March 24 2011 12:00 AM

Venerable bar/eatery celebrates its 90th year


A mound rubble — broken concrete cuboids with tendrils of amputated rebar — rests on the desolate lot formerly occupied by a General Motors plant on Verlinden Avenue near Harry’s Place, an old-time bar and restaurant, rebuilding its image in a post-industrial neighborhood.

Harry’s Place once thrived in the shadow of that Fisher Body plant for decades, almost directly across the street from the main entrance, before it was even Fisher Body, in fact. The now-demolished factory on Lansing’s west side originally housed Durant Motors, and its feature product was the Star Car, a competitor to Ford’s popular Model T. Harry’s Place owner Harea Bates says the bar she took over from her father was originally named the Star Café in 1921, in honor of the car, by her grandfather Harry, a Greek immigrant and friend of industrialist William Durant.

In its prime, Harry’s dished out scores of hamburgers and sandwiches during the daily lunch rush, catering to factory workers who had a half hour to walk, eat and return to the line. The ebb and flow of Harry’s has changed, but the oldfriend atmosphere remains.

Bates’ father and former owner Art Arvanites, a Greek immigrant in his own right, spends his winters in Florida, but Bates says when he’s back in town, he brings his gift of gab to Harry’s, regaling anyone within earshot of times that existed before they were knee high.

"Once you get dad going, you just can’t stop him," Bates says.

Arvanites is a fountain of local history, sharing stories about how Harry’s acted as the temporary home to a newly-emerging UAW 602. He was interviewed for an oral history project broadcast on National Public Radio at the time the GM factory went dark (listen to the full interview for free by searching for "Aristides Arvanites" on the Michigan State University library catalog).

Bates, who has managed Harry’s for years, and her husband, Hugh, a recent early retiree from GM, took over Harry’s completely last year. She says they had their doubts, but as a part of the family business since she was 14, Bates could not turn away.

"After the plant closed, we were tossing it up," she says. "It was a tough call. It was awful. It wasn’t just the plant closing, it was all the people we were losing."

So Harry’s downsized, considerably, — and it didn’t help that nearby Sexton High School closed its campus for lunch. But Harry’s staff keeps the motors running with a friendly atmosphere and some pretty tasty food.

The Greek-style chicken ($7.95) is worth a trip. Tender roasted chicken is served in a lemon and oil- based sauce with a savory Mediterranean mix of herbs and seasoning. Large wedges of baked and seasoned potatoes accompany the meal, which, with a half-chicken, is quite filling.

The homemade pita chips are not on the menu but will be happily tossed in a pan of bubbling oil on request. Deep fried slices of pita have a crispy exterior that gives way to a soft, bready inside; they’re served with a side of Harry’s homemade gyro sauce for dipping.

What good would a place like Harry’s be without great bar food when catching a game? A sports fan has it all, with a burger and fries, or one of Harry’s loaded pizzas.

Bates says the popular fish fry ($9.50), with fries and slaw, has almost singlehandedly kept Harry’s ticking — all you can eat from 4-8 p.m. every Friday.

Harry’s has had to refocus for life after the collapse. It hasn’t been easy. A dark, dusty trophy case behind the bar houses statuettes and awards from Harry’s heyday. Bates still sponsors a few recreation and youth teams, but Harry’s atmosphere has indelibly changed from a smoke-filled, blue-collar, happy-hour paradise. It now caters to families, and regulars take time to introduce themselves to new faces.

Harry’s motto is printed on T-shirts for sale: "Come in as a customer, leave as a friend."

Across the street, though, next to that lonely pile of rubble, sprouts of green are shooting up from cracks in the concrete, and a field of grass will soon rise above a bed of straw mulch that covers the acres where smokestacks once reigned. It’s optimism, whether they like it or not, that keeps Harry’s crew motoring forward.

"My dad said that’s good land across the street," Bates says. "Something will come."

Harry’s Place

404 N. Verlinden Ave., Lansing (517) 484-9661 10 a.m.-11:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday TO, FB, $