Essays > Temple Dining Room a Sanctuary of Comfort Food

I’m sitting at a table in the basement of the Masonic Temple on a gusty, overcast Wednesday afternoon.  In front of me, on a white linen tablecloth, on a white plate striped in green, is a moist square of pineapple upside-down cake. 

It’s topped with a single circle of pineapple and a dollop of whipped cream.  My fork hovers, poised for a taste test, but I pause to consider the moment. 

Even though the spring weather is miserably wet and cold, down here in the womb of the Battiste Temple Dining Room, the air is fragrant and soothing.  I know I’m in a sanctuary of comfort food, and that cake looks like the answer to life. Carol and Jill, two of the waitresses, watch me in smiling suspense.  
“You have to try it. Larry came home from work last night so happy,” says Carol, his wife of 36 years and now the dining room manager. “He said the pineapple upside-down cake came out beautiful.” 

Larry is Lawrence Battiste, the cook (he eschews the term “chef”) and third-generation co-owner.  He works from 8 a.m. to sometimes, 1 a.m. the next day, baking all the pies, cakes and muffins and making the soup. 

(He’s a quiet, modest man and though he agreed to meet me and warmly shook my hand at the end of my visit, he otherwise preferred not to do the talking.  In fact, Carol and I had to wait for him for a bit of free time as narrow as a quarter slice of rhubarb pie while he carted giant containers of ingredients to the cooler.)

Finally, I push my fork down into the cake and slice off a piece.  The cake both gives and holds together, its creamy yellow body substantial and inviting. Making sure I have a little bit of whipped cream with it, I take the first bite.

Good God.  Larry Battiste's pineapple-upside down cake is pure indulgence, hugging the taste buds and sliding down the throat directly to all the parts of you that are worried and afraid.   Larry Battiste’s pineapple upside-down cake is like what your mother gave you when she loved you most. Larry’s Battiste's pineapple upside-down cake will convince you of the goodness of the world. 

Well, maybe I overstate. I liked that cake.

Be prepared. At the Temple Dining Room your body might be startled by the rare experience of taking in Real Food, and I predict it will slow you down as you eat, ordering you to savor every bite.

The menu also includes other “Oscar winners” of comfort food, like breaded veal cutlets, fried chicken, ham salad sandwiches, pasties, pureed squash, cranberry relish made by hand, potato rolls, hot beef with gravy, tuna noodle casserole, macaroni and cheese, rice custard pudding and hot chocolate. 

Oh, and the liver.  One week it’s beef liver and onions, the next it’s pan-fried chicken livers.  “People don’t want to cook it at home because it stinks up the house,” Carol says.  “But they’ll come down here and ask for it. They love it.”

All the food is fresh and bought locally from U.S. Food, Evans, Moffett’s and Flint Provisions. 

At least one of the waitresses thinks the Dining Room food saved her life.  Jill Poe said she came to work there after a bout with cancer, and, eating the Dining Room food daily, she’s been in remission ever since. 

Larry will accommodate almost any request.  “The other day somebody asked when we’d have ham salad sandwiches and pineapple upside down cake again,” Carol says, “and Larry said, what day do they want it? I put a note up for him on the big industrial stove, and sure enough, he had it for them that day.”

She recalls notorious lawyer Geoffrey Fieger stopping in one day to demand, “I’ll be back in Flint on Thursday and I’d like tomato rice soup.”  Larry had it ready. 

Well-known local lawyer, the late Andrew Jackson Transue, ordered the Temple’s fruit plate so often they named it for him – you can get the AJT Fruit Plate and Beverage for only $4.84. 

Downtown fans of the lunch-only Dining Room keep track of their choices via menus Battiste faxes out every morning to about 50 local offices – the courts across the street, attorneys, Social Security, the health department and community mental health.

Juries routinely dine together at round tables in the back of the room, and the waitresses know not to talk to them about anything but the food.  No whispering, either, Jill says. 

Even a friendly ghost haunts the place:  he runs through the boiler room, just out of sight, leaving behind a whiff of smoke and a cold breeze in the stairwell. A voice once muttered “seven-seven-seven” in the locker room, just as a customer’s bill rang up at $7.77.

The restaurant goes back to 1947, started by Larry Battiste’s grandparents, William and Neva.  William originally worked at the former Home Dairy downtown, and she ran the Courtavon Café at the corner of Court and Avon. 

When William moved to the Masonic Temple, a group called the Knights of the Round Table wheeled their Home Dairy table down Saginaw Street to follow his good-hearted cuisine.

The table’s still there, used only by those men, though Carol laments their numbers are dwindling.

While the ailing economy has taken hits at almost every part of the local business scene, Carol says the Temple Dining Room is holding its own.  For one thing, the most expensive things on the menu, say the gulf shrimp or roast sirloin with gravy, are under eight bucks.  A piece of pie is only $2.05. 

Lawrence and his brother Robert also offer catering, and that’s become the bigger part of their business. It’s a grind, but one that Larry still claims to love. He’s been doing it since childhood. He remembers being put up on a stool in the kitchen to feed dirty dishes to the dishwasher – an actual person back then.

When he gets home, having assembled piecrusts, muffins and soup stock for the next day, Carol will be waiting up for him, even if it’s halfway to daylight, to offer him something to eat.

“He wants something he doesn’t cook,” she says.  “Sometimes it’s hot dogs or pizza.  Last night, all he ate was a can of stewed tomatoes.”

It’s impossible not to notice that the Dining Room patronage is, well, somewhat long in the tooth.   When I ask if the young ever come in, Carol says, frankly, “No.  They haven’t discovered us yet.” 

But people who came as children a generation ago still seek out the comfort food.

“A guy just came in last week and said he used to eat here 30 years ago,” Carol recalls.  “He said it hadn’t changed a bit.”

Even those white dishes – “green band Pyrex” salvaged 40 years ago from a ship – are still the same. No computers, no credit cards, no complications.

Now that I think of it, that might be the best reason of all to keep the Temple Dining Room afloat.