"An Up North vibe, sort of," by MARK NIXON
I grew up in northern Michigan bars. Um, let me rephrase that. I grew up amidst Northern Michigan bars. They were the backbone of the Up North society, local church doctrine notwithstanding.
Even as a kid, I understood implicitly that these were not mere watering holes. They were rumor mills, talking newspapers, joke factories and occasionally a place to settle drunken scores. The obligatory stuffed deer heads on the knotty pine walls passed for high-end decor. The bathrooms were scrupulously cleaned every week or so. The bartender knew you and your drink. If he or she didn’t know, they might politely but pointedly ask, “are you sure you’re in the right place, bud?”
This pretty much happened to us last September, when we walked into an Upper Peninsula bar one late morning and the bartender said, with a smile, “do you have your green card?”
Yep, those bars are still up there.
But if you want a sampler platter of an Up North bar, drive north on US-127 for 20 minutes. Take the M-21 exit to St. Johns and turn left. Two minutes later you’re Up North, sort of, at a place called Ryan’s Roadhouse.
It has the northern decor right. The exterior is log and stone. Inside, moose antlers lord over one wall. Stuffed geese rule on the opposite wall. There is enough knotty pine paneling to sheathe several hunting cabins.
The pub grub at Ryan’s is not cutting-edge cuisine. But nearly everything we tasted was thoughtfully prepared, delivered promptly and hot, a big deal for grumpy old men like me.
We ordered the bloomin’ onion on both visits. This $9.95 appetizer leaves most onion rings drifting in its wake. The oil and batter must be just right to end up with a whole, deep-fried onion that is tender and not greasy.
Ryan’s Roadhouse sails to victory with this one.
We did notice the dipping sauce changed dramatically between the first and second visits. The second time, the sauce was too sweet. We think someone added sweet pickle relish. Our recommendation: More tartness, less sweetness and maybe just a dash of smoked paprika.
The lake perch platter ($14.95) holds its own against some of the best lake fish fries we’ve sampled Up North — mild, lightly battered and not over-fried. My dad, a fried fish connoisseur, would have approved.
If you’re a fan of French dip sandwiches served with au jus, I recommend the rendition served here. The French dip gratinée ($10.95) has shaved prime rib served on a baguette, with either sautéed or caramelized onions. The au jus was spot-on. The rich beef broth tasted like it came from the prime rib itself, not out of a jar. It was less salty than many au jus versions served in restaurants, just the way I like it.
The French gip gratinée ranks among the best I’ve found in greater Lansing, such as Corey’s Lounge and Steakhouse Philly.
Meat is generally the strong suit of Ryan’s Roadhouse. The marinated Bourbon Street tender tips ($15.95) were rare and tender as promised.
A less meaty appetizer also turned out to be the most disappointing taste we encountered during our visits. How would I describe bacon jam?
Flop is the first word that comes to mind. This $7.95 bowl of goo is supposed to be a dip to be spread over chips. The description says it's cranberries and bacon sautéed with onion and bell peppers, topped with fresh mozzarella.
The result is a near tasteless glop that left us stunned considering we had so many great tastes in this place. Even Judy, who is far more forgiving than me when it comes to restaurant food, pronounced it “awful.”
Now let us talk of more pleasant things. For an Up North bar vibe, Ryan’s Roadhouse is very much a family restaurant. On our last visit, a Saturday evening, the place was brimming with young and old, including a bunch of girls with their hair all fixed tightly in buns — we suspected a dance recital was in the offing.
Finally, there’s good news on the serving front. I have seldom seen so many servers and table bussers performing with such speed, efficiency and acting in concert as a team. It was almost as if they were coached by MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo. That would make sense, in a way. He is, among many things, an Up North sort of guy.
"Better than a fast-food chain," by GABRIELLE LAWRENCE
A few years ago, I became the attorney at my firm who began servicing our Northern Michigan offices. This has translated into me heading to Traverse City, Marquette or Sault Ste. Marie every few weeks, meaning I spend a lot of time searching for good food while driving north on US-127.
As I’m sure most of us have noticed, once you’re north of Ingham County, the landscape becomes littered with not much more than McDonald’s, combination Long John Silvers and whatever other terrible fast food options exist. I was instantly intrigued when we walked into Ryan’s Roadhouse for the first time and the joint was jumping.
I like to order menu items that are out of the ordinary and represent house specials, so I gravitated towards the Buffalo ranch taquitos as our starter. In what is essentially Buffalo chicken dip in egg roll form, these crunchy little buggers were just spicy enough. I scooped extra blue cheese crumbles from the plate onto each bite I took because I can’t get enough of the buffalo sauce and blue cheese combination.
For my main meal, I chose the B.L.T.A.E. and was told by our server that it was a new menu item as of that week. I don’t frequently order sandwiches, since I don’t like to spend my calories on bread, but I love a drippy egg yolk and was interested in the chipotle mayonnaise. My bacon was crispy, the avocado was creamy and my sweet potato fries were a hot commodity between myself and Baby She Ate.
Mr. She Ate decided to sample one of his favorites — a half rack of ribs. They aren’t going to win any awards, he said, but he’s also a firm believer that he should count himself lucky any time he gets to eat ribs or pizza. We were also thrilled to discover that Ryan’s has Wi-Fi. We were able to set Baby Eddie up with an episode of “Boss Baby”— a movie that appeared to be the secret sauce to getting him to sit quietly and shovel food into his mouth.
On our return visit, although it was approaching 100 degrees outside, we started with the bacon jam. Another house special, this is presented in a piping-hot skillet with a side of house-made, extra crispy potato chips. The dip itself is incredibly savory. Some bites included the odd addition of dried cranberries. I’m not certain that I would have been able to identify bacon as the main ingredient if I didn’t know the name of the dish beforehand. That’s not to suggest it isn’t fantastically flavorful and addictive. It would be a welcomed addition to any Super Bowl Sunday spread or tailgate party in the cooler months, and I’m thinking of trying to reinvent the recipe to make it at home.
After perusing salad options, I bypassed them completely and ordered chicken fingers and onion rings. In case there was any doubt in your mind that I’m six months pregnant, let this serve as confirmation of your suspicions. I haven’t ordered chicken fingers since I was in high school. Our server told me that it’s her favorite thing to order, since they slice a chicken breast and bread it themselves in the kitchen. The chicken fingers were indeed much thicker and meatier than the last ones I ate in 1999. They weren’t particularly flavorful, and I also made good use of the ramekin of barbecue sauce she brought to the table. My onion rings clearly came from a bag, probably stored in the freezer next to the bag where Mr. She Ate’s tots came from. However, Baby Eddie liked the tots and that’s what matters to us most some nights.
For the second visit, Mr. She Ate went for broke and ordered Big Jim’s double burger, which was the winner of the evening. The two large hamburger patties were shellacked with cheddar cheese. I told him it was against the law to have such an indulgent-looking burger in front of him and not share with his wife.
Ryan’s Roadhouse isn’t particularly inventive, but they don’t need to be. The food is solid and there are just enough unique menu items to keep those who care about that kind of thing happy. We’re happy to have found a new mid-Michigan standby, especially where pickings can be slim between Lansing and Traverse City.
902 E. State St.
St. Johns, MI, Monday-Sunday
Opens 11 A.M.
(989) 224-2550, Ryansroadhouse.com