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Locals Know Best: Grand Rapids, Michigan

By Liza Weisstuch
July 31, 2017
Grand Rapids, Michigan. Downtown, ArtPrize 2014
Andres Abreu/Dreamstime
There's no better guide to a city than someone who lives there, so we asked Dana Friis-Hansen, Director of Grand Rapids Art Museum, for his suggestions on where to eat, drink, and hang out.

When Dana Friis-Hansen moved to Grand Rapids, one of the things he was immediately smitten with was how each neighborhood was accessible to the rest, yet each of them had a character uniquely its own. It’s a walkable, livable city, yet he hardly runs out of things to explore. As the director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum, Dana is particularly attuned to the art, architecture, and all-around visual allure of the city. We chatted with him about those things as well as where he likes to eat, drink, and hang out when he’s exploring his hometown.

LOCAL COLOR

Heritage Hill’s name says it all. The neighborhood, which is situated about a half-mile from downtown Grand Rapids, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1971. The well-preserved time capsule lined with historically protected Victorian homes, including the Meyer May House built by Frank Lloyd Wright, which Dana says is particularly worthy of seeing. And the appeal is all the more enhanced by the fact that everyone who lives there keeps their property in tip-top shape. 

You can easily switch from past to present with a quick stroll to Downtown, a scenic area cut through by the Grand River and dotted with public parks. There’s been increased attention to development alongside the river, but that hasn’t gotten in the way of the various running trails, biking trails, spots for fishing (yes, urban fishing) and, perhaps most interesting as far as Dana is concerned, lots of public art. He’s quick to call out Calder Plaza, the site of an old and stunning Romanesque-style City Hall that was torn down in the 1960s, much to preservationists’ chagrin. In its place stands a hulking building of glass and steel. To give the area a little pop, though, La Grande Vitesse, a giant red metal sculpture, was constructed outside, but not without opposition from locals. Dana explains that it was the one of the first NEA-funded sculpture in the country and today it’s one of great respect. It’s the city’s symbol and it appears on the city seal, garbage trucks and lots more. “I love telling that story because it shows the triumph of art,” he says. That story and plenty more about other important sculptures are what you’ll likely find if you take advantage of Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affair's free public art app, available on iTunes and the Google Play Store.

EAT YOUR HEART OUT

There’s plenty of art to be found on plates around Grand Rapids these days. The restaurant scene is more vibrant than ever, thanks to creative entrepreneurial chefs as well as longstanding institutions that just can’t seem to stop being fun. Bridge Street, an area on the west side of the river, is in the throes of a full-blown renaissance after being a bit down on its heels for a while. One of the most exciting go-tos these days is Sovengard, a Scandinavian-minded eatery in an old brick building. Dana likes its backyard beer garden and bocce ball courts, not to mention the herb gardens that grow along the walls. And the super-creative cocktails. “It’s how hygge came to Grand Rapids,” he says, referring to the Danish tradition of simplicity and coziness that’s become the trend du jour in America’s hippest neighborhoods. Equally cozy but in a different, more old-school way are the various dive bars on the strip, like the well-worn Anchor Bar

And that’s just one street. Head over to nearby Leonard Street, where you might find Dana at Long Road Distillery, which features a laid-back, rustic-chic gastropub that serves elevated twists on classic American fare as well as the spirits they distill in the next room. Another option is the newer, locally owned Mitten Brewing Co., which dishes out excellent pizzas along with top-rate brews in its taproom, a rejuvenated Victorian era building. And speaking of beer, the area’s beer culture has been booming to such an extent that a lot of the businesses banded together to create the Brewsader Passport, a booklet that you can gets stamped on each visit to the various brewery. Pick one up at the Grand Rapids Art Museum’s Welcome Center, fill it up over the course of several days’ of visits (moderation is key in this challenge, of course,) then bring it back to the museum’s Welcome Center and trade it in for a t-shirt.

Another way to get a true sense of the local scene is a stop at the Fulton Street Food Market, especially in the summer when you can indulge in what could be the area’s most famous delicacy: fresh cherries. While you’re there, stop by the legendary Cheese Lady Store, where the selection is almost as fantastic as the store’s name.

READ: Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon

CULTURE CLUBS

Grand Rapids’ South Division, a longtime commercial corridor, is in the throes of a massive revitalization and it’s all about the arts, what with the arrival of artist studios and funky little shops. In fact, the district has even taken on the name Avenue for the Arts, and during the monthly first Friday, there’s an open studio with local artists’ work, from paintings to leather and wood items on display. The Frederik Meijer Gardens, another stop Dana encourages, blends art and nature in its amazing sculpture park and botanical garden. Plus there’s a five-story tropical conservatory with more exotic plants than you can shake a branch at.

