“Let’s head over to Wealthy Street. So many great restaurants are popping up in GR,” my friend Emma Gosling said. “There is a lot going on.”
After a long seven hour drive from Pittsburgh, I was in Grand Rapids, MI to attend a friend’s wedding reception. The first item on the weekend agenda was dinner and a nice evening walk with Emma.
The wind whipped through the cabin of Emma’s borrowed Chevy truck as we barreled down the highway toward the city. I threw her a skeptical side glance from the passenger seat. The neighborhood around Wealthy Street struggled economically when I lived in the city nearly ten years ago. At the time, many of the shops along the main business district were vacant and the Wealthy Theater was in desperate need of repair. I was in for a surprise.
We parked several blocks from the restaurant on a side street and began our walk down Wealthy. I immediately realized this was not the same area I remembered. Once boarded up shops now hummed with activity. Joggers buzzed past us along the newly resurfaced sidewalks. There was no Baby Gap or Apple store. A majority of the new businesses were independently owned by young entrepreneurs. I later learned the neighborhood’s growth was no accident; but part of a larger initiative to jump start development through tax incentives and other community programming.
It should be no surprise that a kitchen store – Art of the Table – caught my attention. I found the space charming with its hardwood floors, gizmos galore and a walk-in cooler stacked with six packs of unusual beers.
“You won’t find Coors Light here,” the clerk said as she poured a sample of Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar in a wine glass. They also have a wine section tucked in the back corner of the store. The beer was a deep brown that reminded me of Nutella spread across a graham cracker. Hazelnut became an immediately recognizable flavor upon first taste and then the tiniest notes of honey were all that was left at the end.
With our sample glasses empty, the constant gurgling signaled it was time for a real meal.
A few blocks down from Art of the Table is the Electric Cheetah. The menu is packed with items ranging from small plates, sandwiches, salads and full entrees. There are even sections devoted to classic comforts like macaroni and cheese, and milk and cookies. Such extensive menu offerings can be difficult to navigate because I want to try as many items as my stomach can handle. Thankfully, Emma is a fan of splitting food. “I hate it when people don’t share food. I’m glad you’re not one of those people,” she said while running her index finger down the page.
We began by ordering a locally brewed root beer. Before receiving their liquor license, the restaurant attracted customers by offering specialty root beers. First to arrive was fried green tomatoes. The cornmeal-crusted disks were staggered between sliced red tomatoes and fresh mozzarella cheese. It was a display of beauty that sat on a bed of baby spinach and drizzled with sweet balsamic vinegar. Next was a spring mix salad with quinoa and sliced turkey. The flavor fell flat and didn’t quite live up to the “mountain of fun” description that originally perked our interest. Finally, the Buena Vista Social Club arrived with a mix of russet and sweet potato fries on the side. Stacked between a soft pretzel roll was shaved pork shoulder, rosemary-infused ham, sliced dill pickle and melted Swiss cheese. Stone ground mustard and garlic aioli oozed between the meats as I pressed the bun with both hands. “This is the most incredible sandwich I have ever eaten,” I said. Emma nodded in agreement as she dipped a fry in ketchup.
Still stuffed to the brim, we walked for over an hour around the adjacent Heritage Hill neighborhood before heading back to the truck. Several times along the way our brisk steps slowed to marvel at homes we dreamed of owning someday. I was surprised to find two houses that were designed by Frank Lloyd Wright on our impromptu walking tour. Their prairie-style detailing perfectly restored back to its original glory.
It was too dark to see beyond a few feet in front of us by the time we returned to the truck. I rolled down the window and stuck my hand out to let the cool night air rush between my fingers. “You’re trying to get me to move back here, aren’t you?” I said with a smirk.
She turned to me and smiled. “Like I said, there is a lot going on in Grand Rapids.”