Sunday, November 27, 2011

[EID Travel Feature] Grand Rapids

HopCat. All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

Just as the Traverse City Film Festival put Traverse City on the radar of national (even international) travelers, so too shall ArtPrize do the same for Grand Rapids. Michigan's second-largest city is home to the world's largest single art competition giveaway, with the top winner taking home $250,000 and total prize money reaching nearly half a million dollars. ArtPrize, which celebrated its third year in 2011, is making international headlines for its edgy, experimental, open format. Described as "part arts festival, part social experiment," the entire city of Grand Rapids is overtaken by art for the roughly three weeks it runs (many turning into permanent installations, like massive murals on the sides of buildings and huge metal sculptures located on city-owned parking lots and lawns, next to hotels and bars).

And it's not just relegated to traditional art spaces like galleries in museums. It's in the bars, the clubs, the restaurants, the book stores, the coffee shops, the parks, the bridges, the buses, the streets -- it's EVERYWHERE. And the prize money goes to the top 10 artists, as voted by the public. Not an art jury. YOU. The competition is open to all artists who are able to find space at a venue and all venues willing to participate. (2011 saw 192 venues presenting 1,713 artists from 44 states and 21 countries, bringing in 200,000 visitors, half of which were non-residents.) It's about art, but it's also about community, and social interaction, and artistic engagement, and it's in GRAND RAPIDS.

B. Nektar Meadery at the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival.

Grand Rapids is also making a name for itself by hosting other major events, such as the Grand Rapids International Wine, Beer and Food Festival, which just held its fourth annual event earlier this month, and the popular Festival of the Arts held in June. But there is usually some sort of celebration happening in GR on pretty much any given weekend: this coming weekend, December 2-3, is Holly Jolly GR, which starts with their tree lighting ceremony on December 2 and includes dozens of independent retailers, galleries and boutiques participating in a holiday window display competition.

GR is also making a name for itself as one of Michigan's top eclectic food destination cities. Much like Traverse City, Grand Rapids is surrounded by farmland, and many of the area's restaurateurs and chefs emphasize a fully farm-to-table approach, and the general passion for and commitment to locally-sourced and Michigan-made products is ubiquitous. And while Traverse City still wins in the winery arena, some of Michigan's best breweries (which in turn puts them in the running for some of the best breweries in the country) are located right in downtown GR (or really super-duper close).


As a metro Detroiter, there are certain things that you will notice immediately upon visiting Grand Rapids. First, how very clean it is. Not just clean but well-manicured, impeccably landscaped, full of sparkling skyscrapers downtown and adorable cottage-like gingerbread homes lining the surrounding hills. You'll also notice the abundance of art--not small pieces installed by renegade DIY artists and street art murals on abandoned buildings (not that there's anything wrong with that; Detroit, you're lovely, stay this way forever), but full-blown MURALS made with ceramic and mirror mosaic tiles and giant 3D plaster faces affixed to operational buildings, and massive sculptures placed prominently near the entrances of the B.O.B. and the JW Marriott. The downtown has density, walkability, and is filled with independent shops and restaurants (as well as several colleges and cultural institutions). All of this, only two and a half hours away.

JW Marriott.
Grand Rapids has a few different properties centrally located downtown. The Amway Grand is sort of the grand dame, but for visitors looking for something a bit less...fussy (and a bit more...young), the JW Marriott is a sparkling example of sophisticated, contemporary refinement. The rooms are comfortable, but it is the particular touches like the vertigo-inducing balcony on every floor that looks down a wall of curved glass overlooking the river and the photography from Grand Rapids' sister cities on every floor that makes this property particularly memorable. There's also, the hotel's signature restaurant which serves globally-inspired food on a local level (they even have their own chef's garden on the patio and list the dozens of different local producers and purveyors they work with on their menu and website).

