtle display of alpha superiority. They laughed heartily and generously rewarded an attentive barkeep.

The tap matches the crowd, with a range of options from Miller and Bud Light to Guinness, Bass and Pabst Old Style. Other drafts are rotated depending on the week, and Michigan microbrews are emphasized. Rows of colorful liquor bottles spearhead a rustic bar top; Michigan riverscape photos and a ship’s wheel adorn the wall, adding to a nautical theme.

Later, a male and female engaged in the beginning stages of a mating ritual: the first date. She enjoyed the fruit cup, a delicious blend of diced apples, blueberries, raspberries and orange wedges (from the Market, of course), crowned with a dollop of whipped cream and a few stripes of raspberry sauce. He nervously peered into an amber glass of beer, pondering the balance of sociability and short-term psychomotor performance.

Waterfront’s date night is Thursday: There’s live music and $10 bottles of wine. When the season thaws into spring, Waterfront’s patronage will spill out onto the patio. Come summer, the Waterfront will fill up fast after a Lugnuts game, and a kayaker or two might paddle up for a drink (as they’ve done in the past, believe it or not) before rejoining yawping geese downstream.

Waterfront Bar & Grille

325 City Market Dr., Lansing 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 11 a.m.-midnight Thursdays and Fridays: 9 a.m.midnight Saturdays; 11 a.m.midnight Sundays; closed Mondays TO, P, OM, FB, $$ (517) 267-3800