Where is the best place in Grand Rapids for brunch, happy hour or a walk in the park? What about for child care, veterinary services or to buy men’s and women’s clothing? For the 17th year, we asked our readers to tell us their favorite spots for food and drinks, entertainment and experiences, shopping and a plethora of services in the city. In over 100 categories, you shared your favorite people and places — all of which help make this city a unique and thriving place.
As Grand Rapids continues to grow, we love seeing the changes from year to year. You’ll notice some businesses and people have retained their titles as “the best” from last year to this year, while others jumped to the top of the heap and some newcomers found their spot on the list for the first time.
Check out our winners and runners up in the following pages, as well as a handful of staff picks that we are excited to share with you. We’d love to hear your thoughts on this year’s winners: use #bestofgr on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
By Rachel Matuszewski, Amelia Pasqualone and Charlsie Dewey // Photography by Angela Ciccu
With restaurants, artisan cafes and specialty shops springing up at every corner, it can be tedious to sift through the options. So, we asked the best in the business — That’s You! — To select the best of 2020’s culinary scene.
The Best: Stella’s Lounge www.stellasgr.com
Brewery Vivant www.breweryvivant.com
The Cottage Bar & Restaurant (tie)
The Best: Founders Brewing Co. www.foundersbrewing.com
Brewery Vivant www.breweryvivant.com
New Holland Brewing – The Knickerbocker www.newhollandbrew.com and
Perrin Brewing Co. (tie)
Best Butcher Shop
There’s got to be something special about a butcher shop that boasts the name, “Home of the Free Butt Rub,” and there is! Sobie Meats, at 3450 Remembrance Road NW in Walker, has gained national recognition for its slogan, along with its customer service, secret recipes and fresh, local meats.
Owner and founder Tim Sobie has a passion for butchering, though his contagious laugh and bubbly personality wouldn’t suggest he holds such a title.
“Because of our wide selection of products, whether it’s homemade sausages or fresh meat, people always seem to come back,” Sobie said. With motivation and quality products that are second to none, you can expect to see Sobie Meats make even more headlines in the future.
Best Avocado toast
The food of millennials, avocado toast has become all the rage — and even induced rage — in the past year. You can find it on most café menus, and while we haven’t tried them all, yet, the best we’ve found so far is at Field and Fire Café, 820 Monroe Ave. NW.
Field and Fire’s Avocado Mash offers up mashed avocado on sunflower flax toast. For $2 extra, you can add egg or roasted mushrooms. This is the perfect light breakfast or fuel-up snack.
Underground Cookie Club originated in Reno, Nevada, when Alan Stone decided to join the food truck ranks after 15 years in the restaurant business. Known for bringing cookies into work frequently, Stone hadn’t considered adding ice cream to the recipe until he made the move to Grand Rapids. He started the business as a self-funded venture with no budget set aside for the company. As business picked up, UCC found a home in a former Kentwood sandwich shop, at 5422 S. Division Ave.
With 20 varieties of ice cream sandwiches to choose from, there is a treat for everyone, including dairy-free or vegan customers. The most popular combinations include its signature Chubby Unicorn, a rainbow sugar cookie with superman ice cream rolled in Fruity Pebbles; the mint and brownie Yodarific; and the classic combination of chocolate and peanut butter that makes up the Elliot. Coming Jan. 11 to celebrate UCC’s first anniversary,
the menu is expanding to include artisan ice cream bars, Boba drinks made in shop, and Planet Pops, the proceeds from which will be donated to charity.
UCC also has limited-edition ice cream sandwiches that add to its unique dessert repertoire, with themes from “The Avengers,” “Sandlot” and holiday-inspired flavors.
“Everything we do involves pop culture to some degree, whether that is the trash can and counter made from old VHS tapes or having all of our sandwiches named for different fun elements from various fandoms. It also helps that our ice cream sandwiches have a unique flavor that you are not going to find anywhere else,” Stone said.
Best Vegan/Vegetarian Menu
If you’re looking for fresh ingredients, locally sourced goods and one of the best vegan pizzas, Brick Road Pizza Co., 1017 Wealthy St. SE, is your best bet. Not only does Brick Road boast pizza made with tofu — yes, you heard right, tofu — it also offers vegan sandwiches and a variety of gluten-free options.
