Arrive in a vibrant metropolis of beer, art, and dining and there you have Grand Rapids, Michigan. It’s among our country’s most venerable, yet fresh, American cities, as emblematic of the Midwest as wheat and corn. The flip side is Alexander Calder’s iconic huge red “La Grand Vitesse” stabile near City Hall that symbolizes an open, urban sophistication.
The furniture factories and other echoes of the past have been replaced with tourist catnip, like the extraordinary Frederick Meijer Sculpture Gardens (1000 E. Beltline Ave., NE. Tel: 616-9571580. www.meijergardens.org).
A short drive from the city’s center, this dazzler is designed to engage your senses in its 158 fragrant acres of horticulture blended with art. Take a walk or a 40 minute tram ride through the park. The stunning and tranquil Japanese garden is new and features Wei Wei’s Iron Tree, cast from 99 different wood species. The gardens are a memorable, spiritual experience. Three quarters of a million visitors a year come here from around the globe, and now you’ll know why.
Continue along the Grand Rapids culture trail with a visit to the GRAM (101 Monroe Center St. Tel: 616-831-1000. www.artmuseumgr.org), a light-filled gem that features 19th- and 20th-century European and American art. This 100-year-old Grand Rapids museum is home to 6,000 works that include most recently acquired creations by Jasper Johns, Larry Rivers, Alexander Calder, and a Warhol screen print of “Marilyn.” The museum also has special events, like meditation workshops, music, and films. Check the website for popular evening activities.
Evenings are also time for dinners, and there is not likely a better one in Michigan than at The Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck (Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, 187 Monroe Ave., NW. Tel: 616-776-3230. www.amwaygrand.com), a meticulously designed modern space in the Amway Grand Hotel (187 Monroe Ave., NW. Tel: 616774-2000. www.amwaygrand.com). This is hotel grandeur big time, with parking valets, Phantom of the Opera chandeliers, and oldworld fountains in the lobby. The Kitchen, one of its seven restaurants, is a stark contrast. Here, you’ll sit on designer chairs, dine on Chilewich placemats, and hope for a table with a water view; the Grand River flows right outside and there’s a deck for summer seating. Austin Gresham, the chef, new this year, has no formal training, but does have the touch—easy and heavenly.
If you’d prefer a more Mediterranean, down-home vibe, consider Bistro Bella Vita (44 Grandville Ave., SW # 100. Tel: 616-222-4600. www.bistrobellavita.com), a bustling, super-popular downtown lunch or dinner spot. There’s a long bar, lots of blonde wood, and for a slightly quieter experience, cozy booths. You’ll find everything from arugula to zucchini on the menu, with wines to mix or match, and the dishes are pretty much all made from scratch. Chef Daniel Blanchard, who has been at the restaurant for ten years, has had a passion for cooking since childhood. “How hard could it be?” he asked himself and began cooking for his family when he was in the fifth grade.
The dining options in this area are many and diverse. If you happen to be staying at the glitzy JW Marriott (235 Louis St., NW. Tel: 616-242-1500), or even if you’re not, say hello to Beau Burnett. He is the 36-year-old new chef at six one six, a snazzy place on the ground floor. Burnett was trained at culinary school in Scottsdale and here his focus is on using as much local product as possible. Among other city eateries to try are Reserve Wine and Food (201 Monroe Ave., NW. Tel: 616-855-9463. www.reservegr.com), which lists its menu items a bit like the three bears: Small, Large or Snacks and includes items like Crudo, which consists of black bass, tomatillo, fennel, cashew, lemon verbena, steelhead row, and beet emulsion. Avant-garde, right? Yes, and also served with an eye to aesthetics (small portions, big plates) in a space that’s sharp and very 21st century.
For breakfast or lunch: The Sundance Grill (151 Ottawa Ave., NW. Tel: 616-7761616. www.sundancegrill.com), at either of its two locations, you will find not only the expected tacos and quesadillas, but also Arizona eggrolls, yes, eggrolls, and a drink called John Daly. It comprises Jeremiah Weed Sweet Tea Vodka and lemonade served on the rocks with a lemon wedge, it’s very popular.
For brew aficionados, Grand Rapids is the Promised Land. Founders Brewing Company (235 Grandville Ave., SW. Tel: 616-7761195. www.foundersbrewing.com) is the largest of ten breweries in the city (yet another one is being built), and they claim their beer is for the chosen few. The chosen few make it almost impossible to fit into this place on a Saturday night, so if you’re crowd-averse, try another night. There’s music and a cover charge Thursday and Saturday nights, also a deli menu and a large porch for smokers.
More craft beer as well as what they call “schwag,” which is the only brew you could afford before you had a credit card, is at The Green Well (924 Cherry St., SE. Tel: 616-808-3566. www.thegreenwell.com) a gastropub whose gay manager is Bobby Randall, who’s been there for 20 years. Tuesday nights are “schwag and cheese” nights,” gourmet grilled cheese paired with kettle chips and a can of what-have-you for $9.99.