The waitress smiled as she plunked the thick menu onto the table. Some restaurants may tend toward simplicity, but not here. The menu is 22 pages long and features in-depth descriptions of the establishment’s special attractions: the food and the tubas.
I’d driven by the place a hundred times and always been intrigued. Maybe it had something to do with the bright red door with the red and white striped awning. Perhaps it was the exotic specials from around the world advertised in the window. Actually, I’m sure it was the name, Travelers Club: International Restaurant & Tuba Museum.
In 1982, partners Jennifer Brooke Byrom and William White, opened the Traveler’s Club & Tuba Museum in Okemos, Michigan, a few miles from the Michigan State University campus in East Lansing. The menu abounds with memories of great food from their international travels in Africa, India, the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Mexico. The tubas seem to be the result of White’s quirky obsession. The restaurant started off as a hardware store in the 1950’s, then became an ice cream shop with a soda fountain. The soda fountain still exists with red stools along a bar, but while ice cream is still served, there are now 120 different varieties of beer, many of which are Michigan brews.
One brew is called Tuba Charlie’s. It is fire brewed on the patio of the Traveler’s Club & Tuba Museum. Talk about a microbrew! In fact, brewing Tuba Charlie’s on the patio officially makes the restaurant the smallest brew pub in Michigan.
The food at The International Traveler’s Club and Tuba Museum completely reflects the world travels of the owners, and attracts people from all over the country – even the world. A woman at the table behind us excitedly told her waitress that they were from Denver, Colorado, and they had heard great things about the restaurant. As I passed her on the way out, I noticed a satisfied smile as she contemplated the empty dishes on her table.
- January: Africa
- February and March: The Middle East and the Mediterranean
- April: India
- May and June: The Asian Pacific
- July: The Caribbean
- August, September and October: The Americas
- November and December: Europe
In addition to the food, the most remarkable feature is the décor. More than 60 tubas of every size and shape line the walls of the restaurant. Over the red door hangs a replica of an ancient Roman tuba. Diners eat in the back area known as "Sousaphone Corner". By the cash register the crowning glory is known as "The Majestic Monster". It weighs 40 pounds with a bell, 28 inches in diameter. With triple loop tubing, if it were stretched out, The Majestic Monster would be 19 feet long.
The other walls are decorated with wooden masks from Africa and Asia. The tablecloths are lovingly selected ethnic fabrics from around the world. In addition to tuba-related pictures, a variety of world maps hang from the walls.
The East Lansing area is an important hub for acclimating refugees from around the world. Near the cash register sits a stand with a unique cookbook of international cuisine. A Taste of Freedom combines the stories of local refugee women from Kosovo, Somalia, Sudan, Cuba, Afghanistan, Columbia, Kurdistan and Laos, with recipes of their favorite traditional meals. In a place like the International Restaurant & Tuba Museum, the cookbook seems especially appropriate. It can be found in bookstores and restaurants in Central Michigan.