Its vegan menu is ever-expanding as its chefs are constantly thinking of innovative ways to create new dishes to appeal to all restaurantgoers. It’s the perfect spot for big groups that want a shared experience in which everyone can enjoy what they’re eating, whether it’s tofu or turkey. Clean eating and modernization of classics are what sets Brick Road Pizza apart from your go-to pizza chain.
Best Date Night Restaurant
If you’re looking for a table for two, Butcher’s Union, 438 Bridge St., is the place. With its outdoor patio covered in greenery and its interior a balance of dark wood and candlelit centerpieces, the space is adaptable for any season.
The menu is catered toward dining together with shareable options offering something for everyone’s palette. Its meats and fish entreés uphold the restaurant’s name, as do its sandwiches packed with red meat, poultry and fish.
As a member of “Beer City, USA,” the drinks do not disappoint either. You’ll find several specialty alcoholic beverages and an extensive list of whiskey. Butcher’s Union hasn’t forgotten about breakfast lovers either, providing an array of morning favorites and cocktails on its Sunday brunch menu.
“Butcher’s Union has a classic big-city vibe while maintaining a cozy and inviting atmosphere. With warm tones and tons of attention to detail, it’s a space that once inside, you truly lose yourself to the experience,” Butcher’s Union designer David Dodde said.
A sister company to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket Bakery opened in 2005 at 615 Lyon St. NE and has been growing its team of bakers and pastry chefs ever since. Its shelves house a variety of quality artisan breads, pastries and delicious desserts.
But its specialty lies in its most popular offering, San Francisco sourdough bread, with a chewy golden crust and tang. Its City Loaf Sourdough is the longest fermented. The cranberry walnut is another honorable mention worth a try. Popular pastries include almond scones, granola bars, Nutella muffins and anything made with croissant dough. The cake department has flourished over the last 14 years with favorites Strawberries n’ Cream Torte and the Salted Carmel Torte.
With every carefully constructed recipe, the team keeps its vegan customers in mind. In fact, almost all of its breads are vegan, thanks to minimal ingredients of water, flour, salt and sour culture. It even serves a vegan fruit pie for special orders. “Every day, we offer vegan muffins and cookies, as well as a few packaged granola bars, which are great for grabbing on the go,” said Kelly Lewis, retail manager.
Customers also are greeted by the shop’s inviting team of employees and their commitment to serving to the best of their ability.
“Seven days a week, from early morning and into the night, our knowledgeable and friendly staff is welcoming customers with a special personal touch. We’re like family,” Lewis said.
Whether we’re concert-hopping, or taking a seat in the stands at a pro sporting event, we want nothing more than to be entertained. Discover the events, activities, and notable people engaging city dwellers on the daily.
PLACES TO GO DANCING
The Best: Eve Nightclub at the B.O.B. www.thebob.com/evenightclub
Rumors Night Club www.rumorsnightclub.net
Grand Rapids Original Swing Society at Rosa Parks Circle www.grandrapidsoriginalswing.com Ah Nab Awen Park www.grandrapidsmi.gov
Meteorologist Bill Steffen said his perfect weather day is “the forecast I get right.” Steffen has been forecasting the weather in Grand Rapids for 45 years; he celebrated that milestone this past November.
While he always has been obsessed with weather — “I’ve been a weather geek since I was 3 years old. My mother said I was glued to the window watching thunderstorms and watching the snow come down. It’s something I’ve always loved.” — it was a radio station job that helped set him on his path to meteorology.
While working at WNTH in Illinois in 1968, he was tapped to fill in covering sports. He was having so much fun that he decided to combine his two passions. Steffen spent five years at the University of Wisconsin, earning degrees in physical geography and atmospheric science.
His first job offer came from WZZM in Grand Rapids. “I started doing the morning shift at WZZM for $175 per week, working six days a week,” he said. While he originally planned to parlay his experience into larger markets, Steffen said he realized longevity for meteorologists came from sticking around and getting involved in the community. So, that’s what he’s done. Over the course of his career, he said he’s probably done 2,000 speeches and appearances.
