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Table for Two: The Grand Rapids dating scene







Just in time for you to snag a good plus-one for the holidays, writer Kara McNabb surveys the local dating scene. Read on for her insider's take on some out-of-the-box dateworthy activities and locations in and around Grand Rapids.
Dating: it’s the anxiety-inducing adventure. There's the constant pressure of acceptance, the analysis of words or actions or lack thereof, and often, the stress of planning a date. So it's no surprise that, when the opportunity for a first date presents itself, many of us rack our suddenly empty brains and blurt out: "How about dinner and drinks at [insert standby restaurant name]?" 
 
That's fine; fortunately, bar and restaurant options abound for a first date in Grand Rapids. And this setting is sometimes necessary for face-to-face getting-to-know-you time—or a quick getaway. There's no reason, however, to get stuck in the monotony of dinner and drinks in Grand Rapids, should you make it past the first date. You can - and should - break out of the rut at your favorite restaurant, even when you're making a date with someone new. So do yourself a favor: bookmark this list to reference next time you're grasping for plans, and experience our city in a new way with a new person.
 
You don’t have to avoid food and alcohol altogether. Simply put a creative spin on the dining experience. Stimulate your senses at the San Chez Dinner in the Dark series, where you and your date will venture into the unknown as you dine blindfolded. Or let a chef lead the evening while you learn a new kitchen skill together at the Downtown Market. Check out one of several cooking classes offered, like Meatloaf and Mashed, Juice for the Soul and Middle Eastern Cuisine.
 
If you’re not ready to start making meals together, try beer or wine tasting. Michigan is home to some of the best breweries in the nation and more than 100 wineries. Voted “Beer City USA” two years running and “10 Best Vacation Cities for Beer Lovers” to name a few, Grand Rapidians know a thing or two about the craft. Attend HopCat’s monthly Beer School event held the third Saturday each month from 3 - 4 p.m. or check out Bar Divani wine socials, a tasting and discussion forum held every Wednesday evening.
 
Spend an evening at Brush Studio in East Grand Rapids, an art studio that helps you create a painted masterpiece. While it may sound like an activity fit for girls’ night out, don’t be fooled. It’s a guaranteed sense of accomplishment, and you can’t go wrong when cultivating positive associations. Should you feel the need for balance, however, Van Andel Arena is the perfect scene for the next date: ice hockey, beer, hot dogs and the roar of screaming Griffins fans.   
 
If you’d prefer to escape the crowds, pick up some specialty cheeses from Martha’s Vineyard, a Heritage Hill wine and liquor store, plus soft German pretzels and a slice of Tall Dark and Handsome (chocolate cake with layers of vanilla cheesecake and dark chocolate mouse) from Nantucket Bakery next door. Don’t let the weather stop you from finding a secluded spot to picnic along the Riverwalk, about a mile’s walk away. This time of year, the crisp, fall air gives you the perfect excuse to cozy up. Afterward, head over to Calder Plaza and take your turn on Motu Viget, a giant tire swing tucked away behind tall buildings and La Grande Vitesse. If it’s a chilly day, warm up with a latte at Madcap Coffee.
 
A decade ago, dinner and a movie might really have been your best option, but the revitalization of Grand Rapids has turned that notion upside down. An indicator of a burgeoning economy, the city's culture is bursting at the seams with the arts. To infuse your date with a bit of culture, visit the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts, Frederick Meijer Gardens or one of the many galleries that line South Division between Fulton and Wealthy streets. Dress up for an evening of theater and let the enchantment of Broadway, the mystique of opera or the grace of ballet sweep you off your feet. Dress down for local theater and check out what’s on stage at Dog Story Theater or Civic Theatre.
 
Comedy is the perfect way to loosen up on a date. Check out Dr. Grins at The B.O.B. Thursdays through Fridays for national and local acts. If you’re lucky, Pop Scholars, a local improv group, will be on-stage at Wealthy Street Theatre. Belly laughs will ensue as the ensemble of four charms the audience with their clever wit.
 
For an experience that will drop your jaw to the ground, give Super Happy Funtime Burlesque a try. This live-music show—part theatre, part circus, part burlesque—draws a curiously diverse audience and will have you cheering or walking out the door. Seriously. There’s no line drawn when it comes to provoking your views on religion, politics and sex. Don’t wait until the last minute for tickets. The cast keeps busy touring the nation, so a sold-out hometown show isn’t rare.
 
Bubbling beneath the surface of Grand Rapids is a vibrant music culture. If you and your date share an affinity for music, you can likely catch live music on any given night in the city. Start the week with the Sunday Classical Concert Series at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, followed by a guided gallery tour. Dance to electronic music Mondays at Billy’s Lounge. A quiet, intimate atmosphere sets the stage for Jazz Divas at Bar Divani on Tuesday nights. Speak EZ Lounge hosts open mic night Wednesdays, where you’ll hear anything from blues, folk, pop to storytelling. One Trick Pony hosts Acoustic Stew on Thursday nights. Check out the Pyramid Scheme, Founders and The Intersection’s line-up for national and local acts Friday and Saturday nights, along with Back Forty Saloon for country music. Year-round, check out St. Cecelia's Music Society, Ladies Literary Club, and the Calvin College Student Activity Office for more music-focused experiences.
 
If you'd rather be outdoors than in, escape to nature in one of the 74 parks within the Grand Rapids city limits. Explore the nature preserve and wetlands at Huff Park, a one-mile loop. Snow may blanket the ground soon, but the silence of the still, winter air broken only by your footsteps creates a warm, romantic atmosphere. For a heightened challenge, hike or cross-country ski through the woods at Provin Trails Park. You’ll feel miniature among the massive, mature trees at Riverside Park, and if you play disc golf, this is the place to be from spring to fall. When the temperatures drop, head to the heart of the city, rent skates and glide across the ice rink at Rosa Parks Circle beneath the stars. (Stumbling is ok, too.)
 
If the aforementioned isn’t enough to break your dinner habit, at least make it an adventure, perhaps at Little Africa. While Ethiopian cuisine may not be an obvious first choice, the experience sans silverware and frills rarely disappoints, even for the most skeptical diner. A few words of advice: don’t bother with the menu, simply ask to share a combo plate and indicate your spice preference. Wash your hands with the rose water, tear a piece of the spongy bread, called injera, and scoop a bite of whatever’s placed in front of you. No credit cards accepted.
 
Whether you explore the great outdoors, the arts or learn something new together, an activity-based date allows for conversation, but welcomes a distraction to alleviate the pressure of an awkward lull. This type of environment can also reveal the true character of your date. How does he deal with being outside of his comfort zone? If hiking isn’t her thing, does it matter that your ideal summer weekend includes a tent and a canoe? If he could barely muster a grin at the comedy show while tears streamed down your face, it may be a sign to find someone who gets your idea of humor.
 
Next time you’re faced with debilitating dating jitters or simply in need of a little variety, keep motu viget in mind. Whether you ride the massive tire swing or not, the sculpture’s Latin name literally translates to “strength in activity.”
 
Since this list barely scrapes the surface, tell us about your favorite first date in Grand Rapids.

Kara McNabb is a West Michigan native who begrudgingly moved back to Grand Rapids a few years ago. Much to her surprise, she fell head-over-heels in love with the city that feeds her affinity for design, music, food and inspiring people. Kara is a communications professional, writer, editor and blogger.

Photography by Adam Bird


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