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The Best of Grand Rapids

We took the pulse of the reader, until the reader snatched his and her wrist away. And then we thought about what we liked. What is it - exactly - about Grand Rapids?

It’s the way we meander, and where we pause to look. It’s how we play or rest, where we dine or snack or sit and sip, where we get culture or avoid culture. It’s the very best of what we’ve got.

It’s the scenic drive that ticks off the neighborhood:
You turn left off Bonnell Avenue in East Grand Rapids onto a one-way stretch of unpaved road that winds along Reeds Lake. The lake is glistening to your left. The mansions of the people who wanted to make this a private drive crown the hill to your right. Sometimes it’s great to be one of the unwashed. For additional fun, don’t wash your car either.

It’s the jukebox you don’t mind losing your quarters to:
In the basement of J. Gardella’s at 11 Ionia Ave. SW is a noble machine that stocks vintage Springsteen. And who knew (besides us): Grand Rapids is the home of Rowe International Inc., the No. 1 manufacturer of commercial and home CD jukeboxes.

It’s the noseprint-worthy window:
... with unsurpassed views of Grand Rapids. The city lights twinkle at night from a table at Cygnus, an aerie at the top of the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel.

And the venerable neighborhood bar:
The Pickwick Tavern, 970 Cherry St. SE, has adorned its location for decades. No food. No atmosphere. Just booze. Your grandfather probably drank there. (Mine did.)

It’s the weird and wonderful music …
… at WYCE (88.1 FM on your radio, online). Where the Blind Boys of Alabama, the Tragically Hip, D.J. Spooky and The Waterboys live in harmony.

It’s the pottery and art house films …
… at the 25-year-old Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, the state’s largest multidisciplinary contemporary arts center. Inside the 41 Sheldon Blvd. SE facility, art types can immerse themselves in dance performances, exhibits of various media, poetry slams, music and most all things arty.

It’s the fast food without the guilt or indigestion …
… at local D&W salad bars, each stocked with a mélange of vegetables plus dressings, croutons and a choice of soups. It’s green. It’s fast. It’s cheap. They could slice the cucumbers a shade thinner, but who’s going to quibble?

And your choice of decks.
“The deck at The BOB has a nice ‘big city’ feel to it. And I like to dine on the deck at Rose’s in East GR,” writes Matt Dowdy.

There’s a place to watch fireworks up close:
Lay on your back on the middle mound at Ah-Nab-Awen Park (between Pearl and Bridge streets downtown) during July Fourth or September’s Celebration on the Grand festivities. You can almost feel the sparks touch your face. How appropriate that this 6.5-acre park - once home to an American Indian village - means “resting place.”

There’s an answer to big-box retailing:
Gallery 154, the gift shop of choice at Christmas, when every rafter, every rack and every table is festooned with ornaments. And this aesthetically pleasing shop at 1456 Lake Drive SE is the perfect place to buy a tea set or an ornamental mermaid all the year round. Owners Christine and Ron Lichtenstein represent several local artists and give you a little of their own art in the form of painted brown paper bags that serve as gift wrap.

And there’s a way to pretend you’re cultured when what you really want is to eat:
Grand Rapids’ own Festival of the Arts. Yakitori, souvlaki, walk-around tacos, Swan Lake Cake. Yeah, yeah, yeah, and paintings and performances and artsy fun for the kiddies (who demand a little excitement in the first week of June).

We have a shoe store that serves mutants:
The footwear purveyor of choice for basketball players, aliens and Sasquatch with triple E feet. Van Hoecks Shoes, a fixture at its 95 Monroe Center St. location, will even special order to fit the unwieldy womanfoot and the ungainly manfoot.

We have a coffeehouse that serves atmosphere:
Kava House hunkers down on a little peninsula of Eastown property at 1445 Lake Drive SE and draws students, strollers, suits and sweethearts. Yeah, the coffee’s good, but there’s something else about the place. It’s warm and convivial and filled with the best sort of in-jokes.

And a DJ couple who chatter while breakfast is served:
Ah, Steve and Sabrina, the duo at WSNX 104.5. FM. She’s a little bit gospel. He’s a little bit rock ’n’ roll. The good girl and the evil older brother. Timeless.

Then there’s the great bar burger that isn’t a Cottage Burger:
The olive burger at Teazers, 819 Ottawa Ave. NW. It’s served on a sourdough bun. What else ya need?

And those staircases we love to hate:
The sometimes-too-revealing, open-to-below winders in The BOB and at Grand Rapids Community College’s Applied Technology Center. We see London. We see France.

And the weirdest thing we’ve done lately:
We converted the former Herpolsheimer’s Department Store into the headquarters of the Grand Rapids Police Department. Downside: There’s a motor pool where the Santa Train used to run. Upside: Residents of the Peck building get to see men in uniform 24/7.

And the bartender worth toasting:
A reader says Ben at Z’s. Katie Oquist, the office manager at the 168 Louis Campau Promenade eatery and drinkery, explained why: “He just does a good job. He’s fast. He’s efficient. He flirts.”

And the rinky-dink tradition worth keeping:
The Hollyhock Parade that files down Calvin Avenue on the city’s southeast side every Fourth of July. Kids on bikes, scooters and in wagons; floats; fire engines; bands; politicians in cars; Miss Liberty and Uncle Sam; Popsicles; coffee; cookies. It’s a slice of ’50s Americana.

And the coolest thing named Van Andel:
DAVE! Nah, the arena. That whole curing cancer thing they’re doing at the Institute is really great, too, but you can’t buy tickets to it. (So kidding.)

And those parts of town with brick streets:
“They have so much personality. They’re just so charming,” writes Amy Campbell-Patterson about Ionia Avenue and Eastown.

How to Play Hooky No. 1:
A sandwich at the Schnitz Delicatessen, 1315 E. Fulton St. We recommend the sublime tuna melt: dill, havarti and white albacore on rye. Oy. Walk off your lunch while shopping at the Fulton Street farmers’ market.

How to Play Hooky No. 2:
A leisurely lunch at Charley’s Crab (63 Market Ave. SW) served by the peerless Doug-the-waiter. Dessert? A chocolate martini at Bistro Bella Vita (44 Grandville Ave. SW) with Doug-the-waiter. Charley’s number is 459-2500. Doug’s number is available upon request.

How to Play Hooky No. 3:
Eat wherever you want. Then take an afternoon to count the headless statues (they call them sculptures) at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park. Bonus points for anyone who can explain how "Summer Dances" is more than a funky pair of speaker cabinets.

How to Play Hooky If You’re Obsessed With Your Swing:
Eighteen holes at the Rees Jones-designed Thousand Oaks Golf Club, 4100 Thousand Oaks Drive in Plainfield Township.

We want to be stuck in an elevator with:
Jim Rinck, the cool jerk (and we mean that in a good way) of Grand Rapids politics and the newly anointed president of the school board. Eminently quotable and perennially ornery. Great glasses. And they’d have the elevator fixed before he got really annoying.

What We Love:
** Ultradogs at Yesterdog, 1505 Wealthy St. SE. Don’t try to look up the phone number. They don’t have one.
** The view of the downtown bridges over the Grand River at night.
** Morris Avenue in Heritage Hill.
** People-watching at Blues on the Mall.
** Beer. Specifically, the local availability of great microbrews.

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