'Why be normal?'
|By Allan I. Ross|
Guss Bar is reincarnated as a gastropub
Editor's note: Shortly after this week's issue was published, we learned chef James Tompkins has left Gus's Bar. Opinions expressed in this feature reflect the dishes Tompkins created and prepared.
This week’s weather forecast: mostly sunny with highs in the mid-60s, perfect for strolling on the beach watching his grandsons chase each other into the surf.
But right now Caliacatsos is nowhere near that house, that beach, or those children: He’s sitting across from me in an unassuming bar here in the frozen tundra of Lansing. I slide the photos he’s just shown me of his home back to him across the table and ask him why he’s not there in Greece.
He sighs and shrugs his shoulders.
“One of my customers called me up and told me the story about how bad things were going here,” he says, gesturing around him. We’re sitting in Gus’s bar — named, appropriately, Gus’s Bar — situated directly across the street from the crater that used to be the General Motors Fisher Body Plant. “Then the new owner called me up and told me that if I wanted it, come back and get it. So I did.”
Caliacatsos built this little dive by hand.
He laid every pipe and put every tile in place himself, the ultimate victory for this Greek immigrant who says he came to America in 1959 because he was “hungry.”
He spent years working his way up through GM before finding his calling in the restaurant business. He started by working for a friend but branched off and went solo with Gus’s Bar in 1982, which he owned and operated for 23 years and made a tidy living for himself — until the plant across the street was shuttered in 2005, costing him the majority of his customers.
He retired three years later, selling Gus’s Bar to a new owner and returning to Greece where he built his dream house. But then like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III,” just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.
“I lived in Lansing for 50 years,” he says, then adds, almost apologetically, “I have too many friends here.”
The story goes that Caliacatsos caught wind that the new owner of Gus’s Bar was not only running the place into the ground, but selling off the equipment he had spent a lifetime assembling. Pride of ownership — and the preservation of the good name he’d spent half a century building — kicked in, and he returned to the States.
Caliacatsos went from living in a magnificent Mediterranean beach home to squatting in a drafty garage across the street from his old bar so he could keep an eye on it.
“At one point, a police officer showed up and pulled a gun on me,” Caliacatsos says, chuckling. “Someone had called the police thinking I was breaking and entering. But it all worked out well, so I’m not upset.”
Caliacatsos eventually succeeded in reclaiming Gus’s Bar and started his mission to return it to its former glory.
As Caliacatsos was embroiled in his reconstruction strategy, a continent-hopping, classically trained chef named James Tompkins was making the rounds of mid- Michigan restaurants. He was seeking a position that would allow him to express himself creatively and introduce Midwest taste buds to the fare that had been earning him raves in Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco and New York.
“I wanted to create a menu from scratch, and no one in the area was looking to do that,” Tompkins says.
“Obviously, the economy was partly to blame; it wasn’t a good time for kitchen managers to start tinkering with their menus. Then I met Gus, and it was all over. He wanted someone to get him up and running in a hurry, and he was willing to let me go with a concept I’d been interested in trying for a while: the gastropub.”
A gastropub is a British creation that reinvigorated both pub culture and dining across the Pond in the early 1990s.
Gastropubs concentrate on high-quality food in a relaxed atmosphere, essentially taking the stuffiness out of fine dining and making it socially acceptable to order calamari or bruschetta while you’re throwing darts or knocking back a beer.
“People shouldn’t feel like good food is out of their budget,” Tompkins says. “We don’t
“I believe in
By the way, Gus, be sure to let us know if you ever need a housesitter.
2321 W. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 484-4714 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday–Saturday. FB, WB, TO, $-$$