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Home Food  'Why be normal?'
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Wednesday, December 22,2010

'Why be normal?'

Gus's Bar is reincarnated as a 'gastropub'

by ALLAN I. ROSS

Editor's note: Shortly after this week's issue was published, we learned chef James Tompkins has left Gus's Bar. Opinions expressed in this feature reflect the dishes Tompkins created and prepared.

In the idyllic villa of Preveza, Greece, a three-story mansion sits atop a bluff within easy sight of electric blue Mediterranean waters. The home — which has an in-ground swimming pool, hot tub and separate guest house — was recently hand-built by its owner, Gus Caliacatsos, as a retirement present to himself after a lifetime spent serving other people.

This week’s weather forecast: mostly sunny with highs in the mid-60s, perfect for strolling on the beach watching his grandsons chase each other into the surf.


But right now Caliacatsos is nowhere near that house, that beach, or those children: He’s sitting across from me in an unassuming bar here in the frozen tundra of Lansing. I slide the photos he’s just shown me of his home back to him across the table and ask him why he’s not there in Greece.


He sighs and shrugs his shoulders.


“One of my customers called me up and told me the story about how bad things were going here,” he says, gesturing around him. We’re sitting in Gus’s bar — named, appropriately, Gus’s Bar — situated directly across the street from the crater that used to be the General Motors Fisher Body Plant. “Then the new owner called me up and told me that if I wanted it, come back and get it. So I did.”


Caliacatsos built this little dive by hand.


He laid every pipe and put every tile in place himself, the ultimate victory for this Greek immigrant who says he came to America in 1959 because he was “hungry.”


He spent years working his way up through GM before finding his calling in the restaurant business. He started by working for a friend but branched off and went solo with Gus’s Bar in 1982, which he owned and operated for 23 years and made a tidy living for himself — until the plant across the street was shuttered in 2005, costing him the majority of his customers.


He retired three years later, selling Gus’s Bar to a new owner and returning to Greece where he built his dream house. But then like Michael Corleone in “The Godfather: Part III,” just when he thought he was out, they pulled him back in.


“I lived in Lansing for 50 years,” he says, then adds, almost apologetically, “I have too many friends here.”


The story goes that Caliacatsos caught wind that the new owner of Gus’s Bar was not only running the place into the ground, but selling off the equipment he had spent a lifetime assembling. Pride of ownership — and the preservation of the good name he’d spent half a century building — kicked in, and he returned to the States.


Caliacatsos went from living in a magnificent Mediterranean beach home to squatting in a drafty garage across the street from his old bar so he could keep an eye on it.


“At one point, a police officer showed up and pulled a gun on me,” Caliacatsos says, chuckling. “Someone had called the police thinking I was breaking and entering. But it all worked out well, so I’m not upset.”


Caliacatsos eventually succeeded in reclaiming Gus’s Bar and started his mission to return it to its former glory.


As Caliacatsos was embroiled in his reconstruction strategy, a continent-hopping, classically trained chef named James Tompkins was making the rounds of mid- Michigan restaurants. He was seeking a position that would allow him to express himself creatively and introduce Midwest taste buds to the fare that had been earning him raves in Las Vegas, Miami, San Francisco and New York.


“I wanted to create a menu from scratch, and no one in the area was looking to do that,” Tompkins says.


“Obviously, the economy was partly to blame; it wasn’t a good time for kitchen managers to start tinkering with their menus. Then I met Gus, and it was all over. He wanted someone to get him up and running in a hurry, and he was willing to let me go with a concept I’d been interested in trying for a while: the gastropub.”


A gastropub is a British creation that reinvigorated both pub culture and dining across the Pond in the early 1990s.


Gastropubs concentrate on high-quality food in a relaxed atmosphere, essentially taking the stuffiness out of fine dining and making it socially acceptable to order calamari or bruschetta while you’re throwing darts or knocking back a beer.


“People shouldn’t feel like good food is out of their budget,” Tompkins says. “We don’t
have a lot of overhead here, and that’s going to make it very easy to
create unique dishes with very high quality food and still keep costs
very low. I’m not just trying to stay ahead of the curve — I’m trying to
create the curve.”


That
curve starts the minute you sit down. All customers are greeted with a
basket of fresh kettle chips, still warm from the deep fryer. Appetizers
include the Smoky Cheese Quesadillas ($3.50) and the soon-to-be-famous
Greek Poutine ($2.75), an upgraded twist on a French-Canadian classic,
which tosses homemade fries with Greek dressing and melted feta cheese.


Tompkins
may draw some ire with the menu items he’s removed (“I know I’m going
to hear about it for getting rid of the fried bologna!”), but he’ll win
plenty of new fans with his half-pound Gus Burger ($5.75), topped with
vine-ripened tomatoes, sweet red onion and served on an artisan bun.


The
Ultimate Chili Dog ($5.50) takes up the whole plate with its homemade
black bean chili, cilantro sour cream, jalapenos and cheese. Tompkins is
also utilizing a rotisserie oven to make the juicy, slowroasted grilled
ribeye sandwich ($8.95), topped with melted Swiss cheese, fried
shoestring onions and horseradish cream sauce.


“I
pay attention to every corner that other places cut, such as their use
of commercial bread on their burgers and sandwiches,” Tompkins says.
“It’s the bread that makes the sandwich. You’re really going to taste
the difference here. My philosophy is, ‘Why be normal?’ It’s so much fun
to do stuff that no one else is doing.”


But
the pi'ce de r'sistance doesn’t come until the end: the Wild Berry
Vanilla Vodka Cr'me Brulee ($3.50), a martini glass filled to the brim
with his secret-recipe custard dessert.


Looking
ahead, Tompkins plans on incorporating a more robust drink menu to
complement his upscale additions to the menu. He also looks forward to
including more ethnic dishes, especially any Greek items Caliacatsos
feels like sharing. But the clock’s already ticking on Retirement: Take
#2.


“I believe in
what James is doing here with all my heart,” Caliacatsos says. “I love
Lansing and I love my customers — I wouldn’t have come back if I didn’t.
But my goal is to hopefully pass this over to him someday and then go
back to Greece. My wife is waiting for me back there at my home. I can’t
stay in Lansing forever.”


By the way, Gus, be sure to let us know if you ever need a housesitter.


Gus’s Bar


2321 W. Michigan Ave., Lansing (517) 484-4714 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. Monday–Saturday. FB, WB, TO, $-$$





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