So much growth has happened on Grand Rapids’ WestSide in such a short period of time. It’s a mecca of services, specialties and wildly inventive shops. Now is the time to get in on the ground level and experience the boom firsthand.
This scene here is all about “history, tradition and pride,” says Mark C. Lewis, President and CEO of Neighborhood Ventures. “People really identify with the WestSide and value the investment and new businesses and are cognizant of what’s happening as things move forward.”
There’s the surprising stretch of retail on Bridge Street. An immense diversity of businesses on Leonard, including: restaurants, home furnishings, auto services and shoe and jewelry stores. Mapping out a day in this thriving social scene is a lesson in packing it all in. Here’s where to start!
The cozy Westsider Café represents the Polish heritage in the neighborhood with the popular Polish Skillet. There are Philly, Irish and Cuban options as well. Breakfast choices are named after streets in the area so the place has a real hometown personality. Come back for lunch to try different Polish Plates and find out what’s up with the Dill Pickle Soup.
The bright and airy Maggie’s Kitchen will surprise you. Choose from salads, tacos, burritos, tostadas, enchiladas, quesadillas, tortas and platillos such as the famous Barbacoa (beef cheek) that everyone raves about. Treat yourself to authentic Mexican food at this WestSide landmark with a huge following. It’s the perfect spot if you’re going to the nearby John Ball Zoo.
BRIDGE STREET SHOPPING DISTRICT
Denim devotees will love DENYM, featuring fashions for men and women. The store’s boutique items and local T-shirts will become habit-forming. Next door is The Conscious Collective, a consignment store with discerning pieces for both sexes with local artwork and handmade jewelry. I spotted a pair of flamingo Vans here. Across the street is Renee Austin Wedding, your source for wedding, prom and special occasion dresses. It’s pretty much frocks of every color dripping in sequins, lace and frills. Neighbor Head of the Pride, a boutique salon and modern men’s barbering spot, offers Oribe haircare and Baxter of California grooming products. Ask them about the ‘Stache and Scruff’ club deal.
It’s still here! Shakedown Street is a sweetly strange little gift shop on Leonard Street where you shop or just lose an hour of your life gawking. The patchouli scent slaps you hard in the face upon entering but then the smoke clears and you find all your psychedelic needs including smoking devices, hippie clothing, incense, candles, concert posters and rock t-shirts. P.S. Root beer incense is a thing …
SPOT IN THE SUN
The Holiday Bar on 5th Street has a spot waiting for you in their Bier Garden and Bar. Yeah, it’s spelled bier as a throwback to the German and Polish neighborhood heritage. Enjoy canned Michigan draft beers outside while inside you can watch the game, enjoy pub grub and on Wednesdays there’s half off bottles of wine and karaoke (a perfect pairing). “The WestSide may be a little grittier than other parts of the city, but that’s what gives it charm,” says owner Todd Wawee, whose family has been in the bar business for around 100 years. “I was on the forefront of the resurgence and reinvestment on the WestSide. I like to think The Holiday Bar kicked off the domino effect and started the momentum.”
RELAX OVER A CUP
Billed as the best meeting place in town, Story Café offers coffee, tea drinks and sweet and savory edibles. The space has themed nights focusing on music, storytelling, singing, writing and theatre events. Because they’re not busy enough, they also sell vintage jewelry and furniture. It was hard to leave all the Namaste vibes here.
Belly up to the reclaimed wood service counter at the recent addition of Two Scotts Barbecue for traditional barbecue with inspiration coming from Texas and Kansas for what they’re calling Michigan style — which doesn’t really follow any one region. Try the signature pulled pork featuring smoked pork on a brioche bun with coleslaw and sauce on the side. Similar to a craft brewery, they feature select recipe sauces and craft sodas on tap (which is fitting since the building was an old root beer stand). There’s a patio in the back so you can scarf down your meal in peace. Takeout is an option, too.
Scott Luecht, one half of the Two Scotts, says the WestSide has “a cooler vibe and real people over here. We love the area.” Luecht also shows some love for his WestSide favorites: Broadway Bar and Putt Putt’s Bar.
DID SOMEONE SAY LIVE MUSIC?
The regulars I spoke to at River City Saloon stay here because it’s a friendly, clean neighborhood bar. Inside signage boasts Mexican fare and the regular burgers and sandwiches you’d expect. Happy hour is 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 7 p.m. on Sunday — so you’ve got a pretty good window there. Known for live music, you can catch bands on Friday and Saturday nights from 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. and there’s never a cover charge. Things that caught my attention: $1 Jell-O pudding shots and on Saturday and Sunday there’s an offer of three hard shelled tacos for $2.75, Deluxe Olive Burgers are a big hit on Wednesdays.
DINNER & BEERS
The Mitten Brewing Co. is a vintage baseball-themed microbrewery expertly pairing handcrafted beers with gourmet pizzas. Located inside historic Engine House No. 9, a Victorian-era firehouse, you can watch the game and relax with a Peanuts and Crackerjack Porter and the Westerdog Pizza (a Yesterdog collaboration), which keeps in the baseball theme with hot dog inspiration. Sit in original Tiger Stadium seats while you wait for a table.
Check out The Anchor Bar’s nautical-themed makeover. Snack on appetizers, paninis and burgers and updated rum-based beverages. This place likes to party so start your bar-hopping here with a shot and beer roulette activity. “You can get more expensive beers for a cheaper price or buy a beer you won’t want,” says General Manager Molly. Risky, that’s how I like my nightlife …
CAPTAIN BIZZARO’S TREASURE WORLD
Vintage and thrift heaven. Wade among mugs, records, clothing, garden gnomes, stage props, jewelry and enormous amounts of ridiculously cool stuff. Owner Tim Garrod has “real pickers” to accumulate all the collectible wackiness such as KISS rock memorabilia. Here I ran into loyal customer Brittany sporting an antique floral beret from the store. Look for the oversized neon feather boa decorations outside to know the business is open.
NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK
If you’ve never cruised the WestSide now is the time as fresh businesses start to make a name for themselves. Meet The Black Heron, a new American Restaurant and Gastro Pub with Michigan beers, ciders and specialties such as Bone Marrow or Poutine — fries with gravy and cheese. They’re on Bridge Street in the same building as Monte’s and O’Toole’s. Also on Bridge is Harmony Hall (slated for an August opening), a majestic WestSide beer hall that will feature a full lineup of lagers, ales, and barrel-aged brews. Harmony Hall was first built as a sausage company in 1908. They’re bringing it back to its roots with a house-made, sausage-based menu. Long Road Distillers is creating a lot of buzz. They are the first craft distillery in Grand Rapids utilizing locally sourced products for their vodka, gin and white whiskey. The 2,500-square-foot tasting room and cocktail lounge is more than hang-worthy, and the two owners are WestSide diehards.