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Wednesday, December 8,2010

Still Colonial after all these years

Menu gets an upgrade at 45-year-old bar/grille

by ALLAN I. ROSS

 


When The Colonial Bar & Grille opened, Bob Dylan was preparing to shock the world by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival, the Beatles were putting the final touches on their seminal “Rubber Soul” album, Muhammad Ali was practicing how best to pose over a floored Sonny Liston in the legendary “Phantom Punch” photo, and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was about to become an annual tradition.

Yes, there was a time when these events were all considered news, but the Colonial Bar isn’t done with its career arc just yet. The times, they are a-changin’ still for this little south Lansing burger and beer joint.

“We used to have General Motors, a National Guard office and a lot of state workers nearby, but they’re all gone now,” says Colonial Bar owner/operator John Kobus. “You’ve got to do something to keep people coming in.”


For Kobus, that “something” involved radically upgrading the Colonial Bar’s lunch and dinner menu. Almost everything now is made from scratch, including a daily soup and lots of daily specials such as Mexican-style tacos with homemade pico de gallo and miniburgers loaded with chipotle mayo and sautéed onions.


One of the popular breakout new additions is the breadsticks ($4), made from in-house rolled fried dough. They’re based on a style of breadstick popular at a bar in Albion, and taste like a thin, crunchy version of Little Caesars Crazy Bread. Another new fave is the grilled pizza. Kobus rolls flat the same dough used in the breadsticks and grills one side before flipping and adding the sauce, cheese and toppings. The result is a faster, healthier alternative to a traditionally greasy dish. The crispy crust gives it a pita-like quality, and all the toppings are garden fresh, never frozen.


The burgers have been upgraded as well, from frozen patties to freshly ground Goodrich Shop-Rite butchered beef.


“We’ve increased the quality of all the food and added a lot of new items to the menu,” says Kobus. “This is a lot different from the place my dad opened.”


Kobus’s father Joseph Kobus opened the Colonial Bar in 1965 after growing tired of his job as a die maker at the nearby Jet Engineering, Inc. (“I used to come home, sit on my steps and repeat, ‘I hate my job, I hate my job,’” says the elder Kobus).


Before he renamed it, the Colonial Bar was known as The Cotton Club and was situated directly on the corner of Holmes and Logan, now Martin Luther King Blvd. And it had a rough reputation.


“It was known as Blood and Guts, and it was, uh, pretty rowdy” chuckles Joseph. “It had an all-night restaurant, but I took that out and added pool tables. In 1975 we leveled that building and rebuilt the new Colonial a little bit further back from the street.”


Joseph ran the Colonial with help from his wife, Bernie, who was a waitress, and his son John, who drove back and forth from Albion where he was attending Albion College. John had aspirations to be a lawyer, but helping out the family business came first. None of the Kobuses had experience with the service industry, but they all quickly grew to love the seemingly unending sea of humanity that came through their doors.


Bernie puts it best: “You meet nicer people in bars than in church.”

John took over day-to-day operation in the early 1990s when his father turned 65, but Joseph and Bernie still come in every day “for free lunch and to complain.”

They
can still be found every day in a nook surrounded on three sides by a
mural of dogs, featuring past and present family pets.


“This
has always been a family business, and I made sure to never let it take
over my life,” says John. “I dropped off my (now-grown) kids every day
for school, I made sure to attend every school assembly, and I was home
every night at 6 o’clock for dinner.”


The
Colonial Bar offers lunchtime delivery to downtown businesspeople who
aren’t able to make it down to check out the new menu for themselves. It
also features karaoke,
live music and dart and pool league nights, and — defying the maxim
that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks — Kobus says he has a few
more changes planned, including an expanded breakfast menu, a weekly
trivia night starting Jan. 3, and an outdoor deck.


And bringing things full circle, there’s a 45th anniversary party in the works for the first part of the New Year.


Despite
the tough times Lansing is facing right now, however, Kobus knows it’s
the people that have given the Colonial Bar such longevity.


“Our
clientele has always been mostly blue-collar workers, and they’re the
ones who’ve been hit the hardest by the current economy,” says Kobus.


“I
don’t want the Colonial to be a family restaurant, but it’s certainly
inviting to people who do more than drink. We have a lot of good food,
and now we’re just trying to get people to come in and try it out.”


The Colonial Bar & Grille


3425
S. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Lansing


9 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday- Friday;
10 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday; noon-2 a.m. Sunday


(517) 882-6132



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