When I first arrived in Grand Rapids, one of the first tidbits of pop culture history shared with me was that the writers of the movie American Pie had come from East Grand Rapids. Well, very good.
But how many do you suppose know the first ever recorded flight in Kent County took place from the roof of Nick Fink’s bar in Comstock Park? Or that Grandville Avenue was created by a wayward cow that took the long route back to the barn?
I’m not making any of this up. These stories, among others, have been recently brought to light thanks to the efforts of Norma Lewis and her latest book Lost Restaurants of Grand Rapids, released late 2015.
Lewis, who has lived in Western Michigan for the better part of the last 20 years, set out to explore the history of Grand Rapids’ restaurant scene to uncover some of the city’s favorite forgotten stories. Her research in the public archives and time spent listening to the stories of Grand Rapids’ ancestor’s erstwhile restaurants weaves quite the colorful tapestry.
Anyone who has ever spent time working in a restaurant could tell you about the characters that come in and out of its doors day after day. And it may be the likes of Bourdain and friends who have convinced America that the back of house is, in fact, a band of pirates cooking your dinner. But as it turns out, Lost Restaurants documents how the truly strange have always been a part of restaurant culture — and Grand Rapids is no exception.
Chew on this.
How would you like to be working the register when a man approaches you and tells you that your name is Leslie King and that he is your real father? Well, it happened at Bill’s Restaurant, formerly on Hall St., where former president Gerald Ford used to throw on an apron after school.
What about a German Shepard bringing your craft beer to the table? At Lithuanian immigrant John Sebaitis’ old tavern on the west side of town, Sebaitis trained his dog Spooky to serve brews with the help of a harness he invented. Talk about one-of-a-kind service.
Lost Restaurants is, however, more than a smattering of interesting anecdotes. It captures a history of Grand Rapids that needs to be told in order to know and respect the city’s historic and culinary roots.
Within the pages of Lost Restaurants, Lewis takes familiar Grand Rapids names like Russo, Brann or Bentham and reintroduces us to them, tells us their stories and encourages us to get up and create memories of our own.