Features

Experience Some Local Color

Learn, or rediscover, what makes Kalamazoo unique
encore-magazine-local-tourist-local-color-picnicking-couple-june-2018
Mr. Crispy greets our picnicking couple in Portage.

© 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

It starts with the city’s name: Kalamazoo — unusual and fun to say. Although there are four places named Kalamazoo in the U.S., the other three don’t even have post offices, so do they really count? Besides, our city’s the only one that had a No. 1 song about it — “(I’ve Got a Gal in) Kalamazoo” (recorded by Glenn Miller and His Orchestra in 1942).

From the get-go, this community has been different. In fact, unique is what Kalamazoo specializes in, and it’s evidenced by those quirky characteristics folks refer to as “the local color.” To make your foray as a local tourist complete, we’re pointing out some of Kalamazoo’s highlights and hot spots that you should rediscover or, if you’ve been living under a local rock, try for the first time:

Doughnuts

Kalamazoo has its own homegrown doughnut shop, Sweetwater’s Donut Mill, which has garnered various national nods, including being named the best doughnut shop in Michigan by the food and wine blog Thrillist in 2015. Since Sweetwater’s first opened on Stadium Drive in 1983, the shop has filled a hole in the hearts of local patrons, so much so that it has opened two additional locations, at 2138 Sprinkle Road and 2807 Capital Ave. in Battle Creek. It has also licensed its first franchise location, in Plainwell, which opened in February. But for that good old doughnut shop vibe, right down to the wood countertops and barstools, visit Sweetwater’s original location, at 3333 Stadium Drive.

& Coffee

Kalamazoo boasts many great coffee shops, but those that stand out from the crowd are Water Street Coffee Joint’s multiple locations and the Black Owl Café.

What sets these establishments apart are their beans: Both businesses roast, sell and serve their own coffee — Water Street Coffee under its own name and Black Owl under the name Kalamazoo Coffee Co., whose beans are roasted in a space adjacent to the café’s kitchen.

Water Street Coffee Joint opened its original location in 1993, on the corner of Kalamazoo Avenue and Water Street, in an old gasoline service station. With floor-to-ceiling windows that open to let in fresh air during good weather, this shop has long been a favorite of those who savor sipping the shop’s distinct coffees and teas while watching freight trains rumble by a couple dozen feet away and cause traffic backups on Kalamazoo Avenue. Water Street’s popularity has brought growth in the form of four additional locations, each with its own eclectic décor and atmosphere:

  • The shop at 3037 Oakland Drive has cozy leather couches, copper tabletops and custom light fixtures made from architectural drawings and blueprint designs of the former Bryant Paper Mill, as well as a lot of local writers who use it as their “unofficial” office.
  • The shop at 245 W. Centre Ave., in Portage, features a more modern, light interior with three levels of seating and a fireplace and now serves cocktails.
  • A bright, airy, colorful café is located in the atrium of Borgess Medical Center, 151 Gull Road.
  • And a drive-thru-only location can be found at 2603 S. Sprinkle Road (where you go for the coffee, not the culture).

Something about coffee must attract creative geniuses, because the décor of the Black Owl Café, at 414 Walbridge St., is also chock-full of imaginative repurposing, which has sprung from the mind of co-owner Darren Bain. Black Owl Café is housed in a former electric motor factory and is often filled with the aroma from The Kalamazoo Coffee Co.'s roasters. The illustrative, quirky art on the coffee bags is drawn by Bain and the coffees have such clever names as Killer Beanzzz and Long in the Socks. With luck, you might persuade the folks there to give you a tour of the upstairs Americana Room with its unique “wall of doors” and brick wall painted like the American flag.

Craft beer trail

Blame it on Bell’s Brewery. Bell’s began making craft beer 30 years ago and annually tops lists of the best U.S. craft breweries. It was the first flower that attracted beer-loving bees to Kalamazoo and now the whole region has become one large beer garden.

The best way to experience all the unique craft beer offered by the area’s 15-plus craft breweries is to follow the Give a Craft beer trail, created by Discover Kalamazoo, the destination marketing organization for Kalamazoo County. To do so, pick up one of the Give a Craft passport books at any of the participating breweries, at Discover Kalamazoo’s office (141 E. Michigan Ave.) or at the information desk in the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport. Then amble around town, getting a stamp on your passport as you visit each of the participating breweries.

