First, name this quote…."You are my density!" Sorry. I couldn't resist.
Another week, another dilemma…
First thing Monday morning a peer at work asked for a restaurant recommendation in Lansing. I was stumped. Now, to appreciate the gravity of this void, understand that I'm a Spartan. I spent three years living in E. Lansing and working in restaurants while finishing my undergrad (I still mourn the Evergreen Grill). For me to have not a single inspired thought speaks volumes to the crippled state of Lansing's food scene. But why?
Lansing's a fair sized city, in fact, larger than Ann Arbor. According to the 2010 Census Lansing has 114,297 residents, 464,036 when you consider the entire metropolitan. Similarly, Ann Arbor has 113,934 residents, 334,791 including the surrounding community. Wouldn't population alone warrant some at least some greatness?
And East Lansing is a University town. Not only is MSU enrollment nearly 2X U of M, but it's a land grant college founded on agriculture. Ag is food. Shouldn't they be leading the gastronomic revolution? And Lansing is the State's Capital, arguably the most powerful zip code within the great State of Michigan. Wouldn't that attract lots of elite dining events?
Tragically, no. But why?
Lansing has three primary commercial districts, campus, east (Okemos) and west (downtown Lansing). The unfortunate reality though, is that not a one of these distinct communities alone can generate the sustained financial traffic required to support a discerning palate. Downtown is a ghost town past 5:00 PM, campus is too student focused to warrant a higher ticket and Okemos is too geographically isolated from both. Restaurants in each area end up fighting for dollars with broad "accommodate everyone, delight-none" menus.
So why does Ann Arbor work? In one word, density.
Last month the Observer wrote a tribute piece on Dennis Serras. Along the way they hypothesis that Ann Arbor owes it's foodie glory to Dennis and his partner's decision to cluster four restaurants next to each along Main Street. There's some truth in that idea. Main Street is not a business district. Most folks with a day job remain north of Huron. Main Street is not Campus. And as our city will forever debate, Main Street does not provide the suburban equivalent of free parking. Still, we've seen the Main Street corridor evolve into one of the foremost restaurant districts west of New York and east of LA save for Chicago. Why?
Having Main Street Ventures build four restaurants on Main Street definitely generated traffic, but that traffic wouldn't exist without a separate prerequisite - density. In a broad oversimplification, I'd argue that we spend time in three places, at home, at work and at play. Restaurants need to pull from all three to generate dining occaisons.
Ann Arbor has successfully nurtured a balance of all three. Our state's capital, conversely, has not faired as well. Work (Lansing), Home (Okemos) and Play (Campus) are separated by miles, not blocks. This makes it impossible for any one area to establish critical mass. The resulting landscape has a name, Sprawl. The resulting gastronomic community also has a name - crap.
Speaking of crap (kidding!) - I did manage to put together a list of Lansing area restaurant options. For those of you who have reason to visit Lansing, check it out. Below is a revised copy of the e-mail response to my peer. Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments.
OK – I have made my peace with Lansing’s food. The only restaurant I’ve been excited about in the last 10 years has since closed. Urbanspoon has ZERO listings for Lansing or East Lansing, and Yelp is clogged with bar food. You’re MUCH more likely to enjoy the atmosphere than the plate. I think the best thing for you to do is let proximity to other activities dictate. You'll need to need drive no matter where you're headed. Here’s three regional options. Finally, when given an option, I would encourage you to opt for the more casual. The fine dining scene in Lansing lacks the "urban sophistication" of Ann Arbor. Anyone expecting that level of experience will be let down.
El Azteco – 225 Ann St. Originally a small, dirty hole in a basement, they’ve since moved into the current sunny roof-top patio landmark without losing the down-to-earth charm. It’s an institution in East Lansing akin to Dominicks or Angelo’s in Ann Arbor. You MUST order the Topopo Salad. I’ve never finished one by myself.
Beggers Banquet Restaurant and Saloon (218 Abbot Road) Old school dinner house since 1973 that hasn’t changed an iota since 1973 (they still have London Broil on the menu!); always a favorite for their wine list. Don’t worry about it being too fancy though, MSU is originally a land grant college (agriculture) so the campus never established a glamorous or formal air – the famous mantra at Beggers banquet is “gimme eat.”
BEST PUBS / BAR FOOD: There are threee equally awesome, though distinctly different pub/bars that warrant consideration.
Harrison Roadhouse (the only option easy walking distance from the Campus Convention Center & Hotel) A gas station converted into a pub. Tremendously charming. Markedly more grown-ups than the average E. Lansing bar.
The Peanut Barrel: Closest to a physical classroom, the patio provides a perfect vista for watching life on Grand River. The burgers are tremendous. Perhaps the best analog to Ann Arbor's Casey's (am I stretching?)
Crunchys: If Fraser's was on Campus this may be what it would look like. An athlete's sports bar that still considers George Perles a good man.
MSU DAIRY STORE: MSU is an ag school - right? Well nothing will drive that home more than a trip to to The Dairy Food Complex. The group operates a retail shop where you can sample fresh cheese and ice cream made on site. Is it the best you've ever tasted? No. Is it wonderful? Yes.
RANDOM POINT OF INTEREST AND SYMPATHETIC JAB AT LANSING: This speaks volumes for the culture in Lansing… If you were visiting Seattle for the first time you’d make a pilgrimage to Pike’s Place and pay homage to the original Starbucks. In East Lansing you go to 270 West Grand River Avenue to get coffee at the original Bearners / Bigby’s Coffee – which I believe is a former Arby’s.
OKEMOS (east side, suburban – driving)
Many of the hotels are on this side of town; the major landmarks are the Meridian Mall and I-96 exit #110. It's clogged with strip malls and chain food. That said, there is one block of quaint old Okemos between I-96 and campus where you'll find an old institution of a joint.
Travler’s Club International Restaurant and Tuba Museum This place has been a hippi favorite since the 70’s. They’ve had a garden out back and craft beers since before local or craft beers were a thing. Thee hippi tendancy add mores vegetarian options than most menus. The menu was always decent. The charm is amazing!
Dusty's Cellar A much better shop than restaurant, Dusty's is the Okemos area's Merchant of Vino with a dining room. Stop in for picnic supplies. If you stay for a meal I'd recommend the newer, more casual wine bar versus the circa 1980 "Regal Beagle" dining room.
DOWTOWN LANSING (West side, driving)
5-10 minutes from Campus – In the 80’s downtown Lansing proper was the red-light district – and of course, our state’s capital. Then the city built a AA baseball stadium (Lansing LugNuts) and a Convention Center and development followed. It's getting noce. Now all it needs is people.
Michigan Brewing Company: This is sprightly more commercial than craft, but it’s the home of Kid-Rocks “Bad-Ass Beer” – so they have that going for them. Truthfully, this company owns a much larger commercial brewery in Webberville where they brew and bottle a LOT of craft beers. They’re good people in the state’s brewing community.
Last Resorts: Troppo & Tavern on the Square (same owners) Think Ravens Club with less ploish.