June 11 2014 12:00 AM

Waterfront Bar leads a thriving riverfront entertainment scene

Bedeviled by picnic-style fare

by Mark Nixon

Downtown Lansing’s Waterfront Bar & Grill is a work in progress. For those who have longed for a vibrant riverfront, including restaurants, the fact that Lansing now boasts a restaurant gracing the Grand River is indeed progress.

Before we get to the particulars, consider what may be Waterfront’s greatest challenge — parking.

Since opening in May 2010, the Lansing City Market (where Waterfront resides) had a fair-sized parking lot. That is all but gobbled up by a housing complex now under construction.

Fair enough. I’m all for new housing in the downtown, especially ones overlooking the Grand. But where, pray tell, does one park? Turns out there is smallish lot nestled between the river and the market. Yet the lack of signage leaves first-time visitors guessing. Alternately, a potential customer might try the nearby Lansing Center and park there if the lot is open. If you tell the parking attendant you’re going the City Market, you can park for free.

Let’s assume you are a hardy urbanite who eschews driving to the market, preferring to walk or bike. Good move. The Lansing River Trail drifts right past restaurant’s patio. But if you’re still trapped in the Age of the Automobile, riverside dining is going to take a bit of work.

OK, you’re finally settled in at Waterfront, where things promptly get better — and worse. Let’s take a look at two visits to Waterfront.

The first time was on a sunny, warm May evening. Inside was bustling, and stiflingly warm. We opted for inside dining to avoid sitting in full sun, sans shade. Bad move. Unfortunately, the Waterfront shares an open ceiling plan with the City Market, which apparently has little cooling capacity except for a few underperforming ceiling fans.

We asked a server if a window could be open, allowing a bit of a breeze. She did. It made no difference.

The four of us found the high-top, backless chairs clunky and uncomfortable, though I did appreciate the attempt to make the decor look rustic, in an Up North tavern sort of way.

That first visit was on a Thursday, when select bottles of wine are available for $10. And not just a bottle or two — there was an impressive number of bottles on the list. A great bargain, and we didn’t pass it up. Our guests shared a bottle of red; my wife and I shared a bottle of Northern Michigan chardonnay. No doubt this was partly why the joint was hopping with all sorts of folks, some in shorts and others in coats and ties.

Waterfront’s dining options are limited. It’s strictly pub grub. With notable exceptions, the fare is pretty ordinary. We shared a hummus plate for $8.50. With a little imagination — say, upgrading to a better hummus and substituting the basic crackers with pita wedges — this could be a fine appetizer.

On the other hand, the Avocado BLT ($8) was one of the best BLTs I’ve had locally. Richly smoked bacon was heaped on avocado wedges and served on a sourdough roll. The avocado added the right counterpoint to smoke and sour.

Our friends did not fare as well. They declared the nachos “mediocre,” and I couldn’t disagree. These were cookie-cutter nachos to be found in a dozen places across Greater Lansing.

On our second visit, we opted for outdoor dining. It was another sunny spring day, not as warm as our previous visit. Still, the outdoor seating could use some shade. (Waterfront’s website shows pictures of the patio shaded by tent-like awnings. Perhaps these hadn’t been in stalled when we visited).

Overall, the food was notably better this time, and so was the service. My personal favorite dish was the deviled eggs appetizer ($5). This family picnic throwback is uncommon on restaurant menus, probably because deviled eggs are notoriously boring.

Not at Waterfront. Four deviled egg halves artfully form a wheel around a hub of fresh salad greens. The egg halves are dotted with paprika on one end, a dose of pepper on the other, with a wedge of candied bacon propped up in the center. They tasted as good as they looked, and put a lot of picnic counterparts to shame.

I ordered the Boss Hog ($9.50) sandwich: Pulled pork, Tasso ham, spicy Andouille sausage and bacon, all topped with a North Carolina-style barbecue sauce. The tart, the sweet and the salty competed nicely for my tastebuds’ attention.