He eventually moved to his current home at WOOD TV.
Steffen said several big weather events stand out. “I remember them all. The blizzard of 1978, I remember well,” he said. “I was at the station three days without leaving the building. I was a little wrinkled by day three. We had 15 inches of snow in 15 hours, 40-plus mile an hour winds that blew the snow into drifts as high as 14 feet and everything came to a standstill, it really did.”
Reflecting on the past 45 years, Steffen said the biggest change is technology. “When I first started, we did a two-day forecast; now we do an eight-day forecast. When I first started, we had a map with a piece of plexiglass over it. I wrote on it with magic markers. It took 10 seconds and a bottle of Windex to erase the map and start over again. Nowadays, you are generating multiple graphics, 20-25 graphics over the course of a two-hour stretch … and a lot of times, it’s hard to keep up. You are flying to get from one platform to another.”
Best Open Mic
Open mic nights usually provide a place for artists to try out new material, give performers local recognition and offer a place for guests to enjoy some local music. However, once in a while, an open mic night evolves into much more than that. The Drunken Retort at Stella’s Lounge, 53 Commerce Ave. SW in the heart of Grand Rapids, has been evolving into a performing artist’s dream ever since its start almost seven years ago.
“What began as a nightlife event supported by bar sales and rooted in over-the-top entertainment is now a diverse community haven, a church for poets, storytellers and musicians as well as those who come just to soak it all in,” said Rachel Gleason, one of three hosts of The Drunken Retort.
Marcel “Fable the Poet” Price and G. Foster II also host this unique experience. For newcomers and return listeners alike, The Drunken Retort is an open mic like no other.
The Drunken Retort takes place at 8 p.m. every Monday.
Best Local Concert Series
With several new music venues, Grand Rapids is seeing an influx of talent visiting the city, but GR is not just a place for big-name acts. You can catch a lot of great local shows during the year, and one of the best places in town to do so is at the Grand Rapids Public Museum’s Concerts Under the Stars.
Located in the museum’s Roger B. Chaffee Planetarium, Concerts Under the Stars is an intimate musical affair that also highlights the work of audiovisual artists on the planetarium dome. Lean back and enjoy the show.
A close second is the Grand Rapids Public Library’s Music in the Stacks series, which brings musicians to the library to perform. You’ll feel a bit of the rebel as you listen to bands play in what has otherwise always been a “quiet space.”
LaFontsee Galleries has been a staple in West Michigan for over 30 years. Owners Scott and Linda LaFontsee pride themselves on their gallery, at 833 Lake Drive SE, and have turned this space into a place where artists and community members alike can share their appreciation and love for art without fear of judgment.
LaFontsee Galleries represents more than 70 artists and provides services for art lovers, including framing, installation, digital photo restoration and more. It also contributes to nonprofits and participates in community events, working with Gilda’s Club, God’s Kitchen and many more organizations giving back to the community. As an indispensable part of Grand Rapids’ roots, LaFontsee Galleries has made quite the impression on West Michigan.
Best Drag Show
Michigan Drag Brunch has made getting out of bed on the weekends a lot more fun. Catch some of West Michigan’s best drag queens performing at different restaurants every Sunday. The shows have been so popular in West Michigan, the team behind Drag Brunch has expanded to offer shows on the state’s east side, as well. Grab your tickets early — many of these shows sell out.
Best Escape Room
The Ruse Escape Room, 25 S. Division Ave., took over a remodeled 120-year-old building in the summer of 2017 thanks to three friends from Mount Pleasant. Unlike many chain escape rooms, The Ruse offers a custom and unique space with original stories and annual room changes.
The design and room themes offer time for bonding and to create memories you’ll laugh about for weeks to come. The Ruse currently houses three indoor escape rooms that accommodate eight people per room. Its newest edition, Outdoor Escape, puts guests in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids and accepts a total of 120 people, who are separated into 12 groups of 10 guests.