And, of course, Dana has plenty of reasons to endorse his museum. Not least among them is the fact that it’s free all day on Tuesdays and on Thursday nights from 5PM to 9PM. Get it on the right day and you can catch a lecture or a yoga class. And every Thursday night in the summertime they offer free outdoor concerts. Plan to hang out a while and indulge in everything the food trucks and bar have to offer. (Food and drink are for purchase, we regret to inform.) On Sundays in the fall and winter there are classical music concerts. Other fun things to note: museum tours are free with admission and on Saturdays there’s a hands-on open studio for anyone with an urge to unleash their inner artist.  

Speaking of free, there are movies in the park throughout the summer and in the spirit of democracy, the movies are decided on by public vote.

READ: Locals Know Best: Cleveland

TRAVELING WITHIN AND BEYOND THE CITY

The public transportation in Grand Rapids is terrifically easy to navigate and, what’s more, it’s free. DASH is a free shuttle service throughout the downtown area. There’s also the Silver Line, which is more like a trolley. It’s free within designated city limits, but there are routes that will take you far beyond for a small fee. Like so many other cities these days, bike-sharing services are on the rise in Grand Rapids, and if you’re in heading there, take note that the trails beyond the city are an embarrassment of riches. “They say you can get all the way to North Dakota if you’re persistent,” says Dana. For help navigating, the Michigan Trails website has all the nitty gritty details of anywhere you could want to go. One of Dana’s favorite routes is about a 20-mile mostly flat ride from downtown to Rockford, a hub of riverside restaurants that offer food as delightful as the views.

Wanna explore the area beyond the city on four wheels? Head out to the towns around Lake Michigan. like the adjoining Saugatuck and Douglas. They’re Dana’s top picks, not just for the bucolic beaches. Douglas features terrific galleries to wander through and excellent restaurants while neighboring Saugatuck is known for the Saugatuck Center for the Arts, which features regional theater groups and notable musicians.

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Inspiration

Eat Like a Local in Florence

Yep, the guidebooks are packed with restaurant recommendations. And when it comes to traveling in Italy, it's possible to find a lovely meal almost anywhere—from posh hotel dining rooms to tables in a piazza to holes in the wall whose, um, ambience leaves something to be desired. But we especially love the spots where Italians themselves are willing to wait in line for a meal—often off the radar of most visitors. In tourist-trampled Florence, a locals-only secret can be worth its weight in bistecca, so we picked that gorgeous Tuscan gem for the first installment in our Eat Your Way Across Italy series. My favorite expert on all things edible in Italy is Elizabeth Minchilli, author of the bestselling blogs Eat Florence, Eat Rome, and Eat Venice, and of the blog ElizabethMinchilliinRome.com). Here, Minchilli's take on five standout Florentine foodie magnets you must try on your next trip. (And for each restaurant, we've pointed out one or two nearby attractions you shouldn't miss while you're in the neighborhood!) TRATTORIA SOSTANZA Quite possibly the best restaurant in Florence! Via della Porcellana 25 , 39/055-212-691 "This is everyone's favorite restaurant in Florence for good reason," says Minchilli. The place has been in business since 1869, which technically makes it older than the nation of Italy itself (the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, was not complete until 1871), and it has kept its food consistently peerless for decades. "Order one of the massive bistecca alla fiorentina, cooked over an ancient wood-burning stove in the back," says Minchilli. She also suggests you not miss out on the light-as-air artichoke tart—"a miraculous combination of eggs, artichokes, and manual dexterity found nowhere else." While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss: Santa Maria Novella (Piazza Santa Maria Novella), one of Florence's most beautiful churches, featuring a number of important works of art, including a nativity scene by Botticelli, a crucifix by Brunelleschi, and a Madonna by Vasari (who was also the architect for the church's renovation in the mid-16th century). (Madrabothair/Dreamstime) 'INO The go-to for grab-and-go panini Via del Georgofili 3, inofirenze.com Maybe you've heard that Florence is in the midst of a Panini Renaissance? "Alessandro Frasscia of 'Ino is leading the charge," says Minchilli. What's his secret? "First of all, top-notch ingredients like prosciutto di San Daniele, Robiola from Piedmonte, and cherry tomatoes from Sicily. He also special-orders the ciabatte and pane toscano." And the cook leaves plenty of room for creativity on the menu—the specials of the day are written on a chalkboard that keeps locals returning to the tiny panini joint day after day. While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss: 'Ino happens to be right between the imposing Palazzo Vecchio (Piazza della Signoria) and the worth-it tourist magnet Ponte Vecchio, which beckons visitors ready for a hand-in-hand stroll across the Arno—and a photo op. (In a city as old as Florence, it's hard not to find attractions nicknamed vecchio, or "old.") NERBONE Sure, it may look like a food court, but the similarity ends there Counter at the Mercato Centrale (Central Market) There's nothing more local than visiting the bustling Mercato Centrale and bellying up to the counter at Nerbone to peruse the delights on display. "Steaming pans full of zuppa di fagioli (bean soup), peposo (stew), pastas, and vegetables change daily," says Minchilli. If you're in the mood for a mind-blowing sandwich, hit the other end of the counter, where you'll find tripe and porchetta waiting to be stuffed into crusty bread. "Fridays are fun, because seafood shows up on the menu in the form of bacala and squid," Minchilli suggests. It may be the highest quality casual dining you've ever experienced. "Help yourself to a tray and then point and pay. You can eat at one of the tables that line the wall." While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss: The Medici Chapel (Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini, 6) was designed by Michelangelo in the 1520s and holds two of his most revered sculptures, known as "Night and Day" and "Dawn and Dusk." The Medici family, of course, used their staggering personal fortune to commission the finest Florentine artist of their time to design a shrine to—who else?—themselves. TRATTORIA MARIO Packed and noisy—because people can't get enough of its bistecca Via Rosino 2, trattoriamario.com Okay, this eatery isn't exactly a secret—you'll likely have to wait for a seat, and you'll be packed in there with plenty of other folks who've heard of this place. Tables are so close together even a New Yorker may yearn for elbow room, and lines can be long. But there's a good explanation for why we keep filling the tables at Mario's. "People put up with it for one good reason: the food," says Minchilli. What to order? "Mario's has one of the best bistecca alla fiorentina's in town." While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss: Accademia Gallery (Via Ricasoli, 66). Two words: Michelangelo's "David." And on the same street, drop by... GELATERIA CARABÉ Gelato you'll dream about Via Ricasoli, 60, gelatocarabe.com Ready for some of the best gelato in a gelato-crazed town? Head for the Sicilian gelato shop Carabé after any meal—or when you feel like treating yourself to the ultimate sweet treat between museum visits. "They are at their best playing with Sicily's traditional ingredients, like almonds from Noto and pistachios from Bronte," says Minchilli. One of their specialties is a riff on Neopolitan ricotta cake (pastiera), traditionally made for Easter. Here, the cheesecake concept morphs into a rich, creamy ricotta-based scoop that's studded with chunks of candied orange peel and citron. "They are also very well-known for their granitas—no surprise there!—and many die-hard southern Italians stop by for their breakfast granita made from almonds, black mulberries, or lemons." (Vvoevale/Dreamstime)While you're in the neighborhood, don't miss: Stroll south on Via Ricasoli with your gelato and head for the big dome—the iconic church of Santa Maria del Fiore, which, of course, everybody just calls "the Duomo," and its accompanying tower, baptistery, and museum.

