What do East Lansing and Volkswagen cars have in common? (Sorry, you won\’t find the answer in a Laffy Taffy wrapper.) It\’s a lack of excitement.
After fall welcome week, the city perpetually loses its allure as reality sets in that one of Gov. Granholm’s “Cool Cities” really isn’t that cool. For the German automaker, sales have tanked as Volkswagen fans, many our age, feel disenfranchised with the new upper-end luxury car image.
[restaurant]College students are always looking for a deal, whether it’s on a car or a night out. Where could students go for an affordable, fun afternoon or evening? Better yet, can two people equipped with $15 a person have a great dinner, see a movie and get dessert? Maybe not in E.L., but in Williamston they could. Being only nine miles east of MSU along Grand River Ave., Williamston is a quaint little town with a few great eateries all within two blocks, specifically the delectable Red Cedar Grill.
The car I took to Williamston, a Salsa Red GLI, is a driver’s car. It reflects on the glory days of the early \’90s Jetta GLI and the final edition fourth generation GLI. With nearly all the detracting chrome removed and aggressive body enhancements added, the sedan looks serious and sophisticated. Large 18” wheels, unique front honeycomb grilles and air dams, along with bright red brake calipers and bi-xenon headlamps in black housing, U-turns this Jetta’s image toward premium Audi and BMW status.
The same can be said for the high-quality interior. It has some of the best fit and finish I have ever seen in a car that starts out at $23,790. Great aluminum accents highlight premium leather, rubber and the occasional plastic. Everything feels great to the touch, including the climate control knobs, flat-bottom steering wheel and dual paddle-shifters mounted on the wheel.
As I head out of E.L. on Grand River, the flashy red sport sedan gets checked out repeatedly by other drivers, especially other Volkswagen owners. I can tell by their expressions this is finally a VW worth getting excited about. If my onlookers could sit shotgun, they would grin even more when the acceleration of the four-cylinder turbo finds torque at almost any speed, rapidly thrusting the moving body. Not only can the fast gear-changing automatic accelerate the GLI quickly, it offers a range of six gears to get nearly 30 mpg around town.
As the eastward drive on Grand River is a straight shot, it takes just a couple ticks of my watch to get from 55 to 115 mph. Only a few minutes separate the MSU community from Williamston. As the speed limit of Grand River reduces, colorful historic buildings begin to rise in the distance. The facades of another era add character to Williamston’s downtown shops, boutiques and restaurants, a relief from the franchise-land that is E.L.
From the Williamston Bucket bar on Main Street, with its small town tavern look and Thursday night karaoke, to the glossy-colored, neon-lit throwback SUN Theatre, Main Street Williamston is resilient from losing its charm unlike most of Greater Lansing.
At the end of the main drag is the Lansing area’s best-kept dining secret, the Red Cedar Grill. With cozy ambiance and casual elegance, the Grill offers its guests a relaxed environment. “We like to think of the dining experience here as uniquely comforting. From our menu items to our service, we put the customer first,\” said manager Peter Hermann.
“Our menu items are comfort food,\” he said. \”Although we are willing to cater our dishes to the most discriminating tastes, our top menu items like mac ‘n\’ cheese in rigatoni over herb-encrusted chicken is something which people love just the way it is,\” said Hermann. Along with the rich three-cheese mac, many pastas, salads, sandwiches and grill items are available. Dishes such as the bbq meatloaf grill sandwich, “black and blue” sirloin steak and blue cheese salad, “wrap of khan” garlic chili roasted chicken with vegetables, cheddar and peanut sauce in a tortilla, range from $8.95 to $12. With all the great menu items, I branched out and tried the special of the day, roasted red pepper and grilled chicken pasta in a cream sauce over spinach fettuccini – amazing.
Depending on your food and drink choices, the Red Cedar Grill is a better example of a higher-end restaurant than you could find at the Eastwood Towne Centre, and you\’ll probably spend less. I know dinners I have had at the new shopping center have easily exceeded $20 just for me alone, and the service is mediocre at best.
The service is outstanding at the Grill. Not only does the staff pay close attention to their guests\’ needs while dining, they are very personable. It is evident through conversation with some they take great pride in the success of the restaurant. The friendship among staff members and their guests is very uncommon these days.
If lighter fair is what you crave, only a few feet away is Ellie’s Country Kitchen, serving country breakfasts, lunches and dinners, many between $5 and $8. Typical menu items range from sandwiches, soups, chicken, steak or fish dinners. On a previous trip to Williamston, I got a patty melt and a pop for $6. It was good, but how can you mess up a patty melt? Service is what you would expect, reminiscent of a coney island, just enough service to get the patrons in and out. But hey, as long as the food’s good and priced like a fast food joint, I can\’t complain.
Although the small restaurant hall is cozy and decorated with local historic farm equipment on the walls and numerous community pictures, my biggest complaint is, for the few tables that make up the restaurant, there is no designation for non-smoking.
Farther down the street there are a couple neat little shops where you can find unique gifts just in time for the holiday season. One store that stood out to my engineering side was Bloom, a gift shop and gallery that reminds me of all the industrial-inspired creations Maggie Carpenter designed in Runaway Bride. Extensive use of mechanical elements such as bedsprings accentuate paintings and other items. [theater]
The locally run SUN theatre truly makes the drive to Williamston worthwhile at $3.50 per person. The only downside is wondering if the movie playing will be something you have yet to see. Movie times for the theatre are at 7:30 p.m. and 9:10 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays, and all other days of the week have a single 7:30 p.m. showing. If you decide to come out and see a movie on Thursday night, head over to the Williamston Bucket for karaoke afterward, 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.
If you didn’t get any homemade cake or pie after dinner at the Red Cedar Grill, round Main Street during your stroll and head south a couple storefronts to Fabiano’s Sweet Shoppe on Williamston Road. Not only can you get a great ice cream sundae, they offer dozens of freshly made chocolates, truffles and fudges.
As I eagerly hop back in the GLI, I re-examine my goal of an enjoyable day for around $30. Was it a success? I think so. With two meals, tip and a shared dessert – totaling about $25 – and another $7 for two movie tickets, that’s quite a lot of bang-for-the-buck. Very cool for the majority of us on a budget. Even Rachel Ray would be proud.
As I re-enter our lackluster college town, I try to keep the depression at bay. With a quick tap of the left paddle-shifter, my emotions rise as if I swallowed an overdose of Zoloft, the acceleration pushing me back into the leather sport seats just as fast if not faster than the smile that spreads across my face.

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