The passport includes all the information needed for you to do a self-guided trail tour: locations, hours and favorite brews. When you’ve completed the tour, return your stamped passport to Discover Kalamazoo to get some swag. Make your beer trail tour last all summer, hitting a new location every week so that you can savor each location.

For more info, visit bit.ly/kalbrewtrail.

Celebrations

Summer in Kalamazoo doesn’t slide in quietly. It gets a big kickoff with what’s been dubbed “June Jubilee” — a celebration in downtown Kalamazoo held the first weekend of June that includes art fairs, live music, an “Animotion” film festival, a poetry reading, a used-book sale, an ice cream social and, topping it all off, the Do-Dah Parade.

This irreverent, eccentric and just-for-the-fun-of-it parade will begin at 11 a.m. June 2 and wind its way through downtown Kalamazoo with general silliness and people who like to make fun of themselves and others. In the past, onlookers have been treated to dressed-up dogs, Star Wars and Ghostbusters characters, tutu-clad clowns doing dance routines, police officers wearing pig noses and driving police cars decorated with doughnut boxes and … well, really, you just never know what you’re going to see. After the parade, stick around downtown for all the other June Jubilee fun.

For a complete schedule, visit junejubilee.com.

If you are feeling nostalgic and patriotic this summer, Schoolcraft’s Fourth of July celebration will let you hark back to the days when a Fourth of July parade was every small town’s event of the year. Schoolcraft, located 15 miles south of Kalamazoo, makes an all-day affair of celebrating our nation’s birthday, starting with a pancake breakfast at 7 a.m. and followed by a 5-mile running race, a car show, a parade, an ice cream social, a chicken and ribs barbecue at the American Legion, fire truck rides, tours of the Underground Railroad house, a dance and, of course, fireworks. It doesn’t get more Norman Rockwell than that.

For more information, visit villageofschoolcraft.com.

Neighborhood pubs

You won’t find Sam and Diane, but you will find a lot of folks who know each other by name at some distinctive neighborhood pubs. The region has hundreds of watering holes, but moderation is key, so we highlight only a few here:

Louie’s Trophy House, 629 Walbridge St.

Louie’s Trophy House, a North Side pub that will celebrate its 100th birthday with a big ol’ party July 14-15, is notable for several reasons:

  • It’s the oldest bar in Kalamazoo. Started by Polish immigrants as a soup kitchen and restaurant to serve the surrounding working-class Polish neighborhood, it was rumored to have been a speakeasy during Prohibition.
  • It’s got a lot of stuffed animals. No, really, stuffed animals, like a taxidermied bear, bobcat and deer heads. You know, good U.P. wood cabin décor.
  • It’s where you can catch lots of local bands and comedians, and it has drink specials every night.

Green Top Tavern, 250 E. Michigan Ave.

Michigan author Darrin Doyle, who features this downtown dive bar in several of his novels, says Green Top Tavern “embodies the city of Kalamazoo.” With its blue-collar roots, tasty burgers and great people watching from its streetside location on busy Michigan Avenue, Green Top Tavern is a place to pop into to escape the hipster haze and Tinder-ing of the brewpubs. With its strong drinks, working jukebox, pool table and dartboards, it’s truly Kalamazoo: not swanky or showy, but always interesting.

O’Duffy’s Irish Pub, 804 W. Vine St.

Tucked away in Kalamazoo’s historic Vine neighborhood, O’Duffy’s boasts that it’s the area’s “only Irish pub” and is probably about as close as you’ll get in Kalamazoo. It has a lot of dark wood, from the floors to the massive bar, is television-free and serves Guinness. Even the live music acts are booked for that Irish pub vibe, from bluegrass and Americana bands Whiskey Before Breakfast and Who Hit John? to Megan Dooley and the Duffield Carron Project. The menu includes boxty, a traditional Irish potato pancake, but regulars say the Gorgonzola Burger is ar fheabhas (first rate).

Big T Restaurant, 155 N. Main St., Lawton

If you pride yourself on being an imported beer connoisseur but you’re not a member of Big T’s Tommy Tetuski Memorial Beer Drinking Club, you might need to check your ego.