Inspiration

Confessions of a Sommelier

Guillem Kerambrun, beverage director of the New York City bistro Benoit by Alain Ducasse, uncorks wine-ordering tips, secrets of the trade, and advice for nabbing yourself a bargain bottle. Q: How did you first get interested in wine? A: Even as a little boy in France, I was paying atten­tion to beverages. There was an orange juice I didn't like and another I did like because it was balanced, not too sweet, and had some pulp. My father, a true epicurean, instilled my love of wine. When I was 15, a profes­sor at hotel management school helped me hone my knowledge and skills. Q: What are the perfect food and wine pairings? A: There is no perfect food and wine pairing. Some diners like to accentuate the acidi­ty or bitterness, while others like to balance the two. The role of the sommelier is to find the bottle that will speak to everyone's palate at the table. We have to cap­ture the moment while taking everyone's tastes and moods into account because, just like coffee, we don't always want the same thing.READ: "Eat and Drink Your Way Through Louisville's Urban Bourbon Trail" Q: What great wines do you drink at home? A: I don't regularly drink premier grands cru classés, but instead I try to select something new at my local wine shop. It's part of continuing to learn. Q: What are some unexpected challenges in your line of work? A: When I'm invit­ed to a private dinner, the hosts are sometimes overly stressed about whether the wines they are pouring will impress me. I always let them know that I'm not always drink­ing wine as a profession­al. I sometimes like to dis­connect and enjoy wine in a leisurely manner. Q: Some people are very nervous about ordering wine. Any tips? A: People with lim­ited wine knowl­edge can start by telling me what they like to drink at home, and their price range. Anoth­er factor is whether the context of the meal is to impress, with an unbeat­able Bordeaux like Pessac-Léognan or Pierre Seillan's Vérité Sonoma wines, or in leisure mode with friends looking to discover small "star" wines like a Riesling from the Finger Lakes or a Provençal rosé.READ: "13 Amazing American Food Festivals" Q: Do you have a favorite cheap wine? A: One always compares the quality of the drinking experience to the price. I won't name names for fear that my supplier will increase prices with the next vintage, but there are some affordable and superb côtes du rhône wines that I'm really enjoying, one of which I will offer by the glass at Benoit next month.

