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Wednesday, July 17,2013

From baked heart to tofu pierogies

Inaugural Capital Area Restaurant Week event highlights cultural role of Lansing eateries

by Allan I. Ross
Before farm-to-table dining was fashionable, before it even had a name, it was simply called “eating.” Fresh food, for most of human history, was hard to come by, and over the ages, advances in agriculture and transportation eased the process somewhat. But it wasn’t until the development of processed food and electric refrigeration following WWII that restaurants, particularly fast food joints, really started to boom.

 Do an Internet search of mid-Michigan today and you’ll find over 160 independently owned restaurants between Grand Ledge and Williamston. Throw in fast food, big national chains and pop-up food carts and you’re looking at over 300 dining destinations within a half-hour drive of the Capitol. That’s a lot of grub — we sure have come a long way.  

 Not so, says Chambre Beauvais, one of the organizers of the Capital Area Restaurant Week, which starts Sunday. He understands that terms like “gastropub” and “artisan cuisine” can be confounding (not to mention expensive) for folks who think upscale dining means ordering a Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich at Wendy’s. 

“Historically, Lansing has been a chain-dominated market, but the tide is turning,” Beauvais said. “Restaurant Week has two goals: Raise money for the Ingham County Food Bank and show people just how many options they have out there. We’ve got our work cut out for us.”  

Beauvais got 28 restaurants throughout mid-Michigan on board for the inaugural event, from Finley’s American Grill on Lansing’s west side to Tavern 109 in Williamston, and from the Wrought Iron Grill in Owosso to the English Inn in Eaton Rapids. Each one will unveil specially priced menus next week to entice local diners — or remind them, as the case may be, that you don’t have to eat out just because you’re out of groceries. 

 

Sitting at the grown-ups’ table

The first city on record to have a restaurant week was New York, which started as a lunch-only event in 1992. The concept was simple: Over the course of a week, a group of restaurants would feature three-course meals for either one or two people for a set price. For Lansing’s version, that price is $25, with eight of the 28 going for the $25 per couple rate. Usually a food drive charity is tied into the festivities, underscoring how prevalent hunger issues still are in America.  

“The irony is, as the upper middle class has experienced growth, the food banks are still as busy as ever,” Beauvais said. “The problems of hunger aren’t going away. This event is just as much for the Food Bank as it is for these restaurants. ” 

The New York event grew to become a semiannual occurrence that encompassed dinner, and moved around the city, highlighting different areas. In the 21 years since, dozens of major American cities have developed at least one restaurant week, usually planned around traditionally “down” times of the year — that would be the cold months in resort towns, and in the summertime for places like the Lansing area, which revolves around the school year. When Lansing throws its chef’s hat in the ring next week, it will be the 15th city in Michigan to join the growing ranks. It finally gets to sit at the grown-ups’ table. 

“I looked around, I saw all these great cities that were having these restaurant weeks that were drawing thousands of people out to restaurants they’d never go to otherwise, and I wondered why the hell we weren’t doing it too,” Beauvais said. “It was maddening.” 

Capital Area Restaurant Week menu items will range from specialty soups (Soup Spoon Caf' has six to choose from), salads and appetizers to signature entr'es (Troppo’s cider-braised pork chop, Bulgogi Korean Cuisine’s rib-eye) as well as the atypical — the tofu pierogies at Copper Dine & Drink inside the Walnut Hills Country Club will probably be ordered based on curiosity alone. 

Beauvais, 59, was a chef for 25 years, between family duties and higher education aspirations. But he said a Lansing restaurant week was always simmering on one of the back burners of his mind. He said he tried to get one off the ground “years ago,” but couldn’t drum up enough interest. 

“You know, everyone says they’re too busy, or they don’t think it will work or they don’t have the money right now,” Beauvais said. “Don’t get me wrong, a lot of work went into this, but it’s mostly trial and error, and the mistakes we made are going to streamline the process next time.”  

These days Beauvais handles commercial sales at Earthy Delights, a specialty ingredient store in DeWitt that caters to restaurants and budding epicureans around the country. He’s still slinging food, but now it’s just a couple steps away from being on a plate. 

“I’ve been out of the restaurant business for a while now, but this is a way I can kind of keep one foot in it,” he said. “It gets in your blood, but I made a promise to my wife that I was done. So I am.”

But he credits an unlikely source for keeping his bread and butter coming. 

“Thank God for the Food Network,” Beauvais said. “Having all these cooking shows out there has really opened up Americans to not only trying new kinds of food, but to thinking about all the different ways you can combine styles to create these fascinating dishes. And we’ve got a lot of interesting chefs working in some kitchens in town that aren’t afraid to take chances.” 

Chef Jason Blastic of Soup Spoon Caf' was on hand last week to give a cooking demonstration for attendees of the Common Ground Music Festival. He prepared a mushroom chowder using fresh ingredients. As he cut up the potatoes and onions, he described what he was doing as the summer sun beat down on him in front of the dazed crowd.

“Tell them what you’re doing,” Beauvais shouted from near the back of the crowd. “We can’t hear you.”

Some chefs still need a little coaching. 

The melting pot

In the basement of the Creyts Building, 831 N. Washington Ave., on the verge of Old Town and just across the street from Lansing Community College, there’s a table set up with china, glassware, a full silver set and menus from restaurants that no longer exist. It’s like a banquet for the ghosts of half a dozen restaurants. Valerie Marvin, president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, helped gather the items for this display, entitled Lansing Eats. 

“We were doing a lot of oral histories with folks around town, and almost everyone we talked to had lots to say about going out to eat at restaurants,” Marvin said. “If you think about it, we’re always talking about food — going out to lunch, going grocery shopping meeting someone at the bar. So we thought for this exhibit, why not play off that idea?”

