Life in Grand Rapids is on the upswing. Despite the economic woes felt all over Michigan, there is an energy constantly buzzing in Gerald Ford's hometown. The city's Van Andel Arena has been named the Top Venue in 2011 by publications such as Billboard and Pollstar, and the arena's lineup this past year—which included Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift—reflects that accomplishment. The city's Medical Mile district has recently completed such dynamic projects as the Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, the Michigan State University Secchia Medical School, and the second phase expansion of the Van Andel Institute.
Downtown Grand Rapids' New Year's Eve celebration started the year off with spectacular ball-drop festivities, outdoor concerts and parties at the three major hotels, filling their rooms to capacity. Gilda's Club Grand Rapids introduced the highly successful Laughfest in the spring that lured Betty White, Margaret Cho and Bill Cosby to the ten-day "laugh" festival. The summer kept the city abuzz with citywide festivals, outdoor concerts in Rosa Parks Circle, and annual events such as the Founders Beer Fest and the City Lights Music Festival.
The Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts finally moved to its new home on the corner of Fulton and Division, the geographic center of the city. This labor of love from the arts community is a tribute to Michigan's largest contemporary arts center. A theater, artist studios, a rooftop sculpture terrace (opening in 2012) and 4,000-square-foot gallery space scattered throughout the building occupy this wonderful downtown addition.
The calendar year in Grand Rapids might as well start in September, as ArtPrize continues to be the most impactful event that is driving the city's lifestyle engine. Forget the fact that planning an art festival with 2,000 artists from around the globe takes a year-long effort, but it seems that all new restaurant openings revolve around the beginning of ArtPrize.
Such is the case with the opening of the much-anticipated Ruth's Chris Steak House in the former home of the celebrated 1913 Room inside the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. It seemed sacrilegious to close a restaurant institution in the city, but the moment I stepped into the modern and ultra-plush surroundings of the Ruth's Chris in September, the hotel's justification for a new restaurant became very evident. The days of formal dining and jacket-and-tie requirements are gone. The general public's definition of a luxurious dining experience is less focused on the attire, bringing the actual atmosphere, food and service to the forefront. The price at Ruth's Chris doesn't change whether you are in shorts after a round of golf or decked out in a tuxedo.
Wendell Gooch of Gooch Design in Chicago deserves the credit for creating a space that is warm, yet steakhouse-stylish. The black, red and white theme in the banquettes and beautiful leather chairs evoke a clubhouse atmosphere. But what truly impressed me as I wandered through the space is how Gooch designed an entire dining room that doesn't have a bad seating area. In fact, the table closest to the kitchen enclave, normally the worst table, is one of the most desirable tables, given that a floor-to-ceiling wine wall borders it. I have no doubt that the Ruth's Chris Steak House will be around for quite some time.
Down the street from the Amway Grand is the new eco-friendly, 28-room CityFlats Hotel and its casual eatery CitySen Bistro. The CityFlats Hotel Grand Rapids is the smaller scale version of the Holland, Michigan-based Charter House Innovation's flagship downtown hotel. I congratulate the owners for putting a stake down right smack in the middle of Grand Rapids with this European- inspired hotel. CityFlats is quite inviting from Monroe Mall and it definitely adds some much needed vibrancy in this area of GR.
The guest rooms at CityFlats are modern and minimalist in every sense of the word. The beds have floor lighting to add to the mystique of the place, and barn doors open up to the bathrooms with sleek showers and vanities. The bistro offers small plates for lunch and dinner, and its convivial atmosphere makes a wonderful hangout for late-night cocktails with friends.
Autumn is black-tie and cocktail season for Grand Rapids. Amway Grand Plaza Hotel celebrated its 30th anniversary with a gala to benefit the Heart of West Michigan United Way's Schools of Hope program. Both major hotels downtown, the JW Marriott and Amway Grand Plaza, have a lock on the best social media events with the quarterly Salsa Pachanga party at the JW, the Cristal and Veuve Clicquot party at Cygnus 27, and the ever-popular Dead-U-Tante Ball at the JW for Halloween.
The Helen DeVos Children's Hospital was the beneficiary of the Frank's Knockout Fitness' Celebrity Boxing event in November at the JW. This second annual event put local celebrities in the ring to help raise funds for children diagnosed with cancer.
Before we know it, New Year's Eve has returned and the city is once again bracing for another epic year. Not bad for Grand Rapids. Not bad at all.