Clara’s on the River offers taste of Battle Creek history

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Ross Simpson sat in a booth inside the grand fireplace room of Clara’s on the River recently and reflected on his three decades owning the downtown Battle Creek restaurant.

 “We’ve been here 30 years, so this is mom and dad’s restaurant. Then kids go away and come back with their kids, and the cycle starts all over again,” he said. “The cool thing about being in an old building like this, a lot of restaurants have to remodel every five to 10 years, and we just get better.”

Clara’s on the River officially turns 30 on June 8, when it will host an anniversary celebration with birthday cake, T-shirts, raffle giveaways and special discounts. 

Sandwiched between Willard Library and the Battle Creek River at 44 N. McCamly St., Clara’s is downtown Battle Creek’s longest-operating restaurant. It began three decades ago when Simpson and the late Peter Jubeck took the former Michigan Central Railroad depot and transformed it into an eatery celebrating local history.

How a train station became a restaurant

This undated photo shows the Michigan Central Railroad Station in Battle Creek, Mich. Built in 1888 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it was converted into Clara's on the River restaurant in 1992.

The Michigan Central Railroad depot was built in 1888, and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The station was a major transit point for soldiers in wartime and was a regular whistle stop for “every president from (William) McKinley to Gerald Ford,” Simpson said.

The depot remained in operation for much of the 20th century, becoming an Amtrak station in 1970. It closed in the early 1980s as a result of a city railroad consolidation project undertaken to clear up downtown traffic congestion.

Postcard showing President William Howard Taft speaking at the Michigan Central Depot in Battle Creek, September 21, 1911.

The Battle Creek Intermodal Facility opened in 1982 just blocks away at 119 S. McCamly St., rendering both the Amtrak station and the Grand Trunk Railroad station obsolete. Tracks were removed from near the Amtrak site, and the building was vacant until it was rehabilitated as a restaurant.

Jubeck, who brought Sir Pizza to Michigan and the original Clara’s, located at another former train depot, to Lansing, died in 2003. The Lansing Clara’s operated from 1979 until 2016.

“We had a model to work off of,” Simpson said. “Once we were remodeling this place and people found we were buying antiques, they found us.”

Turning back the clock

Black and white aerial photo of Clara's on the River restaurant, the former Michigan Central Railroad Depot, in downtown Battle Creek, Michigan.

Clara’s clock tower has been part of the Battle Creek skyline for more than a century. It got a new face after the restaurant opened in 1992, and was again repaired in 2020 as part of a $350,000 renovation of the restaurant.

Just as the clock tower harkens to an earlier time, the interior of the restaurant is filled with historic photos, portraits and artifacts celebrating Battle Creek’s history.