I turned 40 this week. I have spent the vast majority of my life living in Lansing, and I pride myself on being a townie who went to camp as a child at the Fenner Nature Center and the Turner-Dodge House, whose first job was at the Moores Park Pool, who remembers that first season of the Lugnuts (and the confusion my preteen self had over the name — what’s a lugnut?). But this month’s eating assignment goes to show that even longtime Lanstronauts can learn a thing or two about this community — and find a new favorite breakfast in the meantime.
Until a month ago, I had never been to Gregory’s. Of course, I knew where it was, and I am familiar with the well-earned lore surrounding owner Gregory Eaton, who maintains an absolutely flawless landscaping situation in his front yard, which I drive past several times a day on my way in and out of our shared neighborhood. I met my co-reviewer and another former classmate of ours (Go Big Reds!) for lunch one recent weekday and we proceeded to sample as large a cross-section of the menu as possible.
My hands-down favorite was the fried shrimp. The batter was light, which is my preference, and the shrimp were large, juicy and flavorful. Of the 10 that came in our basket, I took down at least half of them myself. I will be forever reordering the fried shrimp. My runner-up was the famous wings, again lightly breaded and flash-fried. Both baskets came with corn muffins and garlic toast, but I quickly turned my attention to the wide variety of side dishes we’d chosen.
The black-eyed peas were my favorite of the bunch. I love all varieties of beans and firmly believe that a simple preparation is best. These beans were creamy but retained their texture. They were just the tiniest bit spicy. In short, they were perfect. My companions gobbled down the dressing, and although it’s not ever my natural inclination, I will reserve judgment on that item, because I don’t prefer any dressing or stuffing I have ever had. I didn’t love the mac and cheese — my standards for which are exacting, and I like the dish to have a bit more texture in the form of bread crumbs or toasted panko. The French fries were milquetoast, and while a seasoned fry would be a nice surprise, I’m willing to overlook them due to the absolutely legendary status of the shrimp and wings.
We also ordered a New York strip steak to share at the suggestion of the server. While a 12-ounce steak for $17.25 provides an incredible bang for your buck, ours was tragically overcooked. Alas, maybe we weren’t meant to eat an entire steak dinner during lunch on a Monday.
On a return visit I ordered a takeout breakfast for the family. Mr. She Ate chose a meat lover’s omelet, which included ham, bacon, sausage, and cheddar. First of all, the omelets are seriously large and come with home fries and toast. My husband waxed on and on about the home fries for the rest of the day. He’s never seen a sear like that on a potato, he said. He couldn’t stop composing poems about the texture of the home fries and the perfection that was the bacon.
I chose the farmer’s omelet, which was stuffed with cubes of ham, sliced onion and cheddar cheese. I loved the bite of the onion with the sharpness of the cheddar, and next time I’m excited to try the vegetarian omelet with its delicious-sounding combination of green peppers and mushrooms. I’m also eager to sample the grilled shrimp and grits with toast.
The Babies She Ate shared an order of pancakes and bacon. The pancakes were not at all what I was expecting, and I mean that in the best way possible. They were thin — almost as thin as crepes — and more tangy than sweet. My 2.5 year old got her money’s worth out of her newly developed fork skills and gobbled down two of the pancakes, barely coming up for air. The 4-year-old is a bacon man and is also a very deliberate eater (I don’t like to call kids “picky” eaters.) Well, he found something that he liked from Gregory’s and took down three large slices of bacon quickly.
My late, beloved former Lansing School Board colleague Shirley Rodgers used to promise me that she would take me to Gregory’s with her. We never got the chance. As I sat with Bryan Beverly, who also loved Shirley, I felt her there with us. I know that she would have loved us being there, together, both silently but undoubtedly thinking about her. Shirley, I promise I’ll bring my fine-ass husband with me next time I go back to Gregory’s.
Black-owned watering holes in Lansing have a rich heritage as a convening space for after-work drinks and home to diverse life celebrations (birthdays, anniversaries and post-funeral repasts). Soul or Southern-inspired cuisine often takes center stage. In the early 1950s, Sonny Adams opened the Tropicana Lounge on the corner of Division and William streets near the Oldsmobile main gate. The establishment touted fine foods and cocktails with visiting jazz bands. In the early 1970s, Starr’s Black & Tan, owned and operated by Roland Starr, opened nearby, on River Street, and was a destination spot for GM workers coming off of various shifts. The Black & Tan was known for pickled pig feet, eggs, bologna and homemade burgers. The establishment hosted several themed nights in its large banquet hall with space for funk, soul and Latin bands. Around this same time, Gregory Eaton, a Lansing native and Michigan’s first Black lobbyist, opened The Garage on Capitol Avenue. A favorite nightspot for local business, education and government leaders and workers, the Garage offered menu items called the Hub Cap, the Tail Pipe and the Rolls Rueben. The Garage closed in 1991, but Eaton soon opened on North Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard as Gregory’s Soul Food. Gregory’s continues to draw crowds for large gatherings and music but has also carved out a niche as a soul food mecca in the Capital City.
Having had my grandmother’s cooking when I was younger, I have a strong sense of what good soul food looks and tastes like. It also means my bar is set pretty high. With that being said, the collard greens and Mac & Cheese are Gregory’s were respectable — I just can’t call them great. The greens were flavorful and there were bits of smoked meat slow simmered with them, but they ranked lower in comparison to the other items I tasted. They were also a bit tougher than I like them, but that’s probably a personal preference. Likewise, in terms of Mac &
Cheese, I’m usually in the baked mac camp, and while it was acceptable, it wasn’t a standout like some of the other sides.
What’s really good
Gregory’s are known for their wings, and let me tell you — they did not disappoint. They come golden brown and piping hot, so it’s best to break the wing pieces apart to let them cool for a few seconds before putting in your mouth. When you do get a chance to taste them, the crispy-battered skin and seasonings will tantalize your tastebuds. I prefer mine with a dash of hot sauce, a move that was mimicked by my first-timer companions. Next, the dressing (not to be confused with stuffing) is also superb. A flavorful cornbread casserole-like dish, it includes shredded turkey, celery, and plenty of sage. I’m also a big fan of the black-eyed peas and rice, and the yams, both traditional southern favorites. The peas are savory and smokey with a mild burst of heat on the end. The yams are served in a delectable syrup but are almost too popular as they aren’t always available on the menu.
This month is a tie. First, the fried shrimps at Gregory’s are a secret gem. The chicken gets a lot of recognition and rightfully so, but I’ll put these shrimp up against any of the You-buy, We-fry fish markets that have become popular around town. Battered and crisped to perfection, the shrimp are large and well-seasoned, partnering nicely with a basket of fries or onion rings. Next, while chicken and waffles are trending menu item at a lot of soul food restaurants across the country, I preferred the fried whiting (fish) over the waffle. The cornmeal crust serves as a textural contrast to the fluffy freshly made waffle. I top mine with hot sauce and syrup and honestly can’t wait to go back for more this weekend.
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