Beer City, USA. That's what everyone kept calling it as we bumped into friends and family, inching our way closer to Michigan and its second largest city: Grand Rapids. As we pulled into Ionia State Recreation Area after a 6-hour drive from Indianapolis, we were ready for a drink.
What we didn't anticipate is just how shiny, new and buttoned-up downtown Grand Rapids would feel. As we parked our road-weary Suburban outside of Madcap Coffee, a ritzy downtown coffee shop that serves pour-over coffee in leather-wrapped glass beakers and blares Beyonce loud and proud, we felt slightly under dressed and a little intimidated by our new surroundings. It seemed as though everyone in their slim-fitting suits and skinny jeans was staring at my hand-cut denim shorts, too-worn tennies and adult backpack with something much less than admiration. I'd imagined a city brimming with beer, decidedly blue collar. Instead, Grand Rapids greeted us with new restaurants, modern high rises, art museums and bourgeois bars.
The unexpected introduction left us a little off-balance, but we regained our composure, determined to test the bar scene, whether we were aptly dressed for the part or not. We called in reinforcements, Paul and Sally, two friends from grad school who'd moved to Grand Rapids and were ready to guide us through the best bars & breweries in the Beer City.
Grand Rapids Brewing Co.
Arguably the most notable brewery in all of Beer City, Grand Rapids Brewing Co. has been at the beer game for a long time. Since 1893, to be exact. A culmination of 6 local breweries, GRBC is a local favorite in the downtown scene for many reasons, the chief being their beers and business model. Sustainability is at the heart of the company, and their downtown location features reclaimed wood + materials, locally-sourced art and decor and according to their website, composting and recycling program diverts 90% of their waste. Did we mention you can also grab some pretty tasty pub food, too?
Grand Rapids Downtown Market + Aperitivo
I love a city with a city market, and Grand Rapids' downtown market does not disappoint. The food hall is brimming with local food talent and a variety of tasty dishes from pizza to sushi. We landed at Aperitivo for happy hour and enjoyed a top notch wine selection on their outdoor patio. Okay, Carson also got a $2 Hamms. If I hadn't already filled up on sushi, I'd have easily eaten up any one of their cheese plates or apps, too.
Okay, yes, HopCat is a chain. But if you're familiar with this craft-beer-loving bar / restaurant, then you know each one operates like it's local. This was our first-ever experience in a HopCat, and we enjoyed the extra large selection of local brews on tap. Plus, this location was voted one of the best brewpubs in the U.S. by RateBeer.com. So we're not the only ones that loved the location and selection.
Brewery Vivant has a lot of things going for it, the first being its slightly off-kilter digs: the brewpub is in a refurbished funeral home. It sounds weird, but stick with it because it feels more like a monastery and less like a, well, funeral home. That's intentional because unlike other breweries in the area, Vivant specializes in Belgian and French-inspired brews. If location is everything, then I'd say Brewery Vivant has it pretty good. The brewery sits squarely in the hip East Hills neighborhood, which means it's within walking distance of Marie Catrib's, home of mile-high sandwiches and Marie's potatoes. Trust us, once you visit both in one day, you'll begin to wonder why you haven't been to Grand Rapids before. Oh, and did we mention the beers are amazing?
Full disclosure: we tried to get a drink here, but it was so busy we had to move on. But I get it: a cool 80's-inspired arcade bar is pretty much a millenial's dream. If you can nab a bar stool and stick around a while, try one of Stella's 250+ selection of whiskeys. And if you get a little tipsy, try their award-winning burgers while you play a round of Pac Man. That pretty much always does the trick.
If high-end hand-crafted cocktails are your thing, then don't miss Sidebar, a new prohibition-style lounge serving seasonal favorites in a quiet atmosphere. This cocktail bar is tiny, but somehow its size is more intimate than annoying. There's usually just one bartender on duty, and it's fun to watch them individually prepare your drink with extra care and artistry. At an average price of $10-$12, this is decidedly not a place for a rowdy night out on the town. But if you want a great cocktail at a place where you can hold a conversation without competing over the music or TV, this is your spot.
Founders Brewing Co.
We'd enjoyed Founders' All Day IPA many times before we set foot in Grand Rapids, so it was a delightful surprise to learn that the brewery has been a GR staple since 1997. We didn't get a chance to visit in-person -- there was just too much other good stuff to try! But we hear the food is fantastic and that the beer hall and outdoor patio are a favorite among locals. There's always next time, right?
Lantern Coffee House
Okay, this isn't a bar. But as two people who have to work on the road, a lot, we are in constant search of a coffee house where you can really hunker down and get work done. Loft-like is the perfect description for the vibe at Lantern Coffee. You order "upstairs" before descending a few steps down into the main work area. There's tons of tables and old-style desks, great coffee and super reliable wifi. We spent a good 8 hours here one day and never tired of it. If that's not a good sign for a coffee shop, then I don't know what is.