Being a parent of young children who values snuggling with them and sleeping above much else, my social life now entirely consists of a monthly book club and the occasional lunchtime tennis class. As such, when everyone was posting Instagram-worthy photos from the rooftop of the Graduate hotel in East Lansing, I only stepped foot into the building for networking events and meetings.
That said, the Graduate is a beautiful venue for such events. During the recent annual meeting of the Women Lawyers Association of Michigan, I was blown away by the lunch spread. Beautiful roasted vegetables; seasoned, herby chicken breasts; salad with dark leafy greens, beets and goat cheese; and fresh iced tea and almond bars had me starry-eyed, hoping for the occasion to attend more events at the hotel.
One recent evening, Mr. She Ate and I got a babysitter and made our way to the hotel’s rooftop to have dinner before continuing on to a Lansing Symphony Orchestra concert. The rooftop has unparalleled views of campus and the sprawling Lansing area, but you already knew that. The crowd ran the gamut from groups of girlfriends to families who were clearly hotel guests to students who are staying in town for the summer. The playlist was eclectic and had all of my favorite songs on it, even if I hadn’t realized before that moment that they were my favorite songs. There’s a strong possibility that the atmosphere on the rooftop gave everything a rosy hue, but sipping something cold while enjoying the sun-drenched glamor shot of East Lansing in the summertime is hard to resist.
We started with the Michigan Beer Dip ($11), which came with soft pretzel bites. The dip was creamy and a bit spicy, and I wanted it to be served with something that had more texture, like potato chips. We shared the Green Salad ($10) and the Grilled Chicken Melt ($13), to which we added fries for an additional $4. The salad was loaded with big, thick shavings of Parmesan cheese, which I gobbled up, but it was small. I love a hearty, loaded salad, and this wasn’t anywhere close to being large enough for a meal.
The Grilled Chicken Melt was served on toasted sandwich bread, which gave me the texture kick I needed. The pimento cheese spread elevated the otherwise milquetoast sandwich. The fries were crispy, and I wanted to like them, but they were cold and unseasoned. I dragged most of them through the beer cheese dip and loved that combination much more than the proffered pretzel bites.
It felt amazing to sit on a rooftop on a beautiful night when we didn’t have to rush around. It was a stark contrast to my next visit, when I had the 5-and-a-half-year-old prince of Lansing with me to grab takeout between camp pickup and the evening’s dueling activities of a county commission meeting for mama and a T-ball game for everyone else. He complained during the entire elevator ride, until we reached the top, when he realized he could go outside and see a unique view of “Sparty’s football stadium.” While he entertained himself, I ordered half the menu. We got a Cobb Salad with chicken ($10, plus $4 for the protein), a BLT ($12), a smash burger ($14) and an extra order of fries ($4).
The BLT included a fried green tomato instead of a traditional slice of red tomato, which gave a little kick that cut the richness of the thick-cut bacon. I’d eat it again, and I might even remember to make my own BLTs that way this summer. The smash burger was served on a brioche bun, which always impresses me, and the flavor hammered home the statement that this isn’t your average East Lansing bar burger. This burger is a grad student.
Cobb salads are my go-to, and while the sirloin version at Jimmy’s Pub is my absolute favorite in town, I’m happy to add the Graduate’s cobb to my shortlist.
The menu is decidedly limited, and I’m fine with that. Above all, the rooftop bar is a place to be seen. It’s a bar with food, not a restaurant with drinks. The emphasis knows where it belongs, just as I know that I belong in bed at 9:30 p.m.
It’s no secret that I bleed green. As a two-time alumnus and a current employee, Michigan State University will always hold a special place in my heart. So, when Graduate Hotels announced it was opening a location in East Lansing, I could hardly wait.
The company is known for absorbing the identity of the campus communities in which it builds its hotels into their design and feel. Aesthetically, the East Lansing hotel hits several notes right on the head, from key cards disguised as MSU alumni’s student IDs to a beautiful mural of prominent Black MSU alumni on the outside of the building to MSU and NBA legend Magic Johnson greeting guests at the front desk, and then finally to a not-so-subtle jab at the University of Michigan in the men’s restroom. However, rising above all other features is the Graduate Rock Bar on the top floor.
Nestled atop the camping-lodge-themed hotel is a bar with an unmatched asset: a stunning and glorious view that stretches from the far reaches of campus to the east and south to the Capitol and Michigan Avenue corridor to the west. Sunsets are absolutely draw-dropping from this perch, and I relished looking down on the MSU Union, where my parents met as students once upon a time. The Rock Bar is an ode to the Rock on Farm Lane, where students have been acknowledging social movements, holidays, fraternity and sorority events and campus milestones for decades. It’s now serving as the temporary memorial for the three victims of the Feb. 13 mass shooting.
The Rock is an essential part of MSU’s campus, and the Rock Bar is a fitting tribute that also hosts several alumni events. With a long U-shaped bar complete with a bow of a boat, comfy seating options and camping décor with a flair for all things green and white, the space is equal parts inviting and reverential. Further, through two large French doors, the outdoor patio is the perfect spot for small group gatherings or more intimate connections.
Spartan fans and weary travelers alike will delight in the Rock Bar’s short-yet-mighty menu. The libations are a pleasing component of the experience. On my first visit, I tried the Sparty Water ($12), which is composed of strawberry vodka, cranberry and lime juices and basil simple syrup. Sweet and sour, with a quiet earthiness in the background, this drink was the perfect pairing on a warm sunny day as I gazed at Beaumont Tower. The Izzone Highball ($14) was also tasty, though maybe more appropriate for cooler days than summer patio season. The apple-flavored whiskey, ginger ale and lemon juice beverage has quite the bite and a slow burn on the backend.
The Rock Bar also offers rotating specials. This summer, one of those options is a sangria ($16) that’s packed with a variety of fruits and flavors and served in a pouch rather than a pitcher. The whimsy never fails at the Graduate.
I love a good smash burger, and the Rock Bar’s Graduate Smash Burger ($14) is as juicy as any I’ve had. Smash burgers typically start out as balls of ground meat that are set on a hot grill plate and smashed to form a patty. The Rock Bar’s version includes two one-fifth-pound patties with cheese but not the grilled onions you may assume if you’ve had a smash burger at other restaurants. Still, it had good flavor — and a grilled bun, which is always a nice touch to keep the condiments from saturating the bread. Sadly, the upgraded fries were lukewarm and lacked any real flavor.
However, the Cobb Salad with grilled chicken ($14) was excellent. Digging into a salad with romaine, blue cheese crumbles, bacon, finely chopped red onion, egg and a delectable cilantro ranch dressing is a great way to enjoy an easy, breezy afternoon 10 floors up.
With only five main-course items on its menu, one might think it difficult to pull off many surprises. The Rock Bar’s BLT stands up to that notion with its thick-cut bacon and fried green tomato, which is hand-battered with cornmeal. The sandwich is kicked up even further by forgoing a traditional mayonnaise and including a zesty remoulade sauce that melds the other ingredients into satisfying nibbles. A bit of low country shining high above the East Lansing skyline.
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