Littlebird: A love story of trains, ramen bars and delicious breakfast

Littlebird opened in November 2017 at Monroe Center.
Littlebird opened in November 2017 at Monroe Center.

The first thing you see when you enter Littlebird is the bar.

It’s the work of Greenwood Studio craftsman Marc Wiegers. If you’ve been to Hopcat, Terra or Grand Rapids Brewing Company, you’re familiar with his work.

But this bar is different. It’s a massive installation that features a lower ceiling than the traditional bar design.

Littlebird Owner Joel Wabeke says the design was inspired by ramen bars’ hanging noren (fabric curtains). The bulkhead invokes a cozy atmosphere that you’re not likely to experience elsewhere in Grand Rapids.

As you look at the bar, you might also find it looks like an old streamliner train, with its large body, curving design and interesting paneling along the top. It’s this resemblance that gave Wabeke inspiration for the rest of the space.

Interestingly, Wabeke’s grandparents met on a train. After returning home from serving in the Navy, his grandfather took up a job as a chef on the train. It was there he met his wife, who was a waitress.

Cooking and the train motif meld together at Littlebird, where the decor is reminiscent of European train station cafés and the menu, in-part, a modernized concept from dining car menus of yesteryear.

“The dining cart had to be the all-day restaurant,” said Wabeke. “We’re like the stable, non-moving dining cart of downtown, both for people traveling through and for people who live here.”

For diners familiar with That Early Bird — which Wabeke opened with his wife Sarah Wepman in 2016 — this new restaurant concept carries over their fresh and local approach. The menu is veggie-forward and full of elevated classics, like avocado toast with fried kale and red cabbage slaw (add polenta-dusted tofu for $3 extra) and biscuits and mushroom gravy with leeks and an egg served sunny-side up.

Stop in for breakfast from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunch starts at 10:30, making this a prime location for brunch. Plus, its newly received liquor license means you can enjoy a mimosa (or beermosa, if that’s your thing) with your sour cherry French toast.

The light lunch menu is perfect for a quick lunch between meetings or leisurely catch-up with friends, featuring twists on nostalgic favorites like a gouda grilled cheese sandwich, fried bologna sandwich and cheeseburgers served on Field & Fire bread. Also available are a tasty selection of soups and salads.

The coffee connoisseurs will appreciate tasting the familiar Rowsters Coffee alongside their meal (Stephen Curtis is a partner of this newest venture), and your favorite pastries from That Early Bird are also available.

In fact, pastry production moved from the couple’s tiny Eastown kitchen to Littlebird to take advantage of the larger space. Also – don’t miss the house-made sodas and egg creams (note, egg creams don’t actually contain eggs — they’re like a bubbly chocolate milk made with soda water).

Coming soon are happy hour specials and a dinner menu — but as the restaurant just opened November 2017, it’s still settling into its new space.

Littlebird seems to check all the boxes of what Grand Rapidians expect in new restaurants: good coffee, delicious breakfast, locally sourced ingredients, and a welcoming and unpretentious atmosphere. Jump aboard and see for yourself.

Littlebird is located at 95 Monroe Center.

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