After Labor Day, September becomes a month that triggers a spontaneous whimsy in me that I attribute to some Pavlovian imprint from my hedonistic years. It is rooted in grade school-era visits to autumn apple orchards, indulging in cider and coffee; naked collegiate nighttime soirees in apple orchards, indulging in spiked cider and coffee; the return of the doughnut as an acceptable carbohydrate to the diet.
Some of the best local apples and cider comes from two of the oldest apple orchards in West Michigan. Instead of picking up some hum-drum cider at your grocer, try some from the farm in Kent City at Fruit Ridge Hayrides (11966 Fruit Ridge Ave.). This scenic farm has been operating for more than 125 years. A great excuse to come would be around the third week of September, when owners Kirk and Nancy Briggs launch the Fall Harvest Festival. Families can enjoy corn mazes, horse-drawn hay rides, pony rides, all the apples or pumpkins one could pick, and award-winning apple cider.
Sitting on the outskirts of Grand Rapids lies Robinette's Apple Haus and Winery (3142 4 Mile Rd. NE). The family farm opened in 1911, producing a variety of fruit — cherries, peaches, apricots, nectarines and apples. A bakery, lunch counter and cider mill, collectively known as The Apple Haus, opened in 1973 and was followed by a winery in 2006. The winery produces several nice wines and hard ciders, including Pictured Rocks Semi-Dry Blush, Dessert Pear Wine and Barzilla's Brew Hard Cider, named after original orchard owner Barzilla Robinette.
During the day, visit the Apple Haus and the lunch counter for stuffed pepper soup, cherry walnut chicken as a sandwich or a plate, a ham and cheese, or a turkey club croissant with lettuce, tomato, bacon, Swiss cheese, and ranch dressing. Every entree is served with chips, a pickle, and, of course, an apple. Also available are the days pick of apples, jams and jellies, and their famed cider by the jug.
Although cider mills can produce some exemplary doughnuts to complement their cider, I prefer to go out of my way for the best in fried rolled-dough excellence. Sweetwater's Donut Mill (3333 Stadium Dr.) opened in Kalamazoo in 1983. It spawned two other locations by 1990. Constantly named to greatest doughnut lists throughout America, Sweetwater's is open 24 hours to satiate you with one of 55 flavors. Must-haves include the Black Forest (cherry filling with chocolate crum), Honey Dip Glazed, Reeses (chocolate cake topped with peanut butter crème and more chocolate) and the Snickers (chocolate cake topped with vanilla icing, toffee, and even more chocolate).
For those unlucky bastards that don't live in either Kalamazoo or Battle Creek to enjoy Sweetwater's triumph of baked goodness, I offer up a Kent County alternative. Marge's Donut Den (1751 28th St. SW, Wyoming) has been pleasing plenty of people over the past 35 years. Owner and lead baker Marge Wilson has developed an eyebrow-lifting doughnut menu which borrows from Marge's wedding cake expertise. Highlights of Marge's decadent doughnut menu include a chocolate covered cherry cake donut, apple and blueberry fritters, elephant ears, glazed and toasted coconut patty, and an autumnal must. A fried cinnamon apple swirl. Cupcakes, muffins, Danishes, turnovers, brownies and cookies are also available for those in a non-doughnut mood.
The smoke has lifted from 76 Coffee (1507 Wealthy St. SE) in Grand Rapids' Eastown neighborhood, revealing freshly painted, non-nicotine stained walls and baristas that are 25% more attractive. Those that have avoided the coffee here due to the once permanent nicotine cloud-bank or because they don't carry cash should come back to enjoy fresh air and the "now accepting credit" card machine. Here you can enjoy a laid back cup of Joe and digest the day with good music, art, and atmosphere.
Although the shop has been through several name changes (Gold Coffee, Morningstar 76), the fair trade organic Arabica and Robusto beans have remained the same for a decade and come direct from a family farm in what is considered the worldwide capital of coffee-Coatepec, Mexico. Coffee beans are roasted on site and are available by the pound for $10. There are many drinks gracing the menu and, when pressed for what to sample, Owner Ryan Van offers up two recent additions. One is a Tri-Force; several shots of espresso loaded with three different types of chocolate. For a second choice, Van suggests a drink for those who prefer something cooler during the warmer half of September-the Future Librarian-a chilled soy latte of honey and coconut. If not in the coffee mood, cider steamed with a double dose of caramel syrups for good measure is always an option.