Inspiration

Celebrate the 4th of July in One of the Coolest Small Towns in America

#1 ASBURY PARK, NEW JERSEYFireworks over the beach and boardwalk. If you want to witness the fireworks “hailin’ over Little Eden,” that Bruce Springsteen commemorated in his classic song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” book your spot at the historic Paramount Theater’s fireworks viewing party overlooking the beach. Asbury Park is an easy road trip from New York or Philadelphia, and we named the Jersey Shore town the “Coolest” in America 2017 for its revitalized Boardwalk; great shopping, dining, contemporary art, and views of one of the East Coast’s most beautiful beaches; and its welcoming, diverse vibe and LGBTQ-friendly legacy. #2 BISBEE, ARIZONASouthwestern art, history, and quirkiness. Two words: coaster races. Bisbee celebrates American Independence with its own quirky tradition, with mini-race-cars coasting down its main drag. After that, the town gets more traditional with an old-timey parade and fireworks display. Bisbee is a cool road trip from Tucson. It’s an awesome cross between a 19th-century copper-mining town and a hip artist colony. Bisbee’s narrow streets evoke the Old West, with some of the best vintage architecture in the U.S., but the town’s vibe is decidedly contemporary, with galleries, craft beer, art walks, funky boutiques, and an aesthetic that happily embraces the word “weird.” #3 NEVADA CITY, CALIFORNIACounty-wide celebrations, including an all-day fair. An all-day fair, a parade featuring vintage cars, and evening fireworks are on tap all around Nevada City, a cool road trip from San Francisco Bay Area or Sacramento. Nevada City may be a little off the beaten path (60 miles northeast of Sacramento, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains), but residents value the Gold Country town for its music and art scene, food, and proximity to some of California's amazing rivers, lakes, and the Sierras. For live music, locals swear by the Miners Foundry. For a Sundance feel without the hordes, savor the Wild and Scenic Film Festival. And if you're hankering for a pro cycling race and don't plan on dropping in on the Tour de France anytime soon, hightail it to the Nevada City Classic.

Inspiration

Luxe-for-Less Lodging: Hotel RL Wants to Entertain You

It’s probably the best worst-kept secret in Hollywood—and the music industry, too: overhaul your look and people will notice you all over again. Some might even say that an image makeover generates more attention than a flawless performance. It seems that the RLH Corporation is borrowing a page from show business’s playbook—in more ways than one, in fact--with the introduction of Hotel RL, a hipper and edgier take on the familiar hotel chain. The first of these slick new boutique hotels opened in Baltimore last year and other ones have since popped up in Brooklyn, Spokane, Salt Lake City, Omaha, and more. Designed with a mind towards community and socializing, each hotel’s airy, colorful lobby has a performance stage (more on that in a second) and food and coffee purveyors. As far as Bill Linehan, CMO of the RLH Corporation who helped design the concept, sees it, this is where boutique hotels haven’t dared go before. “Boutique hotels are increasingly prevalent and, more and more, that means a focus on design, high-design. I don’t think that’s necessarily the millennial mindset,” he said. “As a company, we’re focused on being conversation-friendly and more relevant. There’s a creative mindset that exists within the millennial population, so it's important to come up with a lobby concept that’s different.” READ: "These Unique Hotels Transform Travel" The result? The Living Stage, which gives the hotel lobby not just a chill, artsy coffee house vibe, but a connection to the local community.  The performance space hosts musicians, speakers, artists, and a variety of other creative types, each from the resident city. And it’s not just about entertainment. In Omaha, a mayoral candidate held his election night event at the city's Living Stage. There was a Black Lives Matter event at Hotel RL Baltimore Inner Harbor. And TED Talks-style events happen all around. Each hotel provides its Living Stage schedule in each guestroom. “With technology these days, all you need to do is walk up to the front desk and summon someone who’ll look up and give you the key,” said Linehan. "We want to make the lobby more activated and energetic, more of an authentic place than a space where you stand in line to get a key." READ: "Oops! How Not to Embarrass Yourself in a Foreign Country" But that’s not all. Each Hotel RL showcases its own local installment of Project Wake Up Call, which features local photographers’ shots of the city, and not always the glamorous aspects. In fact, part of the goal of the Project is to bring attention to each area’s homeless blight. Photographs are auctioned off and donated to each hotel’s chosen local charity.  "Hotels have very much have lost their way on being part of the community,” said Linehan. “There are just so many opportunities for locals to project their creativity as well as advocacy, awareness, and innovation. We want to be a community’s stage.” 

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