Coney dog to the rescue

By Mark Nixon

Grasping for some morsel of mercy, I was prepared to begin this review with “Sometimes it’s not about the food.”

Then I remembered the note a former boss scribbled above an editorial I had written for the next edition: “You’re playing with your food.”

It was a polite way of saying, “Quit shilly-shallying and say what you mean.” He was right.

This is a restaurant review and, dammit, it IS about the food.

The assignment: LeRoy’s Classic Bar & Grill on Lansing’s south side. It gives me no pleasure to say the food at LeRoy’s is classically pedestrian. Not awful. Just numbingly average, with menu items that might have sprung from a half-dozen equally mundane tavern kitchens in town. Only a Coney dog averted a total bust.

On three visits I sampled an overcooked olive burger ($5.25), same-old onion rings ($2.95), run-of-the-mill chicken wings ($7.50) and an average-at-best corned beef on marble rye ($4.95). I also sampled a BLT ($6.25) and fish and chips ($7.95). The best part of the latter was the accompanying tartar sauce; not too sweet and laden with fresh dill. I’m yawning here, tired of searching for synonyms for average.

The one bright spot was the cheapest sandwich on the menu, a Coney dog for $2. The hot dog had the correct “snap” of a Michigan-made Koegel’s, which is rightly advertised with a neon sign above a doorway. The Coney sauce had the right cumin kick, the hallmark of a genuine Coney dog. The hot dog also had a slight smokiness, which I assume came from being lightly browned on the kitchen grill.

I was going to try a bowl of soup, but was told they wouldn’t start serving it until October. Fair enough. Soup is better in the colder months. But why not put a removable sticky note on the menu? “No soup for you!” to quote the Soup Nazi. At least, not yet.

And while I’m being nit-picky, LeRoy’s could use a proofreader. They misspell Koegel’s on their website menu. On signs near the bar trumpeting upcoming karaoke nights, karaoke is misspelled. Finally, this place should decide if LeRoy’s has a capital R or a lower case r.

I worked in restaurants and bars long before the Internet was invented by Al Gore or most Americans had heard of karaoke. Food-wise, there are no sure paths to success. But a common trait among successful establishmentS is that the owners single out one signature entree or sandwich and work it to perfection. It doesn’t have to be fancy. They don’t have to promise farmto-table or only fresh ingredients. Just consistently deliver that one item that becomes synonymous with the place. Word of mouth will take it from there.

LeRoy’s needs a signature, must-try menu item.

Now, let’s assume for a bit this isn’t a restaurant review but a more general bar review. That’s a whole ‘nother story.

Step inside, and you are invariably greeted with a “Welcome!” by the bartender. The servers are equally friendly, and the service was exceedingly prompt — even when a bustling Friday lunch crowd kept the solitary server hopping.

LeRoy’s decorative centerpiece is the expansive, back-lit bar. Liquor bottles glisten like jewels. It’s practically a work of art. Sitting on bar stools during one visit, we noticed under-the-bar-rail hooks for purses or hats. A nice touch. It reminded me of those little shelves on the pews in an old church.

For a long time, this place was known as Gino’s. It was a factory bar. From its raised back patio, one can still glimpse the swath of land in REO Town that was once home to the Diamond Reo Truck Co., and, before that, where Ransom Olds cranked out REO Motor Car Co. cars.

Vestiges of those factory days linger. LeRoy’s still opens at 7 a.m. most days for those leaving the “graveyard shift.” And while the interior is more polished than it was during the Gino’s era, LeRoy’s maintains the character of a neighborhood bar.

There’s an outsized area set aside for darts, and another for playing pool.

During our visits, I saw some in dusty construction clothes and others wearing business casual. Guys at the next table carried on a noisy but friendly debate over Obamacare. A woman flounced past, wearing a tiara. To my right, an over-40 couple were getting very friendly. I chuckled upon noticing our server wearing a T- shirt advertising a bar — but not LeRoy’s.

In short, the vibe in LeRoy’s is that of an unpretentious gathering place for regulars. Given how busy it was on each of our three visits, maybe they don’t need to fuss over a menu upgrade.

On second thought: Yes, they do.

Hamburger Deluxe does not disappoint

By Gabrielle Johnson

Lansing-area eaters, I’ve been waiting a long time to write this article. To be precise, I’ve been eagerly anticipating this for almost exactly three years — ever since I got a whiff of a burger from LeRoy’s Classic Car & Grill. I was in a photographer’s studio in the John Bean building, just a bit north on Cedar Street from LeRoy’s, and I was posing for the photo gracing the top of this page. Our editor brought in a Styrofoam to-go container. The aroma sucker punched me in the nose, and my mouth started watering. I made a beeline to LeRoy’s for lunch as soon as we were done with the shoot, and I’ve been going there for burgers ever since.

Although I grew up very close to LeRoy’s, I didn’t grow up eating there. But I’ve been making up for lost time — I even requested my birthday celebration dinner to take place on the back deck at LeRoy’s last summer. What do I order? Without fail, a Hamburger Deluxe with fries. For the last three years, that is the only thing I have ever ordered from LeRoy’s.

Here are some of my favorite things about LeRoy’s: You can sit inside and watch your burger being made on the grill. Nothing to hide, no hidden vats of pink slime in the back, and I dig that. While you’re waiting for your burger, you can survey the crowd, and this crew is motley as hell. On one of our last trips, the fiancé and I saw tables of middle-aged women enjoying their Friday happy hour, young professionals lining their stomachs for a night at the bar and my mother and her girlfriend having dinner. That’s a true story. We walked in and ran into my mother.

The burger is nothing fancy, but it’s well prepared, juicy, and not overwhelmed by seasonings. The toppings are straightforward — no barbecue sauce or Sriracha mayonnaise or frizzled onions here — and that’s exactly how I like my burgers. If I’m going to completely forsake the wedding diet that I’m allegedly on (hey there, April nuptials), then I’m going to do it face first into a buttery, pillowy bun sandwiched around a delectably indulgent burger patty.

Unfortunately, the fries at LeRoy’s don’t win my heart. They’re completely unseasoned, an oversight that really frosts the fiancé’s cookies. Regardless, we both continue to order them every single time we go to LeRoy’s because our options are limited. Strictly speaking, we aren’t onion ring people. I find them to be perpetually greasy and overpowering, and the rings at LeRoy’s are no exception. To be fair, if there was a steamed broccoli option to have alongside my burger, I would order than in a second. (And I would be prepared to field the accusatory stares of my mother from across the bar.)

For the sake of research, my intended and I decided to branch out. I ordered the Half and Half Burger — ground beef, ham, American cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise. Remember the beloved Bonnie Burger from the defunct Bonnie’s Place? This is the copycat version. And while imitation is a sincere form of flattery, I missed my standby Hamburger Deluxe. The ham on the burger was way too salty, and it didn’t make for a cohesive sandwich.

He ordered the shrimp and fries basket and was overwhelmed with the amount of breading on the shrimp. The little guys were so heavily battered that the taste of shrimp was virtually unnoticeable. After dejectedly finishing our meals, we went home, lamenting our trip off the burger reservation.

I wonder about the history of LeRoy’s — who the owner is, who shows up at 7 a.m. to eat the breakfast sandwiches that sound delicious and whose genius idea it was to build their fantastic back patio. Seriously, that back deck is one of the best in town, and, since it’s largely enclosed, you can sit outside and enjoy a burger until winter really takes hold of us. Heed my advice and stick to the Hamburger Deluxe, unless someone tells me that the breakfast sandwiches are worth an early morning wake-up.