Tuesday, October 26, 2010

20 Things to Do in Grand Rapids Before You're Dead

One of the most popular and enjoyable Michigan blog posts I’ve read is Detroit Moxie’s “40 Things to Do in Detroit Before You’re Dead.” This post has been invaluable as I’ve learned my way around Detroit and southeast Michigan. And now that Grand Rapids is a leading city in our great state of Michigan, I thought the west side should return the favor. Here’s my attempt at just 20 things to do in Grand Rapids before you’re dead:

1. Tire Swing at Gerald R. Ford Federal Building: Get enough people together and you can really get this swing sailing. Careful, it will take you out if you’re in its path.

2. Art Prize: This phenomenon took the art world by storm, and Grand Rapids’ Art Prize is in only its second year. The pedestrian traffic is a huge boon for the city, and high art on display in pizza parlors is nothing to scoff at. Check out my Art Prize blog post, "Hail to the Artists Valiant."

3. Yesterdog: For Detroiters who argue about Lafayette or American, I have your answer - they’re both terrible. The best hotdog in Michigan, hands down, is Yesterdog. Slopped with toppings and an adventure to order, these dogs are famous among locals, and were even featured in the film American Pie. I submit that I once ate five UltraDogs without the use of my hands. Open late.

4. Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park: Thank you to the West Michigan Horticultural Society and to west Michigan treasures, Fred and Lena Meijer for embracing the area and making Michigan a great place to live. World-class outdoor sculptures and walking trails, and tropical conservatory with carnivorous plants and butterfly exhibit. Here I am being stomped by a horse:

5. Meyer May House: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Meyer May house was designed in prairie style architecture for a Grand Rapids businessman. There’s a sense of Zen in the place. There’s also a sense that people used to be very, very small. No way I could fit in this house, not for a day. But an hour-long tour is fascinating. Located at 450 Madison Avenue SE.

6. Rowster’s Coffee: This new coffee joint on Wealthy Street is poised to become an institution. Rowster's roasts their own beans in small batches three or four times each week. And they brew each cup individually, to order. Their mentality is much like a small brewery - small batches of high quality product. No decaf. Limited menu.

7. Sixth Street Bridge: The Sixth Street Bridge was constructed in 1886. This narrow bridge supports vehicular traffic, but only one lane. Great view of the Grand River and perfect for senior pictures and wedding photos.

8. Pulaski Days: Polish festival in honor of Revolutionary War hero General Casimir Pulaski. Great food, good music, general Polish joy. Shout-out for German festival too, another great ethnic festival in GR. West Michigan is not as homogeneous as the rest of Michigan seems to believe. Also, if you ain’t Dutch you ain’t much.

9. Festival of the Arts: Before there was Art Prize there was Festival of the Arts. This week-long, family-friendly event features multiple genres – visual, literary, theatrical, musical – plus great food.

10. The Cottage: The burgers and chili are amazing, and the inside is reminiscent of an old ship. The Cottage says it best: “A Grand Rapids tradition since 1927, we are proud to be the oldest operating bar and restaurant downtown. Known for our casual charm and down to earth atmosphere, we're famous for having the city's best burgers, and three different styles of award winning chili, The Cottage Burger was recently voted best burger in Michigan by USA Today.”

11. Marie Catrib's: Farm-to-table goodness. Marie Catrib’s features homemade food made from scratch, with sandwiches that rival Zingerman’s of Ann Arbor.

12. Grand Rapids Art Museum: Didn’t make it to Art Prize this year? Visit the GRAM, home to the top artists. And of course, world-class permanent collection and visiting exhibits.

13. Gerald R. Ford Museum: Ford wasn’t a Michigan native, but he is one of our most celebrated adoptees. My great grandmother used to babysit his children, and a photo of her appears in the museum.

14. Whitecaps Game at Fifth Third Ballpark: If you’re interested in seeing future Detroit Tigers, go for the game. If you’re interested in gluttony, go for the 5,000 calorie Fifth Third burger.

15. Millennium Park: 1,500-acre park featuring over 20 miles of hiking, running, and biking trails. The trails run over old service roads and railroad tracks that criss-cross the wetlands along the river. As a friend pointed out, the rusty oil derricks “add a certain rustic, hobo, tin can, old-time railroad kind of charm.” Hop on the Kent Trails in Millennium Park and just keep going. From Byron Center all the way through Rockford and I believe up to Cadillac. The trail runs near historic burial sites and Grand Rapids gypsum mines.

16. Founders Brewing: I miss the old location with its peanut shelled floor and more laid-back environment, and I could stand some quieter music and less hippies, but still a must-visit for Michigan beer enthusiasts. This year, Ratebeer.com ranked Founders as the 4th best brewery in the world, and Founders won four medals at the 2010 World Beer Cup. Their beers are consistently ranked among the best in the world by Beeradvocate.com, and they host a great summer music and beer festival.