The Ruse also offers a chance for employee bonding by partnering with professional leadership development coaches who supervise a company’s escape experience and discuss the results. This encompasses enhancing communication skills, decision-making and conflict solutions, and learning more about
“No matter the theme or group size, the concept is that it cannot be done alone — you need a team,” owner Bill Wiegandt said. “The best teams have a diverse set of skills and work together using different senses and types of intelligence to work through challenges that contribute to a final goal, which is not always just to escape the room.”
Best College Bar/Hangout
Whether you go to GRCC, GVSU or any college in between, the bar scene in Grand Rapids is definitely one to write home about. However, one stands out as the front-runner for college students alike. The Tin Can, 206 Grandville Ave. SW, is a staple for 20-somethings to hang out, play beer pong, darts and much more.
If you’re in the mood for a shot that tastes like your favorite childhood candy, this is the place to go. The music is picked by bargoers, the chalkboard wall offers endless fun and did someone say giant Jenga? With countless activities and a welcoming atmosphere, you can’t go wrong with avoiding your studies to hang out here.
COMIC BOOK STORE
The Best: Vault of Midnight www.vaultofmidnight.com
Tardy’s Collectors Corner www.tardys.com
Argos Book Shop
Rookies Sportcards Plus (tie)
Best Jewelry Store
DeVries Jewelers, 411 Leonard St. NW, has been helping Grand Rapidians mark special occasions for nearly 120 years. The shop opened its doors in 1901, starting with current owner Dan DeVries’ great-grandfather. It now sells dozens of styles from local designers to help its customers accessorize.
“Our top designers probably aren’t going to ring a bell with a lot of people,” DeVries said. “We search out local family companies. We search out those types of designers where you’re not paying big dollar. I get more unique product at a better price.”
Frederic Sage, a small New York-based company, has been a top seller for bridal and fashion rings. DeVries said women are particularly drawn to the classic, stackable wedding band this season, as well.
For men, DeVries has a variety of watches from small companies, including Oris — which supplies the most watch business — Seiko and Ernst Benz. Customers can find popular pre-owned brands, such as Rolex, at a lower price, keeping the shop affordable to all.
DeVries also offers on-site repair.
“All of the repair work, the sizing, any type of work is done in the store. It’s a trust thing. People like to know that they can bring it in here, get it repaired here and it doesn’t leave the store,” DeVries said.
From florists and dressmakers to fitness trainers and hairstylists, the professionals that offer their services in Grand Rapids continue to impress. Particularly, this year’s winners prove time and time again how valuable each of their chosen expertise is.
The Best: Community Automotive www.communityautomotive.com
Westside Garage www.westsidegarage.net
Veenstra’s Garage www.veenstrasgarage.com
and Cascade Automotive Service (tie) www.cascadeautoservice.com
CHILD CARE PROVIDER
The Best: Milestones Child Development Center www.milestonescdc.com
Appletree & Gilden Woods Early Care and Preschool www.appletreekids.cc
Explore and Grow Christian Learning Center www.exploreandgrow.org
The Best: Novo Chiropractic Sports & Wellness Centers www.novochiropractic.com
Kooistra Chiropractic Sports & Wellness Center www.kooistrachiropractic.com
The Best: Design 1 Salon Spa www.design1.com
The Spa and Salon at the Amway
Grand Plaza www.amwaygrand.com
Skin Renewal Center (Dermatology Associates of West Michigan) www.myskindoctors.com
The Best: Dr. Rebecca Jansen of Dermatology Associates of West Michigan
Dr. Richard Ashack of Dermatology Associates of West Michigan www.myskindoctors.com
Dr. Marek A. Stawiski of M.A. Stawiski
DOGGIE DAY CARE/PET BOARDING
The Best: Family Friends Veterinary Hospital www.familyfriendsvet.com and Whiskers Resort & Pet Spa (tie) www.whiskerspetresort.com
Animal Medical Center of Wyoming www.amcwyoming.com
The Best: Bradley Bengtson, M.D., of Bengtson Center for Aesthetics & Plastic Surgery www.bengtsoncenter.com
Steven Ringler, M.D., of Center for Aesthetics and Plastic Surgery www.stevenringlermd.com
William T. Cullen, M.D., of Elite Plastic Surgery www.eliteplasticsurgerygr.com
Best Men’s Fashion
Since 1980, Fitzgerald’s Men’s Store, 1894 Breton Road SE, has been serving the men of Grand Rapids with the hottest fashions. “Since the early days, we have always been known for bringing new designers to western Michigan. We were the first to introduce Ralph Lauren and Joseph Abboud, to mention a few. We were the first to carry Tommy Bahama,” said Jerry Girod, co-owner of Fitzgerald’s. “We are still known for that today. We are always searching to find talented designers to offer at Fitzgerald’s. Each season, we are proud to bring exciting new lines to our customers.”
