Sunday, March 30, 2014

Bad postcard of the week: Boldly dining in forbidden food places

Schensul's boasts of being Kalamazoo's pride.
We need to start with the back of this week’s bad postcard to make the front even more special.

It humbly states: “SCHENSUL’S CAFETERIA, KALAMAZOO’S PRIDE, MICHIGAN’S FINEST. One of the nation’s best. This can truthfully be called one of America’s most outstanding cafeterias. Seating capacity 450. Five air conditioned Dining Rooms. Organ music noon and night. Unexcelled food. Service and sanitation to match beauty of surroundings. ‘A Must When In or Near Kalamazoo.’”

OK, that’s quite a build-up. 

As we know, I’m no one’s definition of a foodie. I’m very happy eating at Panera Bread, and Chili’s for those special occasions. But I’ve been in some very nice restaurants with some spectacular meals and even views.  Looking down on Navy Pier fireworks while dining on the top floor of Chicago’s Hancock Tower was an amazing experience.

So, with lines like “Michigan’s finest” and “one of the nation’s best” and “service and sanitation to match the beauty of surroundings,” we had high hopes for Schensul’s Cafeteria – until we flipped over the card to see the photo.

Holy letdown, Batman!

I do see that each table has its own ashtray. Imagine the smoky haze hanging over that room in the glow of a fake fireplace, shouting over the din of Gladys pounding polkas on the piano. Kind of sparsely decorated, too.

But apparently the place was pretty popular. I found references to it as a “legendary” cafeteria offering “mouth-watering meals and a genteel atmosphere.”

There are a couple legendary places in West Michigan that we've avoided in the 14 years we've lived here – Mr. Burger and Russ.’ My wife has vowed to never set foot in neither place. But she was out of town this week, and my daughter and I are bold.

Mr. Burger is sort of like a cafeteria in that you grab a tray and work down a line. We boldly entered once before, getting all the way up to the spot where you tell the cook what you want. We got cold feet. Caroline actually ran out.

This time, we stayed. I got pancakes despite it being after 9 p.m. and Caroline ordered a cheeseburger. I’m confident the décor hasn't changed in decades, and we were the youngest customers in the place by about 20 years.  The meal was filling, but small soda cups without the option of refills were a bit of a deal-breaker.

Next we took on Russ,’ which has several locations in West Michigan. Think of it as a Dutch-themed Denny’s.

The Holland location was famous of having “no-tip tables,” where you phoned your order in to the kitchen. You can insert a Dutch joke here. But since I'm likely to be walking in the Tulip Time parade for the first time this year, I shall refrain. It's a long parade, and I have no desire to be pelted with windmill cookies. In the hands of a skilled and outraged attendee, those things can be flung for both accuracy and distance, kind of like ninja stars.

We arrived at the 28th Street store after 9 p.m., noticing that the sign in the window indicated it was open until 10. We were only a few steps in when halted by the manager. “Sorry guys,” he said. “We’re still on our winter hours. We close at 9.”

Reality set in. We were just thrown out of Russ.’

This rivaled the great McSorley’s Incident of 1983, when my Vignette buddies and I were unceremoniously asked to leave the historic New York watering hole for ordering beers at the bar and taking them to our table, which, apparently is frowned upon. We decided that there was more value in getting thrown out of McSorley’s than actually staying.

We made another attempt at the Plainfield Road store on a different night. I was still dressed for work, and this frightened the hostess.

“I see you are dressed up. Is this some kind of occasion?” she asked with wide eyes.

We get asked that question when we make reservations at Reds on the River, and sometimes they bring over a special birthday or anniversary dessert. I wasn’t expecting that at Russ.’

“No, though we are celebrating our first time at Russ.’”

The hostess exhaled, and explained that when she saw a dressed-up dad and high school daughter, she feared there was some event at nearby Northview High, and that she was about to be hit with a large wave of parents and kids.

Nope. Just us.
I didn’t see any no-tip tables, but there was a waiting area that was larger than my dorm room.

The setting was pleasant. I didn't care for my meal – billed as something like a pulled-pork sandwich, but with turkey – but Caroline liked her fried shrimp. And we had a coupon.

I can’t say we’ll be heading back to either place. Maybe Schensul’s organ music noon and night might have helped. But Caroline and I are adventurous and Mr. Burger and Russ’ are no longer forbidden culinary mysteries.

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