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Tip Top Deluxe: All-American Bar, All-American Neighborhood

The west side of Grand Rapids is one easily one of the most interesting areas in our city. Part residential, part business district and part industrial (often all three within a few blocks of each other), it is an area that really feels like a bigger city.

While certainly having some great restaurants and bars, as well as some very pretty neighborhoods (a drive or bike ride down Leonard west of Walker Avenue is highly recommended), it’s fair to say that the west side has had a stigma attached to it. A good friend of mine may have summed it up best when he once (jokingly) stated, “The west side? Oh you mean the place where hipsters go to die?” The good news is that due to the work of a couple of entrepreneurs, a small neighborhood in the southwest side of Grand Rapids is ready for hipsters, and anyone else for that matter, to start to hanging out.

The Tip Top Deluxe Bar and Grill, located at 760 Butterworth SW, fits in pretty well in its neighborhood. Hidden in between the shadows of the downtown high rises and John Ball Park Zoo, the area is mostly small, older single family homes, as is the standard in so much of the Midwest.

It was these low-key characteristics that made the neighborhood appealing to Tip Top owners Ted Smith and Frank Lehnen. However, Tip Top is not just another neighborhood tavern; one must consider the theme Smith and Lehnen have selected for their new venture.

“Both [Lehnen] and I are big fans of traditional American music,” Smith says. “We’ve been pigeon-holed as a rockabilly bar, but we’re doing blues, folk and jazz.”

Smith and Lehnen each have deep roots to the west side of Grand Rapids. “[Lehnen] was born and raised on the west side and I’ve lived here for 15 years," Smith says.

Not only are Smith and Lehnen each tied to the west side, they bring an extensive knowledge of bar management. Aside from co-owning the Tip Top, Smith has been the GM of Kentwood music venue The Orbit Room for nearly a decade. Prior to that, he worked at The Intersection while in its classic Eastown location.

Lehnen is behind several of the west side’s favorite neighborhood watering holes including Rocky’s, the Monarch’s Club and the adjoining Mercury Bar. Lehnen draws a strong connection between when he remodeled the building that houses Monarch’s Club and Mercury and his latest project. Both buildings were ready to be condemned by the city until the developers came, he explains.

“I think, in a nutshell, what a lot of these properties have in common is that there is a transition going on in a lot of these neighborhoods. I think you see that on the east side with Wealthy Street development,” Lehnen says. “I’m just happy to be in an area where there is something going on.”

Despite opening in late June, Smith says they are still in something of soft-opening mode, though the bar itself is fully operational and an outing there will deliver a great combination of neighborhood bar and music venue. The bar itself is all mahogany wood and was made in 1949. Smith says they found it in a salvage yard in Indianapolis.

The décor mixes well with the classical bar. You won’t find beer posters hanging on the walls. Rather, the owners have gone with framed period artwork and posters of Americana music stars. Smith and Lehnen have also put in a good selection of pinball machines and a jukebox that fits their Americana music tastes. Needless to say, you won’t find Lady GaGa as a selection. The line-up of live acts includes string bands, surf rock, rockabilly, blues, jazz and other period essential groups.

Soon, Smith says, the Tip Top will also start serving food. While a menu has not been finalized, Smith says it will consist of a lot of sandwiches. “We’re going to do some kind of over-the-top grilled cheeses, both meat and vegetarian. There will also be some southern fare,” Smith adds.

It’s too early to be to tell if the Tip Top Deluxe will do to its tucked away southwest side neighborhood what places like the Meanwhile and the Winchester have done in the East Hills neighborhood. However, both Lehnen and Smith believe there is a lot of potential for that area. Each pointed to examples like the Goei Center just down the street from the Tip Top, as well as Grand Valley State University's plans to expand their downtown campus in that area.

“I think what makes a city strong is the core neighborhoods that surround downtown,” Lehnen says.

For the most up to date information regarding drink specials, upcoming shows and other general FAQ, I suggest checking out the Tip Top’s Facebook page. For those without Facebook, you can also look at www.tiptopdeluxe.com.

Nick Manes is a freelance writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His work has appeared in outlets such as Rapid Growth Media, Revue Magazine, and The Rapidian. He blogs occasionally at www.nickmanes.com and Tweets quite frequently @nickmanes1.
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