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, Fitzgerald’s continues to outfit men “from beach, to board room, to black tie.” The store doesn’t stop there; it also offers tailoring and shoeshine services, and an in-house barbershop.
“We make our customers confident,” Girod said. “Confident in the knowledge they look great. Confident they are dressed appropriately for every situation. When one is confident in his appearance, his attitude is better, easier. He approaches life from a better point of view.”
Tailoring its services to the individual, Fitzgerald’s incorporates color and texture to make sure a customer’s personality comes through. “We work diligently to provide exciting, appropriate looks for every customer,” Girod said.
Best Day Spa/Hair Salon/Mani-Pedi
Nearly four decades ago, Design 1 opened its doors with just the bare bones: a few salon chairs, one skincare room, one nail table and one stylist. It didn’t take long for the business to grow from there. Each couple of years brought more tables, bigger spaces and all the spa necessities you could think of — not to mention there are now five Design 1 locations across West Michigan.
Design 1’s philosophy of exceeding the expectations of clients and newcomers alike has set it apart from the competition. The team prides itself on looking its best, working together and, above all, respecting its clients and teammates.
Best Rooftop Bars
If you are looking for a view of the city while you dine, you can’t beat Haute at New Hotel Mertens. The rooftop lounge is located on the ninth floor of the 35 Oakes St. SW building that also is home to the restaurant.
The space offers an elegant, intimate vibe with soft seating in a variety of arrangements. The space is perfect for a romantic night or gathering with a group of friends.
Offering seafood platters, charcuterie and cheese boards, and more, as well as a selection of cocktails, this is the place to go before or after dinner in the New Hotel Mertens dining room.
If you are looking for a more laid-back vibe, you’ll want to head to The Friesian Gastro Pub, 720 Michigan St. NE, where you can score a seat on the rooftop patio that overlooks the surrounding neighborhood. This spot is more like what you might find in one of Chicago’s trendy neighborhoods and is reminiscent of hanging out on a friend’s balcony or deck.
Order from The Friesian’s selection of comfort foods and craft beer and cocktails to complete the night.
Another option is the Amway Grand Plaza’s new second-floor balcony bar I Don’t Care, or IDC, which was named in response to the popular question, “Where do you want to go for drinks?” and the common response, “I don’t care.”
Head to this spot for a swanky ’70s feel — a mural depicting Donna Summer and a sharable cocktail called Party in a Bowl that arrives in a Disco Ball complete the Studio 54 vibe. The balcony is open year-round, so don’t let winter deter you. You’ll need to score the four-digit password to get into this location.
Family Friends Veterinary Hospital knows its customers’ love for their pets goes beyond man’s best friend; they are part of the family. The veterinary hospital was founded in 2007 by Dr. Randy Carpenter, with a vision of a “family-oriented clinic to provide exceptional veterinary services to the Grand Rapids area.”
Family Friends, 6555 28th St. SE, offers a variety of medical services at the hospital, providing for animals with wellness exams, microchipping, medication, pain management, dental care, diagnostic tests, surgery, emergency services, nutritional counseling, radiology and reproduction services.
Family Friends also offers rehabilitation services, including laser and acupuncture services.
It’s also a top choice for owners looking for day care and boarding options. Family Friends offers a webcam that lets owners check in on their pets. Pets are kept busy with social time and dog toys that hold up to the strongest chewers.
“We approach every client as if they are a part of our family with the hope of exceeding their expectations at every visit,” said Jason Sutphen, managing director of Family Friends Veterinary Hospital.