Waterfront Bar and Grill is well suited as an after-work meeting/drinking/snacking place. In summer months it hosts live musical acts on the patio, adding to the riverside ambience. But the owners need to up the game, menu-wise. And hopefully the City of Lansing will do its part, parking-wise.

On the market

by Gabrielle Johnson

I hadn’t been to the Waterfront for a few years, since the food they served at my best friend’s pig roast rehearsal dinner was disappointing and the service was even worse. The location inside the Lansing City Market is primo, sure, but since Iorio’s stopped selling gelato there, I haven’t found much of a reason to go. So it was with trepidation that I met a girlfriend for lunch on one of our first beautiful weekdays in a thousand years.

We sat outside, naturally. My pal had a special of carnitas tacos ($7.50) and I had the chicken salad sandwich special ($7.50), which came with a choice of a side item. I chose the kettle chips.

As we gossiped, the boyfriend joined us and did his best to catch the attention of the server. When he finally caught her, he ordered the Boss Hog sandwich ($9.50) and chose the corn salad as his side. I dug into my chicken salad sandwich, served on a flat, fresh white bread, topped with lots of tomato, red onion and romaine. It was loaded with fresh basil, which made the chicken salad sweet. I am a sucker for super crunchy potato chips. I stuffed some of mine into my sandwich to give it a bit of texture.

My girlfriend devoured her tacos and proclaimed them fresh and heavy on the cilantro, just what she wanted. After she and I had licked our plates clean, the boyfriend languished, still waiting for his sandwich, a good 30 minutes after he had placed his order. That kind of service, without a doubt, won’t stand for downtown employees who have a limited lunch hour. When he was finally presented with his order, he had it immediately packed up to go since we were running late.

The Boss Hog is a fluffy brioche bun stuffed with pulled pork, a slice of ham, an entire Andouille sausage and bacon, slathered in barbecue sauce. It is topped with a garnish of a pepperoncini and a cherry tomato, which serve as a tiny reminder that vegetables are out there — and you are going to be the Mayor of Heartburn City in an hour. He liked the sandwich, although it was eaten on the road. The barbecue sauce wasn’t too sweet and the sausage had a nice subtle kick to it.

As an additional bonus I returned to work with a wicked neck sunburn.

We returned for dinner and were met with a full house: Families enjoying dinner, friends having a beer after a soccer game, ladies out on the town looking for some action (seriously, at the city market?). Although the place was packed, there was only one waitress working. We both ordered iced tea, and after the first sip I feared a sudden onset of diabetes. The tea was heavily sweetened, something that I would have loved to have known before I took a slug of it. She said they didn’t have unsweetened tea, so I stuck with club soda instead.

Famished after a long day and faced with a 9 p.m. dinner, we fell upon the soft pretzels that we’d ordered as an appetizer ($5). The two full-sized pretzels were average, but I was surprised that they were completely unsalted. I mean, isn’t a pretzel inherently supposed to be salted? I’m not in it for the health, people.

We each ordered a “from the grill” special. I chose the black bean burger ($7.50) and this time got the corn salad alongside. The burger was a pre-made patty and was nothing special. The corn salad, a creamy, cheese-topped concoction (“salad” is a stretch) benefitted immensely from the addition of a few of the boyfriend’s kettle chips, crumbled and thrown in. Obviously I’m doing a great job of putting on my summer weight.

I immediately had extreme order envy when the boyfriend’s chicken club sandwich ($7.50) came to the table. A juicy grilled chicken breast was topped with Swiss cheese and bacon on a bun with tomato, romaine, and red onion — you know, a club sandwich. Nothing earthshattering, but I’d forgotten just how delicious a classic club sandwich can be. I hated myself for forcing myself to adhere to the rule that we never order the same meal, and I was rebuffed when I tried to convince him to switch.

We noticed after our second visit that the lunch and dinner menu is the same. In theory, this is fine. In reality, $9.50 is a bit steep when lunch consists of mediocre food.