Sept. 14 2016 12:46 AM

Rajje's Taphouse

Nick Ostapczuk will open Rajje's Taphouse next year in the East Town mixed-use development project. The bar/restaurant will reuse some items that were part of the property's previous occupants.
Allan I. Ross/City Pulse
If you turned Lansing upside down and shook it, all kinds of stories would come tumbling out. There’d be biographies of lumber barons and automotive pioneers, simmering political intrigues, tales of gritty urban survival, inspiring immigrant success stories and no end to starving artist melodramas.

But one of the city’s most infamous stories is the tragedy of a dancing elephant named Rajje, who was shot to death on the streets of south Lansing in 1963 after escaping from a shopping center where she’d been performing. Hardly something you’d find on a historical marker, yet one entrepreneur is doing better than that —he’s naming his restaurant after her. This week, the real estate development firm Gillespie Co. announced that Rajje’s Taphouse, a creative/eclectic eatery dreamed up by restaurateur Nick Ostapczuk, will anchor its upcoming East Town mixed-use development project.

“Naming it after Rajje creates a unique sense of intrigue,” Ostapczuk said of the restaurant’s name. “It gives us a historical reference that’s off-color to a degree, but it’s part of what makes Lansing Lansing. It’s important to celebrate things that may be unsavory. If you don’t do that, then you’re not telling the whole story.”

Ostapczuk, 36, was born and raised in Chicago but moved to Lansing last year when his partner, Karen Vance, was accepted into a master of fine arts program at Michigan State University. With a background in both the food service industry and construction, Ostapczuk started kicking around ideas for combining those talents and opening a restaurant somewhere locally. He heard about East Town, and a meeting with the Gillespie Co.’s president Scott Gillespie was put together. The two clicked.

“Scott is a wonderful asset and a vital aspect to progression of this area,” Ostapczuk said. “We quickly found a common ground for what would be a great fit for the (East Town) project. Rajje’s is something that’s being envisioned as the cornerstone for the area — something to rally around. It’s something the east side will be thrilled about.”

That may be more difficult than it sounds. A group of outspoken Eastside Neighborhood residents was initially resistant to East Town, which is being built on the south side of the 2000 block of Michigan Avenue. Some protested the demolition of the seven historical retail buildings needed to make way for the project, even though most were vacant and all were in stages of advanced disrepair. Even after Gillespie was able to convince the group that the buildings were “functionally obsolete,” the initial plans for East Town’s facade were panned by the group for being too progressive, necessitating a redesign that was finally accepted. Ostapczuk takes such criticism in stride.

“It’s healthy for people to have apprehension about big changes to their neighborhood,” Ostapczuk said. “They don’t want to lose what makes it special. But Scott and I want to make sure that East Town maintains that Eastside feeling.”

In July, demolition teams leveled the seven buildings. One of them had been home to Emil’s Restaurant, which claimed to be the capital city’s oldest restaurant.

“Emil’s closing was certainly unfortunate,” Ostapczuk said. “It was part of Lansing history, and that made it unique. I have a huge respect for Emil’s.”

If for no other reason than proximity, Rajje’s will effectively become Emil’s spiritual successor — and a few design flourishes from the longstanding restaurant are being repurposed in the new one. Ostapczuk toured the Emil’s building before it came down, and was struck by the bar’s brass rails, which were fashioned to look like elephant heads, right in line with his pachyderm motif. Gillespie facilitated their removal, as well as that of the marble countertops from the building next door (originally a jewelry store, most recently a hair salon), which will serve as the bar top at Rajje’s. Both the elephant heads and marble are currently being restored at Ostapczuk’s home. He’s also reusing some old photos and blueprints from Emil’s.

“My goal is not to replace Emil’s, but to build a progression,” Ostapczuk said. “Lansing’s boots and suits have been leaning against that bar rail for 90 years. Keeping those elephant heads is a small token, but it carries a large weight for the respect we want to pay. I’m also really focused on the flow of the space and aesthetics — it’s going to have some dramatic visuals, for sure — but the menu will also be something designed to be approachable.”

When it opens next fall, Rajje’s Taphouse will be a 110-seat restaurant with outdoor seating featuring gastropub fare, such as house-smoked, cured and pickled items. House-made jerky made from beef, venison and elk are slated for the appetizer list, alongside the Ploughman’s Plate, which has duck paté, artisan cheese and Spanish ham. Dinner entrées include smoked steelhead trout, a rotating meat-and-dumplings combo plate and handmade basil ravioli. The lunch menu will have “meat on bun” versions of some of the entrée items, as well as a beet melt sandwich. Ostapczuk says he’ll source as many of his ingredients as he can locally. The bar, meanwhile, will have 22 taps and an eclectic cocktail menu, featuring the Spruce Goose, made with white pepperinfused gin and arugula puree. There will also be small-batch wine and craft sodas available.

“It’s been a challenge trying to straddle the divide between casual and upscale in both the design of the restaurant and the food and beverage menus,” Ostapczuk said. “It’s an honor to be part of the history of this building, which will probably stand for 100 years, as well as this neighborhood and this city. It’s not only a great fit aesthetically for the neighborhood — more than anything else, it’s a great story.”

Rajje’s Taphouse is anticipated to open in East Town in fall 2017, shortly after the expanded version of Strange Matter Coffee Co., which will be the building’s first commercial tenant. The project also includes 39 residential apartments.