Open only four months, CityFlatsHotel - Grand Rapids (the second location after Holland, MI) is the newest boutique hotel in downtown Grand Rapids, but it also has the most urban design nerd appeal. The rooms are sleek, sparsely decorated but with savvy touches like cork floors, floor-lit mattresses, architectural light wells, large windows, exposed brick, and a bright palette of colors (and each room is slightly different with different design touches). You also get free high-speed wireless Internet, HDTV and DIRECTV, and an iPod docking station. Grand Rapids is one of the country's leaders in sustainability, named the most sustainable mid-size city in 2010 and fourth in the nation for leadership in LEED-certified buildings, and CityFlats seeks to continue that tradition. Built to be LEED-Certified Gold (though still awaiting certification), the hotel has several eco-friendly features designed for efficiency and sustainability. It also has some of the most comfortable bedding EVER in a hotel (no wonder, since the hotelier's background is in hotel furniture; they even sell their bedding on the website). Seriously, like sleeping on a warm, fluffy cloud, wrapped in cloud.

The front desk/lobby/coffee shop/lounge/restaurant/bar downstairs is a feat of small space design. Each separate entity in effect shares the same space, though the modular setup allows them distinction. It's kind of like one of those IKEA bedroom setups, "Look how much you can do in 200 square feet!" (Only it's a hotel lobby, bar, restaurant, coffee shop, lounge and front desk in what is probably only 800 square feet.) The CitySen Lounge is a great place for a snack and drink, with a nice-sized menu of small plates and a solid selection of local and imported beers and wines. If you head out there this Saturday Dec. 3, stop by for their sparkling wine tasting from 7-10 p.m.

Don't know if you got the message yet, but this city is super-big on art. While you're here, don't miss the Grand Rapids Art Museum, this first LEED-Certified Gold art museum in the world. The GRAM is small in size compared to something like the DIA, but the permanent collection alone is worth seeing and they always have intriguing exhibitions (the current exhibition on satire in art featuring Warrington Colescott is outstanding, an evolving history of parodying pop culture). Also check out the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, a quirky gallery/museum and film theatre with a particularly fantastic gift shop.


The Frederick Meijer Gardens and Sculpture Park is worth spending an afternoon exploring with outdoor sculpture, indoor gardens, and the largest tropical conservatory in the state of Michigan. Now through January 8, 2012, enjoy their Christmas and Holiday Traditions from Around the World with horse-drawn carriages and a Hindu lights festival. And if you have kids, the Grand Rapids Children's Museum is an engaging, creative, interactive environment. For great deals on arts and culture attractions in GR, check out Culture Pass GR.

There are plenty of independent retail stores to browse, but for you bookish types (self included) Schuler Books and Music is must. As an independent book seller, this place is practically a museum in its own right. Their collection isn't vast but there's a nice selection of this-and-thats (nothing too steampunk or circus sections, alas), and also a selection of affordable used fiction and nonfiction titles.

MadCap Coffee.

Eat and Drink

AKA, what you've been waiting for.

Start with coffee at MadCap Coffee, an independent coffee roaster which works directly with small farms for transparency and sustainability. Enjoy their latest roast done pour-over style. For lunch, grab a sandwich a Marie Catrib's. But don't think of it as a sandwich. Think of it as one of the best damn sandwiches you will ever eat in your entire life. (They're also vegan-friendly.) For something a bit heartier (i.e., with booze), head on over to HopCat, named the #3 best beer bar in the world by Beer Advocate. It's a brewpub, so they have their own beer, plus an extensive list of imported, craft, local and seasonal beers, plus really outstanding beer bar food, all cooked with and/or made to go well with BEER. Don't miss the crack fries or the cheese ale soup. The place gets packed at night, but lunch is always a more civil crowd. (If civil's your thing.)

Another brewpub worth checking out while you're in town is Brewery Vivant. Their beer isn't distributed this far east (yet; they're working on it), but in their brewpub you get the full Belgian tradition. Inspired by farmhouse breweries of southern Belgium and northern France, they brew Belgian-style IPAs, saisons and farmhouse ales. The Pub's menu is hearty Belgian-style seasonal dishes made from scratch highlighting regional flavors with special attention paid to beer pairings for the full beer-food experience, as well as a full commitment to sourcing their products locally.