17. Rob Bliss Events: Attend world record zombie walks, pillow fights, and water slides. This young Grand Rapids event promoter is all the buzz, and pushes the limits of what GR is capable of. Keep track of his productions.

18. Houseman Field: This high school football field has a fascinating past, but what really makes Houseman Field great is that it continues to host games featuring west Michigan powerhouses. Outside of a Big Reds game at Muskegon’s Hackley Stadium, this is probably the best spot for high school football in Michigan.

19. Heritage Hill: If you’re at a game at Houseman Field, you’re already right in the neighborhood. Walk around Grand Rapids’ historic Heritage Hill and enjoy the quiet streets, huge trees, and views of great old houses.

20. Grand Valley State University: In my short lifetime GVSU has transformed itself from a glorified community college to a renowned research institution. Worth a visit for a cultural event or a stroll around the beautiful campus. Here's a virtual tour LipDub set to Styx:

Note: I’m from Muskegon, and though I’m a frequent visitor to Grand Rapids I’m certainly not a local expert. Would any locals like to chip in with additional must-sees? I need 20 more to match Becks Davis' Detroit list.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Featherbowling at Cadieux Café

Portraits of past featherbowling champions hang on a cinder block wall. These old-timers watch over the dirt lanes of Detroit’s Cadieux Café like they’re still sizing the competition. Nearly extinct even in its birthplace of Flemish Belgium, featherbowling is a combination of bocce and shuffleboard, and Cadieux Café is now the only featherbowling location in the United States.

Featherbowling has its origins in western Flanders, where it is known as trabollen. Players roll cheese wheel-shaped balls down a trough lane, the object to be the closest ball to a feather sticking in the dirt at the end (Rules). The balls are old, wood, and chipped. The paint is missing, and they’ve lost their shape after years of rolling along the uneven dirt track. We nicknamed one particularly malformed ball the gimp. Anthony Bourdain beat me to it, but I did it better (YouTube proof). Check out that form:

For a complete night at Cadieux, I recommend a bucket of mussels. You might be tempted to get citrus or garlic mussels, but go with the steamed Belgian vegetable variety. And of course, like any decent bar game – darts, shuffleboard, pool – the quality of play only increases with beer, and there’s plenty of good Belgians to choose from. I recommend the Corsendonk Abbey Brown Ale and the Orval Trappist Ale.

If you’re not featherbowling, Cadieux Café is a great neighborhood bar; dimly lit, classy low-key bands, good beer, and good grilled cheese sandwiches. I’d make it my home bar if I lived close enough. If you are featherbowling, the cost for a lane is $25 per hour per Sunday-Thursday and $40 per hour on Friday and Saturday. Sounds pricey, but divided by a group it’s an affordable evening. Call 313-882-8560 for details and reservations.

Here’s a complete photo slideshow, and a first-person video perspective – just look at that camerawork:

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Keweenaw Timelapse Video

Generally I don't just repost someone else's work, but this Keweenaw Peninsula Timelapse video is just too good not to share. The video is from MILapse and I found it through Absolute Michigan. Enjoy:

Keweenaw Peninsula Timelapse from MILapse on Vimeo.

Hail to the Artists Valiant

This is my Art Prize post (it's a requirement, sorry). I was in Grand Rapids last weekend for Art Prize and the U-M v. MSU game, so what better way to kick it off than with this video:

There’s not much to say about Art Prize that hasn’t already been said. The art was amazing, the atmosphere was great, and I believe the event is only going to get better in years to come. The one thing that stood out at Art Prize was the drastic difference between some of the top pieces. I couldn’t help comparing the works to literature; Hemingway’s craft vs. Faulkner’s artistic vision. Cavalry was a work of construction, a labor of love and time:

Vision (my favorite) was a work from the soul - art manifest. Literally drew energy from me and made me take a deep breath. Amazing work of art (bad photo, just follow the link):

I do believe the cream found its way to the top. All the top prizes were amazing, as were some of the non-top prizes. I wish I had better photos of some of the works like Heaven of Dogs. Here are a few photos:

Only a few of my favorites weren’t ranked. Here’s one of my favorite pieces, Glory Days, a prismacolor drawing:

I followed up Art Prize with the best burger known to man at the Cottage:

And then there was the big game, and I was one of just a few Notre Dame fans at My Bar, cheering just a little off beat. As much as I love ND, you can’t beat an in-state rivalry game with cities, bars, even couples divided, half green, half blue. Harbaugh, welcome back to Michigan next year. After the game I made a pact with my friends to buy Sea-Doo’s:

