EL REWIND: Beggar's Banquet

Sunday, March 29, 2015, 6:00 am
Ashley Griffin and Ann Nichols

Beggar’s Banquet Restaurant and Saloon, was founded by Bob Adler, Charlie Rose, Martin Richard and Christopher Blunt in 1973. The four had worked together at a fairly upscale East Lansing venue, The Cave of the Candles. According to Adler, who retired from Beggar’s but retains an ownership interest, the men “wanted to have their own place, to have a killer restaurant and not be pretentious.”

The restaurant’s name was taken from a 1968 Rolling Stones album, and catchphrase “Gimme Eat” comes from Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22. Local stained glass artist Dick Hamley established a studio around the time Beggar’s opened, and he was commissioned to make the two original lamps that hang over the restaurant’s bar. When he was done, according to Adler, Hamley produced the finished lamps, whereupon Adler observed that one read “Beggar’s Banquet” and the other “Gimme Eats.” “I said no, Dick, that’s not what I asked for - it’s supposed to say just ‘Gimme Eat.’” Hamley made the correction, and the (corrected) lamp still hang over the bar.

Dana Kenney, current general manager and part-owner, recalls that “in the 70s, they had to hand-write the menu every day, but over the years it has increased in size. The chili and chocolate mousse have not changed.” The chili is one of Beggar’s most famous menu items, but Kenney said that she also has people calling and e-mailing her for recipes of other items such as the London Broil.

The idea to have chili on the menu was Adler’s which he took from a bar in Aspen that had “good and spicy chili.” Adler described what he wanted to Chris Blunt, who was Beggar’s first chef and suggested that they’d “make a deal – a bowl of spicy chili plus your first beer for a dime.”

Blunt started with a five gallon stockpot of the chili, a spicy concoction of beef chunks and beans called “Sympathy for the Devil,” thinking it would be a week’s worth. Instead, Adler recounts, they “opened at 7:00 on a Thursday, by 7:30 you couldn’t get in and by Friday the chili was gone.” This initial rush lasted for their first six weeks in business, slowing only on St. Patrick’s Day because of a massive snow storm.

Walking down the back hall you can see some of the original hand-written menus and various articles and pictures that have been collected over the decades. A perennial item across the years is the Chris Bishop Memorial Vegomatic Sandwich, basically a grilled cheese sandwich that can be customized with a large assortment of vegetable add-ins. Bishop had worked as a dishwasher at The Best Steakhouse #9 on the site that later became Beggar’s Banquet. Adler recalls that Beggar’s “inherited” Bishop; “he came to work as a cook, and ended up being an excellent cook. He used to stand there, people would order a grilled cheese sandwich, and he’d tap his spatula and say ‘those goddamned veggos.’” Hence the Chris Bishop Memorial Vegomatic Sandwich.

Beggar’s, which was originally only two rooms, has expanded into the space adjacent to the original bar area but retains its original spirit. “Numerous engagements have taken place here, graduation parties, wedding receptions…it is definitely a place that has an emotional attachment for a lot of people” says Kenney.

“It’s still a really good place” says Adler. “I can tell a good joke and be a good host, but it’s the food and the service that bring people back.” The people who “came back” were “a mix of people who, in their ordinary life would never interact, all standing at the bar talking to each other. Usually the level of discourse was pretty high. We really were the political locus for the food and beverage crowd for many years. Senators, lobbyists, Supreme Court justices, professors and street people.”

Kristin Beals Bellar, an East Lansing resident and a customer of Beggar’s for about 15 years, said that her “favorite part is the friendly staff and the continuity of the servers/bartenders. They are really welcoming and have accommodated our young son on many occasions. I love the atmosphere. It just feels like walking into a friend's house a lot of the time. My husband James would say his favorite part is the beer selection, which has really improved since Dana took over a few years back.”

“I got the place I wanted” says Adler, who is keenly aware of how very lucky he is. “We opened up, we’ve been open about a week or so, we’re taking the town by storm. Some well-intentioned local resident came to say he was so pleased at how good the food was, but we’d never make it if people from Whitehills had to walk past all those street people and riff-raff at the bar. He suggested a separate entrance. Adler’s take on this suggestion? “Martin Richard liked this line from a Brother Dave Gardner song: “let them that don’t want none have fond memories of not getting any”