June 15 2011 12:00 AM

Although the popular restaurant is lovely to look at, the dining experience leaves much to be desired


(Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of
twice-monthly restaurant reviews that critic Joe Torok will write based
on his first visit to a local eatery. )

Google "Lansing dining," and Clara’s Lansing Station jumps
to the top of the page. Popularity with residents, frequent
recommendations to guests visiting from out of town and a landmark
building give Clara’s an ostensible air of dining superiority not to be

The service is great. The décor is fine. The food — well, let’s start with the service and décor. 

On a Saturday evening, a dining companion and I visited
the converted train station, a large, architecturally interesting space
for a restaurant, with a broad roof and a pair of short turrets outside.
Inside, a cavernous ceiling covers a space bedecked with Tiffany lamps,
historical decorations and fine wood and glasswork. Without the
expectations of a meal, the site could make for a nice 10-minute museum

We were greeted with a smile and shown immediately to a
seat we requested — in the adjacent defunct railcar, a whimsical
destination for those who wish to imagine a meal in motion.

From the table up, the décor is beautiful, with stained and leaded glass, woodwork and crystal-clear windows providing a view of  railroad tracks and, splashing off nearby buildings, the peach-colored light of the setting sun.

The dingy carpet, however, and the beat-up plastic
tablecloth, along with grimy pull cords attached to our table’s window
blind, were difficult to overlook in a venue accentuating its visual

Our server was prompt, professional and polite. She took
drink orders immediately, and provided plenty of time to peruse the
menu, a bill of fare that could make a convenience store owner blush
with envy.

The novel-length menu offers a vast array of options,
including American fare, Tex-Mex, seafood, basket meals, sandwiches
galore and much more. A page-long history of the restaurant is densely
printed in small font on the back page.

We started with the spinach, crab and artichoke dip
($7.99). The large portion could be a meal unto itself, and we barely
dented the pile of bagel chips, perhaps because they tasted as if they
had been dumped directly from a bag and sprinkled with garlic salt,
seasoning that became unnecessary with a dip itself  that seemed to be infused with cheap salt.

Real crab, chunks of artichoke and bits of spinach
combined into a creamy mixture that did make for a tasty appetizer,
though, in a recurring dairy theme, the melted cheese on top (Monterey
jack, the menu claims) added little.

The house salad ($2.29) looked like it came straight from a
bag, too, with iceberg and a bit of romaine and tiny slivers of
occasional carrot.

Thick slices of red onion and two of the largest slices of
cucumber I’ve ever been served were added on top, along with orange
cheese shreds devoid of flavor. A salad fit for an airplane.

Our server politely informed us that no dressings were homemade at Clara’s, but, she added, the ranch is mixed onsite.       

The chicken Hawaiian ($8.99 single) with
seasonal vegetables was selected as the entrée (my companion stopped
with the dip), a dish in the menu described as a Clara’s favorite,
marinated in pineapple juice, soy sauce and white wine. The breast meat
itself was of good quality, a touch dry like most white meat, but not
overly so.

The marinade, on the other hand, didn’t seem to penetrate
far, providing a slightly sweet veneer with hardly a hint of much else.
The vegetables — amazingly tasteless onion, slightly overcooked red bell
pepper, zucchini and summer squash — didn’t add much to the meal, apart
from a touch of ground pepper.  

The key lime pie ($4.29) couldn’t save the meal, but it
was pretty good. The creamy pie had a firm crust, a smooth texture and a
nice subtle tang, although to call the topping "whipped cream" is an
insult to cream.

A cup of coffee ($2.39) sounded nice to accompany the
sweet finish. Served promptly, a smell test suggested the coffee had
been burnt three hours prior; the taste test confirmed it was four-hours

After a few tortured sips of what I imagined I could buy
with coupons at the supermarket, I began to realize that, for the most
part, it seemed like I was actually paying for the experience first, the
food second.  

Clara’s is a great venue for a brief tour, full of history
and ornament. After dinner, I decided that if I go back, I’ll go back
for the décor.

Clara's Lansing Station
637 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing
11 a.m.- 10 p.m.  Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Frday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday
(517) 372-7120