Date: Wed, 29 May
1996 18:33:37 GMT
Today, being impulsive, I went to The East Room for lunch. The East Room is a restaurant on the top floor of Jacobson's, a department store in downtown East Lansing, Michigan.
Jacobson's itself is an oddity. It's on Grand River Avenue, directly across from the MSU campus, surrounded by lots of stores that cater to the undergrad student trade, the bars and coffeehouses and condom shops. Jacobson's makes no concessions to this: it sells clothing and accessories to upper-middle-class grownups.
The building itself (together with the similarly-styled city parking ramp behind, to which it is linked by a bridge) was built in 1969, a time of fervid optimism about downtown East Lansing as a place where upscale people would want to shop. Since then came legal alcohol (the city had been "dry"), the lowered drinking age, the opening of countless student bars, an unrelenting wave of drunken vandalism and public urination in the downtown, and competition for shoppers from new suburban malls. It's a wonder that Jacobson's is still there at all: gamely replacing their plate glass windows whenever they get smashed, scrubbing the spray-painted obscenities off their walls and sidewalks, etc.
Anyway, the inside of Jacobson's is oddly hushed, with the muted hum of a vacuum cleaner somewhere. The decor looks utterly unchanged from the store's opening day -- I was there! -- but it's hardly at all shabby. The escalators (clanking softly) rise within an oval-shaped light well, and the restaurant is at the top.
The original idea of the East Room involved some of the supposed elan of Oriental style, with furniture designed to look like it was lashed together from bamboo, and windows shaded with sliding panels of what was meant to look like rice paper. Startlingly, all that is utterly unchanged after more than a quarter of a century (although some of the chairs are a little scuffed or wobbly).
I didn't see any signs advertising the restaurant down on Grand River, so perhaps it's not surprising that it was less than half full even at the peak of the lunch rush. And it *is* summertime in East Lansing, when everything is a quieter than during the school year.
It was even less surprising that practically all of the lunch patrons were elderly. I would guess the median age of the customers to be at least 70. Quite possibly I was the youngest non-waitstaff in the room. Apart from one particular well-dressed middle-aged couple, I was certainly the youngest by a wide margin.
The lunch was excellent, and the prices (compared to other restaurants) lower than I remembered them being. I even had a cup of their famous cheese soup.
I know there is a certain type of restaurant that caters to old folks. Probably some of it is semi-deliberate on the restaurant's part, in terms of having patience for the habits and preferences of older people, showing respect, refraining from inappropriate background music, advertising in certain venues, etc. But I would submit that the older people themselves make informed choices, and people who have been around the longest have the most experience with restaurants. I mean, I realize that exotic choices like Thai and Ethioian are probably not popular among senior citizens. But for basic, American food, if you want quality and value, you could do a lot worse than following your elders to their favorite eateries.
I mentioned some of the above to Janice on the phone just now, and she said, "oh, yes, the East Room is East Lansing's best-kept dining secret." But it's a secret that's unlikely to last for long, I think. The quietude of the department store and restaurant is ominous, like a forest about to be bulldozed or a city about to be bombed. The quaintness that I found so appealing about a 1969 "period piece" implies disinvestment by corporate higher-ups.
No announcements have been made, but I predict it will all be gone within a year. So, if you're coming to East Lansing soon, have lunch in the East Room for old times' sake. You won't have many more chances.
--- Lawrence Kestenbaum,