Communal seating can go wrong, and one night, at Grange Hall, it went very, very wrong. I was seated next to four female friends, two of whom were pregnant, and all of whom seemed to hate each other. My companion and I were fascinated, to the point that we could barely keep a conversation going between us. All we could do was listen to the conversations about Emily “who’s never going to get married,” and one woman’s collection of rings, which she announced she was going to sell (cue the gasps!) because they were giving her fingers a rash.
I leaned over a bowl of baked beans and whispered to my companion, “How old are these women?”
“Either 15 or 50,” my companion replied. The women had pubescent faces but were dressed in parkas from Ikram. One of them had hair straight out of Working Girl. It was a very purposeful look, and it worked. But I wanted to warn these women that so much irony quickly can become earnest. The line between referencing Working Girl and becoming a working girl is thin. Often, you miss it.
If these women had looked around the room a little, they would have seen what I’m talking about. Grange Hall is not so much a restaurant as it is a piece of theater. You enter through a barn facade, upon which Michigan Christmas trees are leaning. Inside, quilts are hung on the walls, the napkins are vintage, the bar is lined with what looks like antique piano stools, and the only tables are those communal ones—big wooden tables built for a farmhouse. The music is Ryan Adams and the Avett Brothers. Your server is basically Zooey Deschanel. It’s charming, and it’s on point—Grange’s proprietors have an ear for farmhouse cute that is pitch-perfect.
But they may have gone too far. Once, I was pointed to a row of chairs along the wall and asked to wait there for a table. I happily obliged, but when I sat down in my chair, the seat cushion sunk, practically to the floor. Reader, it is not without modesty that I tell you the fault was not my frame. The fault was the janky thrift-store chair’s. As for the washrooms, the men’s is as cold and dark as an outhouse, as is the lady’s, which, I’m told, features a vanity with two artfully burned-out lightbulbs. But in these cases, the fault does not lie with the thrift-store finds. It lies with the extremes to which Grange’s design goes.
I actually wonder if the food is part of the plan. I mean, I know the menu, which consists of a few apps, a few burgers, pie and ice cream, is part of the kitsch. But is the execution? The watery and ill-balanced cocktails are probably much like what you would get if, somehow, you stumbled upon a barn in Michigan serving a Bee’s Knees. But I come from a school of thought that believes authenticity has its limits. Some people get foodborne illnesses when they eat the street food in Thailand, but Grant Achatz did not serve gastroenteritis at Next. I think this is apropos.
Then again, a farmhouse in Michigan probably would not be concerned with grass-fed beef or local, organic produce the way Grange is. And if that farmhouse were dedicated to grass-fed beef, it probably would churn out the kind of dry patties that grass-fed beef is prone to. Grange escapes this fate. The beef burgers are juicy and have a mild but pleasant beefiness. The turkey burger, flavored with sage and onion, is even more flavorful, and also juicy. Neither burger can be contained by the buns they are served on, which first get wet and soppy and then fall apart. I guess you’re meant to eat the burgers fast. (After all, there are crops to tend to.) The best sandwich I had here? The meatloaf, which came adorned with needless slices of white onion and good pickles. (The veggie burger fell apart just as the bun did, creating a wild and unattractive mass of food on the plate.)
Framing the sandwiches are fried foods and dessert. The fried stuff varies in quality—the fries are terrific, but the fried veggies are watery. The pie (it was pecan in December) is also hit and miss—the filling was a hit, the undercooked crust a miss. The ice cream, however, is a real achievement. The chocolate boasts deep notes of cocoa and a creamy mouthfeel completely void of iciness. Made into a milkshake, it’s a fabulous thing. Put into a hot-fudge sundae, it’s a fabulous thing. Scooped into a vintage tin coffee cup and handed to you by banjo-picking Deschanel as she rides by in a tractor—now you’ve gone too far.
By David Tamarkin