I will admit upfront that the appeal of al fresco dining is mostly lost on me.
Eating outside sounds like a treat until you’re really in the thick of things. “Oh, there’s room for us on the deck? How delightful!” Ten minutes later, I’m wiping sweat off my forehead, shooing insects away from drinks and chasing after a menu stolen by the wind. Meanwhile, the nether-worldly sound of a downshifting semi-truck is drowning out all conversation. Insulation from such discomforts, I thought, was built into the cost of a restaurant meal. But alas, it’s summer, and people want to eat outdoors for god-knows-what reason.
Fortunately, the apparently endless expansion of restaurant options in our region has actually made the prospect of dining outside not only tolerable, but, dare I say, sometimes preferable. Even an avid indoorsman such as myself likes to consume the occasional meal without removing his sunglasses, and West Michigan presents a wide variety of ways to accomplish this.*
So slather some sunscreen on that bald spot and join us outside at the following locations.
With a whole lot of money and nothing better to do, one could easily spend an afternoon hopping through the outdoor eating areas of Wealthy Street SE’s 600-700 blocks. There are the leafy confines of The Winchester’s veranda-like outdoor section, the roomy and rustic picnic-table area outside Elk Brewing, and the sunny, round patio of Jonny B’z new location. But if you can only do one, make a taco run to Donkey, whose outside seating is abundant and accented with nighttime lights that approximate a Brooklyn rooftop party (at least in my imagination).
The Green Well Gastro Pub
The bustling Cherry Hill district offers a similar range of options for the outdoor eater, from the cozy, well-to-do front patio at Grove, to the wide, sun-drenched spaces connecting Brewery Vivant and Maru Sushi, to the quaint little space behind Furniture City Creamery and the streetside tables of Marie Catrib’s. Among these, I slightly favor the patio alongside the Green Well, which, while pretty on its own, is rendered even more appealing by its proximity to the well-landscaped lawns of the Inner City Christian Federation.
It doesn’t get much more postcard-picturesque than the view from this gem’s deck on the shore of Reed’s Lake. Rose’s, along with its sturdy menu of upscale entrees and wood-fired pizzas, offers year-round ambience that’s unrivaled by any restaurant not requiring a trip to the Lake Michigan shore.
Graydon’s is a standout on several fronts. Its outdoor beer garden is large, barricaded from street noise by a wall and vegetation, partly protected from the elements and viewable from another outdoor deck upstairs. The garden is also built around a large tree, an aesthetic bonus for patrons who like to spice up their British Empire-derived cuisine with a bit of Swiss Family Robinson.
Founders Brewing Co.
Founders is like the dragons in Game of Thrones — given unlimited space, it will never stop growing. One of the highlights of the mega-brewer’s Grandville Avenue location — other than the majestic sight of All Day IPA pallets stacked to the rafters in the production area — is the comprehensiveness of its outdoor eating/drinking experience. If you prefer shade, there’s an elevated area that’s covered. If it’s cold, there are fire pits. Otherwise, there’s a small outdoor bar and marble-topped tables for the merry consumption of sandwiches.
Terms like “big-city feel” are often used to promote hip dining spots, as if pretending you’re in a larger city has any effect on how the food tastes. But the rooftop deck shared by these twin South Division eateries actually earns the description. Considering the pace of change happening to the downtown skyline, patrons can literally watch the city grow around them as they enjoy the menu of small plates, sushi rolls and sandwiches.
File under “fairly well kept secret.” The patio adjacent to one of Grand Rapids’ oldest bars is easy to miss — after all, it’s basically just a handful of tiny tables in the well-shaded alley between Cottage and its neighbor, One Trick Pony. But if you can nab an outdoor spot on an excursion for one of Cottage’s famous burgers, there’s no better place downtown to pass a couple of hours on a summer night.
OUTSIDE GRAND RAPIDS
Boatwerks Waterfront Restaurant
Like a West Michigan culinary Manifest Destiny, the 10-year-old Holland restaurant is as far west as you can go without sliding into Lake Michigan. Put a trip to Boatwerks’ waterfront deck on your sunset bucket list. The menu is pizza, burgers and no-nonsense Americana.
Bostwick Lake Inn
Features a spacious deck facing the titular body of water. Come hungry for pizza, burgers and live outdoor music, a regular warm-weather feature.
Watch the boats come and go and ponder the passage of time from the deck of this downtown Grand Haven seafood restaurant, which faces the Grand River near its mouth.