Located in Lawton (a roughly 20-minute jaunt west from Kalamazoo down I-94), Big T offers a chance to hang where the locals do and see Christmas decorations year-round as well as partake of the bar’s more than 250 imports and many domestic beers. Those brews figure prominently in the Tommy Tetuski Memorial Beer Drinking Club, which is allegedly named for a patron and seaman who wandered into the joint one night and left an indelible impression on the owners. The point of joining the club is to drink 130 different brews from Big T’s selection to reach the status of “Grand Master of Beer Steinery.” When you do, you will receive a T-shirt, mug and hat, and your name will be engraved on the bar’s Wall of Foam.

Tennis, anyone?

Who needs Wimbledon? For more than 70 years, Kalamazoo has hosted a tennis tournament that has seen the likes of Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick play on the courts of Kalamazoo College’s Stowe Stadium. The USTA Boys’ 18 & 16 National Championships, which will be held Aug. 3–12 this year, is the most important event of the tennis year for the 400-plus junior players who come from all over the U.S. to vie for the national championship title, which comes with an automatic bid to the main draw of the U.S. Open Tennis Championships. With tickets as cheap as $5 to watch a day’s play (the semifinals and finals cost more) and free admission on most days for kids, the tournament is a great way to see a future star while enjoying sunshine and sport.

Visit ustaboys.com for a schedule and more information.

The Barn Theatre

Speaking of rising stars, catch a performance by a Barnie today and you may be witnessing the Jennifer Garner, Lauren Graham or Tom Wopat of tomorrow. The Barn Theatre, in Augusta, is the oldest resident summer stock theater in Michigan. For 16 weeks each summer, accomplished Actors Equity Association members journey to this converted dairy barn to perform in one of the theater’s eight productions. They are joined by young “apprentice” actors, affectionately called Barnies, who learn the craft of theater production and act in shows alongside the pros (yes, Garner, Graham and Wopat were all Barnies). This year’s season’s schedule features The Civil War, June 5–10; Noises Off, June 12–17; Hairspray, June 19–July 1; Bonnie & Clyde, July 3–5; Run for Your Wife, July 17–29; Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, July 31–Aug. 12; Bullets Over Broadway, Aug. 14–26; and Disaster! Aug. 28–Sept. 2.

For more information, visit barntheatre-school.org or call 731-4121.

Ice cream

The whole point of seeking out local color is to get the flavor of the place, right? And there’s no better way to do that than with locally made ice cream.

Plainwell Ice Cream, at 621 Bridge St., in Plainwell, makes about 65 flavors and 50,000 gallons of ice cream a year and has a seasonal specialty, Blueberry Marble, that’s available only during June and July. Locals also go for Island City Fudge, French silk, butter pecan and salted caramel. We say live a little and get a scoop of each. If you’re too short on time to drive to Plainwell, you can also get many flavors of Plainwell Ice Cream at Spirit of Kalamazoo, on the Kalamazoo Mall.

If you feel like licking a cone by a river, head to Dean’s Ice Cream, at 307 N. Sherwood Ave., in Plainwell, on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. There you’ll find nostalgia is popular: An orange and vanilla mixture, which tastes like a Dreamsicle, is on the favorites list, as are the old standbys vanilla and mint chocolate chip.

There is nothing traditional about the flavors offered by Lafayette Creamery, which opened in 2016 at 7933 Eighth St., in Texas Corners. Offering more than 20 flavors, with such drool-worthy names as Cherry English Walnut, Cinnamon Peach, Habanero Caramel and Salty Pecan Cookie, this shop specializes in culinary creativity in a cone.

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Special Thanks

The following businesses, organizations and individuals helped our See Your Town Like A Tourist issue happen:

Big T Restaurant/Ray Piecyk
Jordan Bradley
Nabe Bowerman/Bonamego Farms
Peter Broe
City of Portage Dept. of Parks, Recreation
& Senior Citizen Services
Crisp Country Acres
Dan Cunningham
Entertainment District/The Reedy Group
J-Bird Vintage/Jayne Gulliver
Pedal Bicycles/Tim Krone
Retro of Kalamazoo/Thom Clark
Spirit of Kalamazoo/Kathleen Widner
Charles. D. Thomas
& Laura Rahfeldt-Thomas