GRAND RAPIDS: A Quick Primer
WITH MANY JOURNALISTS and others heading to Grand Rapids, Mich., for Gerald Ford’s funeral, I thought that as a public service, I’d detail some of the better bars, restaurants and landmarks to visit. Online resources on Grand Rapids are pretty Spartan, so I hope I can help. You may think that going to Grand Rapids is a punishment, but with the city of my birth, I’m surprised more and more every time I go back with the city’s revitalization. Michigan’s second-largest city has a pretty vibrant bar scene. The alcohol is cheap. And while having a car is definite plus, if you’re stuck downtown without vehicular transportation, all hope is not lost as places are located pretty close together.
In March, Gridskipper did a good rundown of all things Grand Rapids.
The Amway Grand Plaza hotel, which stands across the Grand River from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum, is pretty much the center of downtown at Pearl Street and Monroe Avenue. Across the way there’s an ice skating rink, which stands in front of the new art museum currently under construction. To the south of that is the entertainment district surrounding the Van Andel Arena, with Ionia Avenue SW (south of Fulton Street) being home to the main strip of bars and restaurants.
If you ask your concierge of where to go, you will most likely be directed there or to the BOB (the Big Old Building, home to a collection of bars and restaurants in a renovated warehouse.). I typically stay away from the BOB and I would say you should too, as it will likely be packed with Ford-related visitors.
If you do find yourself on Ionia Avenue in search of, your two best bets are J.Gardella's and the Black Rose, both of which have a good beer selection, but can be packed.
» HEAD NORTH: The place most of my friends like to hang out is a place called Cambridge House, which is a two-minute drive north on Monroe Avenue from the Amway Grand (or it’s a 10-minute walk). Cambridge House is in an old warehouse on Trowbridge Street, on the other side of the Gerald Ford Freeway. This area used to be home to a number of furniture factories. Today, there are condos and a few bars. The wine list and scotch list are extensive and the price is right. Try to snag a few chairs surrounding the rough-stone tables.
In the Brass Works Building on Monroe Avenue, just to the north of Cambridge House, is the Founders micro-brewery. Pitchers are cheap and the wait staff expects you to throw your peanut shells on the ground. The Celebration IPA is tasty.
If you’re elsewhere and see a Bell’s Beer product, get that. The Kalamazoo-based microbrewery is loved by many beer experts.
— Cambridge House, 600 Monroe Ave. NW (North Monroe)
— Founder’s Brewery, 648 Monroe Ave NW (North Monroe)
» RESTAURANTS: If you’re looking for a decent meal, here are some places to try to get reservations. The top restaurant in town in the 1913 Room in the Amway Grand. Reservations will be likely tough to get. Sierra Room on Ionia Avenue and Weston Street and San Chez at Fulton Street and Commerce Avenue. (This might surprise you, but Grand Rapidians have been enjoying Spanish tapas since the early 1990s. San Chez was one of the first restaurants to venture south of Fulton Street in the downtown renaissance.) There are a few other places downtown, but I can’t recommend them because I haven’t been there.
If you have a car, you might want to venture elsewhere. Rose’s on Reeds Lake in East Grand Rapids and Olives in EGR’s Gaslight Village are both popular. Bombay Pub serves up solid Indian food in Eastown.
If you’re stuck out by the airport, Tuscan Express on 28th Street SE near Thornhills Avenue is probably your best bet. There are, as you might expect, plenty of franchise options to choose from everywhere.
— 1913 Room at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, 187 Monroe Ave. NW (Downtown)
— Bombay Club, 1420 Lake Dr. SE (Eastown)
— Roses on Reeds Lake, 550 Lakeside Dr. SE (East Grand Rapids)
— Olives, 2162 Wealthy St. SE (East Grand Rapids)
— San Chez, 38 W. Fulton St. (Arena/Heartside)
— Sierra Room, 25 Ionia Ave. SW (Arena/Heartside)
— Tuscan Express, 6450 28th Street SE (Cascade)
» LATE-NIGHT SNACK: No stop to Grand Rapids would be complete without a stop by Yesterdog in Eastown. The menu is simple — boiled hot dogs with toppings. I personally like the Ultradogs (chili and relish), but Killers (Ultras + kraut) aren’t listed on the menu board. The atmosphere is 1930s Great Depression, packed with odd artifacts. Think of it like a Potbelly’s with real stuff and no annoying guitar guy. It’s most crowded around last call (1:45ish) when the very smoky bar Mulligan’s across the street begins to empty out. Unfortunately, you need to drive there if you’re staying downtown. But the drive is about 10 minutes. Nothing too arduous. Here is a backgrounder I wrote some time ago.
» BREAKFAST: If you’re looking for breakfast/brunch (or casual, easy meal) head to the intersection of Diamond Avenue, Lake Drive and Cherry Street, halfway between Eastown and downtown. There are three places to go. Marie Catrib’s (deli/pastries), Cherie Inn (sort of French-influenced brunch) and Gaia (vegan-vegetarian).
» FORD-RELATED SITES: If you’re looking for two of Gerald Ford’s boyhood homes, head to Union Avenue SE north of Thomas Street, on the far edge of the Heritage Hill historic district. A second is located in East Grand Rapids on Argentina and Santa Cruz drives, not too far where I grew up.
Photos by Michael Grass