Memory is partly why people return time and again to their favorite restaurant; or, for that matter, why other restaurants are so freighted with bad memories that people would rather go hungry than go back.
At Coral Gables Restaurant near East Lansing, old memories are a tonic for those of a certain age. I’m of that certain age, and I can tell you that before we were seated I was already remembering … .
May 21, 1970. I plopped down on a bar stool, proudly brandishing my driver’s license, and ordered something wretched like a gin fizz. Things got a bit fuzzy after that first fizz, but it was my first legal drink — and I know Coral Gables served it.
Coral Gables, like its downscale counterpart to the west, Dagwood’s Tavern & Grill, is an icon in this college town. You only need to know that East Lansing was a dry town until the early 1970s. For thirsty college students, the closest places to belly up to the bar were at Coral Gables (just over the city limits in Meridian Township) or Dagwood’s, a five-minute walk from the western edge of Michigan State University.
Dining at Coral Gables these days is mainly about comfort food with a side order of nostalgia. Before you’re even seated, pause in the lobby to gaze at the restaurant’s menus from previous eras.
This is “Back to the Future” stuff. A 1950s menu lists a Reuben sandwich for 65 cents, and a chicken dinner (half a chicken!) for $1.75. Feel like toasting your good fortune? Back then, a glass of champagne set you back a whopping $1.50.
OK, on to the 2013 menu. On separate visits we tried broiled lamb chops, a sampler platter of several Greek dishes, turkey with stuffing and mashed potatoes and Swiss steak.
Swiss steak, that tenderized cut of cheap steak my mother served on Wednesday nights ... When is the last time you saw Swiss steak on the menu of a fine-dining restaurant? Or fried beef liver?
The Swiss steak is a bellwether for most of Coral Gables’ entrees. Nothing daring or adventurous — certainly not pretentious — but sturdy, well-prepared food in generous portions.
Another throwback: They have a salad bar. Coral Gables serves a variety of Greek specialties. Undoubtedly there is some family memory involved in that decision. The Vanis family has owned the restaurant since 1968, and their Greek origins spill over onto the menu. They even have a Greek Night in October (which we missed, darn it).
My first bite of authentic Greek food was way back in college — dolmathes, those amazing stuffed grape leaves served with lemon sauce. Coral Gables took me straight back to that first taste. The tangy grape leaves and lemon sauce paired well with the seasoned rice and ground meat mixture inside.
Though I’m not a big fan of eggplant, the moussaka (eggplant, ground lamb and cheese) was delicious. I prefer lamb ground and flavored with spices, so I only tasted the broiled lamb chops. They were OK, but I’m not a big fan of lamb as the solo star on the plate. However, my wife who ordered the lamb chops declared them perfectly done.
Here’s a fascinating side note about Greek food in this community: There was a time when up to 75 percent of all restaurants in Greater Lansing were owned by Greek immigrants or their descendants. Greek food was everywhere; Dines and Jim’s Tiffany restaurants were among the best known.
Those were the halcyon days of Greekinfluence dining in the Lansing area. Coral Gables is a vestige of that former Greek dining dynasty.
Now, let’s talk dessert — and more comfort food. Coral Gables makes its own ice cream and offers an extensive list of homemade pies. I ordered warm raspberry pie.
One bite and I was transported to 1959, sitting at our kitchen table, wolfing down a second helping of Mom’s raspberry pie.
It is no wonder that with all these memories bubbling to the surface, Coral Gables was quite busy on both visits. But this is no longer a hangout for college students; this is their grandparents’ hangout. I estimated the customers’ average age was 60. My wife’s guess was northward, “around 70.”
There is nothing pretentious about the food or decor in Coral Gables. The furnishings are akin to a chain restaurant known for its breakfasts. The service is prompt and sure. There are no gimmicks, no culinary sleight of hand. Coral Gables is about who we were (those of a certain age) and, poignantly, what we’ve become.