Random art thing.
At some point mid-day, during the course of your cultural adventures, you might get thirsty again. Head to Founders Brewing Co. Widely regarded to be one of the top breweries in the country (if the fervor over their CBS is any indication), Founders is a happy place. A joyous, wonderous place full of happy. Breakfast Stout is on tap right now; get some. (They also have a large menu of snacky foods, like sandwiches and French bread pizzas, if you need a 'lil sumthin'. Their beers can be BEASTS.)

For dinner, man alive you have some decisions to make. There's San Chez Tapas Bistro, which despite its cutesy name (it's been around almost 20 years; they get grandfathered into the "cute names aren't cute anymore" clause) is a pinnacle of Mediterranean-inspired dining excellence, with a stellar small plates selection and inventive cocktails, as well as a long-held tradition of environmental initiatives (they are part of the Green Power Partnership) and community involvement. Locally-sourced ingredients are given the Spanish treatment.

There's also 25 Kitchen + Bar, new American cuisine which plays up the number 25 (25 beers on tap, 25 signature hand-crafted cocktails, 25 locally and internationally inspired wood-fired pizzas). And then you have Tre Cugini, an airy Italian eatery with a beautiful selection of pastas and risotto. But if you should only eat one meal during your stay in Grand Rapids, make it Reserve.

They opened last September in a sort of trial-by-fire (they launched the opening weekend of ArtPrize), and have since made a name for themselves as Grand Rapids' premiere restaurant. Owned in part by Grand Rapids business royalty Rick and Betsy DeVos, whose son Rick started ArtPrize, the restaurant seems inextricably tied to ArtPrize itself: the showpiece of the restaurant is a massive back-lit mural above the bar called "Open Water," which was the grand-prize winner of the first-ever ArtPrize in 2009. But while Reserve may have an interesting story (and gorgeous design), its ultimate draw is the food.

Executive Chef Matthew Millar emphasizes seasonal cooking and works directly with small family farms for a menu that truly defines the region, and what it means to be a Michigan restaurant. Select from "small," "medium" or "large" plates (every menu item sounds outstanding but the pan-roasted duck breast with fall vegetables, cranberry beans and foie gras butter might just be the stand-out), but be sure to start with a charcuterie and cheese plate. They import salumi and cheeses from some of the top producers in the world, but also make their own terrines, pates, and rilettes and source local artisan cheeses from nearby creameries. They've got a fantastic selection of local craft beers and liquors, but their custom-built, temperature-controlled cruvinet system holding 102 wines all available by the taste and glass is the real accomplishment. It is one of the largest such systems in the world, which allows the life of an open bottle of wine to be extended as long as six weeks, allowing them to offer by the glass a much wider range of varietals and price points than what most restaurants would typically risk.

After dinner, pop by the Viceroy for some pre-Prohibition-inspired craft cocktails made with their own house-made bitters, syrups, shrubs and infusions. There's not a dud on the whole sizable cocktail menu; each drink is expertly crafted and utterly delightful. THIS is drinking. They do that whole precious secret-but-not-really-secret-entrance thing, but the quality of their cocktails more than makes up for it. And after a long night of drinking liquors with names you can't pronounce, stumble on over to Georgio's Gourmet Pizza. They're open until 3 a.m. Wednesday through Saturday, serving up enormous New York-style slices to hordes of hungry drunkards. It's not the best pizza you'll ever eat, but it's the best pizza you'll get this late, and with wacky flavors like Mac 'n Cheese and Potato + Bacon, it's definitely something different. (Be prepared to wait in line. With drunks. College-age drunks, which is even worse than your standard-issue drunk, though not quite as bad as your game day drunk.)

Want to see more? Check out the Grand Rapids Flickr set here, and the Reserve Flickr set here.