Ended my evening in GR with a Siciliano’s Market party. As always, good beer and good cigars. Breakfast at the BLT in Muskegon, and finished the weekend back in southeast Michigan for a night at Coleman’s Corn Maze (creepy for all the wrong reason):

They even had a petting farm. Here’s a photo of Stefan of No You Shut Up fame. He's  hanging with a goat. You know how it is:

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Pure Michigan Guest Post

If you’re interested in an autumn treat to go with a hot cup of cider, check out my Pure Michigan guest post on DeKlein Orchards, a chestnut farm in West Michigan. Enjoy…

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Green Top Olympics

The Green Top in downtown Kalamazoo might well be the best dive bar in Michigan. Dark and grimy with a wood bar that runs the length of the room, the Green Top is populated by local drunks and WMU students. But the Green Top is not a hipster dive bar. Oh no, the WMU students who frequent the Green Top are generally in search of cheap drinks and hometown flavor, and are not at all interested in making any hipster dive-bar scene. On almost any night or day, the owners, an older married couple, play bartender. They pour stiff drinks and make average sandwiches to soak up the booze.

For the purposes of this blog post, it’s important to note that the Green Top has a front and back door. The back door opens into an alley and a downtown Kalamazoo parking lot. The front door opens onto Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo’s downtown thoroughfare.

In the winter of 2002 I was sitting at a banquet table between the jukebox and the pool table. The snow was coming down like a bastard; the kind of wet snow that sounds hypnotic, like television fuzz, the kind of snow that turns a city into a ghost town. So the Green Top was sparsely populated that night with a few die-hards at the bar, and maybe a couple students sitting in the corner.

But the person of note was playing pool, or rather, hovering around the pool table and leaning on his cue. A smallish Mexican man, he looked to be around 50, never removed his stocking cap. To this day, he is hands-down the most intoxicated human being I’ve ever seen standing. He threw back shots of bourbon and glasses of beer at an alarming pace. At some point I remember predicting to my table that he would soon go down.

And then he did. The stout little drunk stepped to the bar, brought his beer to his mouth, and in one fluid motion fell straight back. But the interesting part is he didn’t fall like a normal person, didn’t crumple or try to brace himself, just fell, stiff as a chopped tree. I’d like to think someone said “timber,” but I doubt there was time, because about halfway to the floor, he cracked the back of his head square on the corner of the pool table. I swear to god, I thought he died.

One of the drunks from the bar, likely destined for the same eventual fate, jumped from his seat and pulled the little drunk back to his feet. To my astonishment, he stood again. This noble do-gooder from the bar offered the little drunk a ride home and told him that he just had to run out back and pull his car up, to which the drunk may or may not have replied.

So the good samaritan went out the back door to get the car, and the little drunk hurriedly stumbled out the front door, whether in an escape attempt or because of an impending prior obligation was unclear. He then walked straight onto Michigan Avenue without even considering traffic; perhaps didn’t even know it was a road thanks to the snow cover.

I stepped outside to watch him disappear down a side street. He wore only jeans, a flannel button-up, and his stocking cap, a cap that might have gone on to save his life twice that night; first as a knit helmet, second as his only protection against the snow storm.

Flash forward six years…

So last time I was in the Green Top (about two years ago) I was with my wife after attending a wedding reception. We were still dressed in formal evening garb.

Unlike the 2002 winter tale, the Green Top was packed; chalk it up to a home football game and nice weather. We were lucky to find one open seat at the end of the bar. I stood. Within minutes, a middle-aged woman appeared on my right and asked if my name was Leroy. No context.

“Leroy?” I said.

“Yeah, Bad Bad Leroy Brown. You’re wearing that suit.”

Fortunately, I’d been drinking scotch at the wedding reception, which tends to make me witty and clever. “Yes, I said, Leroy is the name.”

Then a white-haired man (too young to have white hair) stepped over from the pool table on our left. “Hey, it’s Michael Phelps,” he said, pointing at me, quizzing my wife on the matter. Note: The 2008 Summer Olympics were in full swing. “He’s Michael Phelps, right, the swimmer?” Knowing the Green Top, there was a 50/50 chance that he was messing with us or really thought I was an Olympic gold-medalist.

“In fact, I am Michael Phelps. Pleased to meet you.”

After our brief introductions, the conversation quickly devolved into a good-spirited argument between the two, with a point of contention having something to do with a “dolphin stroke,” including physical reenactments from both parties.

Finally the woman left a dollar at the bar for a diet Coke - shocking - and asked that I pay the bartender and hand her the drink at the table behind us when it arrived.

When the bartender brought the Coke, the cost was $1.25 (probably the Green Top’s most expensive drink). I covered the extra quarter for my new friend and delivered the drink to the table, announcing, “Here’s your goddamn diet Coke,” to which her fellow drunks erupted in laughter.

Bad Bad Leroy Brown indeed.