by Samantha Suarez | photos by David Specht and Erika Townsley
Choo Choo Grill
1209 Plainfield Ave NE
What does the hamburger say to the Buddha? Make me one with everything! At least that’s what Kathy Spencer, Choo Choo Grill’s manager, told us during the course of our interview. From the old school train-themed aesthetic full of bright red hues to the cozy setup of just a few tables, and the friendly staff that will remember you by name by your second or third visit, Choo Choo Grill is the nostalgic American diner of Grand Rapids’ food scene.
Their menu is a simple selection of breakfast, burgers, onion rings, and shakes, and probably hasn’t been updated in ages, but that’s part of its appeal. What they do, they do very well and have been doing so since they first
opened in 1946.
We ordered the deluxe cheeseburger and a side of onion rings. The presentation was straightforward; not overly boastful or begging to be Instagrammed, but I was blown away by the first few bites. The onion rings were perfectly crispy. The batter was just right — not too thick, not too thin. Although the cheeseburger consisted of only the bun, the beef patty, cheese, lettuce and tomato, the flavors packed a punch. You won’t be disappointed in giving this hidden gem a go; just remember to save room for a malt!
Rockford Riverside Grille
8 E Bridge St. NE, Rockford, MI
Formerly the Green Well of Rockford, Essence Group renovated and converted the restaurant to a more family-friendly concept with a menu of American-inspired comfort food such as nachos, bacon-wrapped meatloaf, grilled salmon, sandwiches, salads and more.
“When you dine with us, you can expect nothing less than delicious food in a comfortable place at a great value,” Lauren Jaenicke, Essence Group’s Marketing and Sustainability Director, said.
Many diners rave about their smoked brisket, which is smoked for hours and paired with savory scalloped potatoes. As for an underrated dish, Jaenicke says that their nachos don’t receive the attention they deserve.
“When I eat out and see nachos on a menu, I also tend to skim by it, but please order them. I promise it will be worth it!”
If you do decide to drop by for a meal, try to make it on a Thursday for free live music on the patio; starting on June 7, rain or shine, you can enjoy dinner and drinks with a beautiful river view while listening to a live band.
Citizen Tiki Bar & Restaurant
2115 Plainfield Ave NE
Located in the Cheshire Village Business District in the lovely Creston neighborhood, this modern tiki bar and restaurant opened its doors to Grand Rapids in November 2017 and is certainly like no other in our current food scene. True to tiki fashion, the space boasts funky, eclectic decor, a tropical theme and vibrant ambiance — or what owner and operator Rachel Lee likes to call “am-Beyonce.” Their food highlights the Pacific Rim, blending Asian influences with local Michigan highlights. Items on their menu include ahi tuna and salmon poke, Peking duck spring rolls, ramen and banh mi.
“Our green curry noodle bowl is my current favorite,” said Lee. “It’s fresh and full of flavor and spices.”
We came by after work one afternoon for a mai tai tiki bowl and some of their famous drunken fries. Both the presentation and the flavor of the drink were phenomenal. The drunken fries are essentially an Asian version of poutine, but with dashi gravy instead of cheese, along with ramen eggs, bite-sized pork belly pieces and other toppings. The fries were cooked to a crisp on the outside and fluffy on the inside, perfectly seasoned and packed with unique flavors that melded together magically; it was delicious.
We recommend stopping by with some friends on a beautiful warm day, preferably on Tiki Tuesday (half off tiki cocktails and bowls!) If nothing else, they’ll truly be wowed by the am-Beyonce.