She said part of the allure was how the whole concept of dining out has changed.  

“Nowadays, going out to eat has become very casual, but it used to be an event,” Marvin said. “People would get all dressed up, the whole family would all go out together. It used to mean something to the family. Either that, or they would leave the kids at home, go out to dinner then the restaurant would turn into a dance club, and they’d stay out dancing all night. No one does that anymore.” 

Marvin said people came out from all over to supply items for the exhibit, giving modern day Lansing residents a taste of what they missed. Neon lights from the former Tango’s nightclub; sandwich boards from defunct diners; and menus featuring baked calf hearts and sweetbreads.

“It’s funny, you don’t think about how tastes change over the years just like language, architecture and fashion,” Marvin said. “Back then it was nothing to open a menu and see squirrel or beef tongue. Now people would be disgusted.” 

She said a big part of that sea of change in Lansing taste buds happened because of an influx of Greek and Macedonian immigrants, who served American fare with European sensibilities, most of which are gone. 

So if any of those had survived to this day, which ones would be a place to hit on the restaurant week tour?

“If I had to pick one restaurant that best symbolized Lansing, it would have to be Jim’s Tiffany Place,” she cooed. “By far, we’ve had more people share their memories about the d'cor, the food, the times they had there and their memories of Ange Vlahakis. He touched a lot of lives.”

Vlahakis, 86, was invited to speak for the historical society earlier this month, where he shared a lifetime of being in the restaurant biz. His father, Jim Vlahakis, was born in Greece in 1892, and came to the U.S. in 1907 seeking job opportunities. He moved around the Midwest before landing in Lansing in 1912 with a restaurant sign he picked up in Chicago. It read: Boston Caf'. 

“What’s interesting for me is that he was emblematic of the melting pot (ideal),” she said. “That restaurant allowed his family to make it. His father had no money, but broke into the restaurant business, supported his family, grew from tiny caf' to one of downtown’s most popular eateries.”

The restaurant lasted for two generations and nearly 75 years. When he thinks about it, Vlahakis says it all boils down to one thing: either it’s in your blood or it’s not. 

“We have a saying in the hospitality world,” Vlahakis said. “’Yes is the answer, what is the question?’” 

Married to the restaurant

Vlahakis, a lifelong Lansing resident, started working at his father’s restaurant in 1940. Over the years he nurtured the business and an impressive clientele list over the course of two name changes, finally settling on Jim’s Tiffany Place in 1967. The address was 116 E. Michigan Avenue; it's now a parking lot. 

“My wife, Betty, was at an antique show and she found a Tiffany lamp, and called me. I told her if she liked it to buy it. And we hung over the cash register until 1993.” 

He said he flirted with other career choices, but he said something always brought him back.  

“I tried to convince my father that, hey, times have changed dad, I’m going to go corporate,” he said. He went to Washington and interviewed with the Marriott Corp. He said he was offered a position and had to really think about it. 

“I came back, talked to Stan Brauer, who was a good friend and competitor, and he told me he just didn’t see me as corporate,” Vlahakis said. “So that decision was made. I was married to the restaurant.” 

Vlahakis was part of the Greek boom, which he thinks took off because the Lansing locals were used to eating bland food.

“Walter Adams, president of MSU, approached me and told me he wanted to have a Greek dinner for friends,” Vlahakis said. “It was so successful that we started featuring Greek nights every three months. We called Zorba Night, and it lasted for years. Other people started doing it too, but I didn’t get mad.” 

But the years wore on, and neither of his kids took up the Lansing restaurant mantle. His son is a successful attorney in Chicago; and his daughter is a sales coordinator at the Townshend Hotel in Birmingham. 

“In 1980, I was ready to just start spending more time with my family,” he said. “I was given a faculty offer at Michigan State University, and I took it. I figured 40 years was enough. Was seeing less of my family, and I was becoming frustrated with that. And I didn’t look back.” 

Eleven years after he sold the business, the new owners lost it to creditors. It was shuttered in 1991, and razed in 1995. Vlahakis is planning a Jim’s Tiffany Place reunion on Sept. 22 in East Lansing’s Patriarche Park. From 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. anyone who was employed at any of the Jim’s incarnations over the years is welcome to join for an afternoon of food, drinks and reminiscing about life before computerized ordering systems and sides of veggies (“Back then, you didn’t’ get vegetables unless you asked for them special.”) 

 When asked what he thinks of Restaurant Week, Vlahakis was stumped.

“Well, when we were doing it, it seemed like every week was restaurant week,” he said. “But I think it’s a great idea.” 

Vlahaakis still enjoys going out to eat, but didn’t want to name too many places lest someone get jealous. He does admit that he enjoys the Lebanese food at Woody’s Oasis, however, and enjoys the lunch buffet at Xiao. 

“I was introduced to these tastes much later in life, but I’ve always had a taste for foods that are considered ‘ethnic,’” he said. “Lansing has a wealth of great restaurants. Anyone who says you have to go to Chicago to get a great meal, you don’t know Lansing.”

Back for seconds?

Plans for Capital Area Restaurant Week part deux are already in the works, but Beauvais is waiting to see how this year’s event plays out first. He knows what he wants to do, however: expand the menu to include more appetizers, include a lunch menu and, of course, add more restaurants to the roster. 

“We’re going to have a meeting next week to tie up some of the loose ends, figure out what we did right and what we’ll be able to do better next year,” Beauvais said. “But I don’t think we’re going to want to meet at a restaurant.” 

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