Al Capone, hauntings & drinks on the sly: Exploring metro Grand Rapids' oldest bars

With the cement still drying on so many fresh bars and breweries, we thought Grand Rapidians deserved a look back at a few of the oldest watering holes in metro Grand Rapids —some that have kept their doors open for more than 100 years—for a seasoned perspective on the ambitious business owners that laid the foundation for today's entrepreneurs.
Founded in 1826, Grand Rapids is the second largest city and fastest growing metro area in Michigan. Formerly the mecca of furniture manufacturing, this metropolis has dabbled in a variety of industries over the past two centuries and recently has taken on the moniker of “Beer City, USA,” a label acknowledging the hard work by the city’s craft brewers, beer sommeliers and small batch enthusiasts. With more than 20 breweries in GR's some 45 square miles and seven more set to open this year, along with dozens of bars, our moderately sized city by the river has certainly earned the title.

Though many of the establishments serving alcoholic libations are relatively new, the bar and brewery scene began long ago. With the cement still drying on so many fresh bars and breweries, we thought Grand Rapidians deserved a look back at a few of the oldest watering holes in the greater Grand Rapids area —some that have kept their doors open for more than 100 years—for a seasoned perspective on the ambitious business owners that laid the foundation for today's entrepreneurs.

These spaces are truly one of a kind, with the historic bars boasting stories of hauntings, Al Capone, Ernest Hemingway, selling spirits on the sly during Prohibition—and a whole lot more.

The Cottage Bar & Restaurant

"It's authentic; it's the real deal," says Dan Verhil, owner of The Cottage Bar & Restaurant on LaGrave Avenue, which is known as the oldest continuously operating bar in downtown Grand Rapids. Founded in 1927 by Earl and Marie Coon during the height of Prohibition, the couple built into their private residence to open a classic burger joint. Serving the workers of surrounding factories with orders of sometimes 200 to 300 burgers at a time, the Coons kept busy, and sometimes slept in the bedroom upstairs. The room also served as a secret location for card playing and alcoholic beverages until Prohibition was repealed in 1933, upon which the Coons obtained a liquor license to sell beer, wine and, later, liquor.

Only changing hands once before being purchased by Verhil's father, John Verhil, in 1967, The Cottage Bar has served as a downtown staple for burgers and beers. "It's the original burger bar in Grand Rapids and still is today," Verhil says. USA Today even named the Cottage Bar as having the best burger in Michigan in 2013.

The 89-year-old restaurant is also a destination for performers of the nearby Civic and Circle Theatres, as well as other local theatre troops, who grab a bite after rehearsals and performances. In the 1950s and 60s, it routinely was the watering hole of choice for Grand Rapids Press and Grand Rapids Herald reporters, who worked nearby. And rumor has it that Mike Wallace, the late "60 Minutes" journalist who started his career in Grand Rapids, would call in stories at The Cottage Bar when he worked as a WOOD radio broadcaster.

Most of all, "it's just adored by so many people," says Verhil. When asked why The Cottage Bar it still a mainstay after all these years, Verhil notes their consistency, quality of service and overall friendliness at the space that’s often referred to as Grand Rapids’ “Cheers.”

Nick Fink’s

With a confident claim as the Grand Rapids area's oldest bar, Nick Fink's is also a community-adored establishment. Founded in 1888 in Comstock Park as a bar and, reputedly, a brothel, this third-generation watering hole has also served as a post office and a hotel over the years as it changed hands from the first Nick Fink, an immigrant from Prussia, to the second and ultimately the third Nick Fink, before being sold to The Gilmore Collection in 2008. "You can't replicate this bar," says General Manager Matt Rule, who still welcomes the third Nick Fink to the bar a few times per week.

"It's a really cool, old, local bar," he adds of a space where you wish the walls could talk. Al Capone and his gang allegedly loved the space, with the corner booth apparently being Capone’s favorite seat in the house. But Capone’s not the only famous person to step foot into Nick Fink’s—Ernest Hemingway stopped into the tavern when he traveled to Northern Michigan and allegedly based characters in his “Nick Adams Stories” on people he met at Nick Fink’s, the Comstock Park Downtown Development Authority writes.

And, once upon a time, Nick Fink’s housed visitors of the West Michigan Fair, which used to take place at what is now West River Drive and North Park Street, as well as workers at the nearby tanneries and the fish hatchery, which operated in the early to mid-1900s. You can glimpse the names of those who once imbibed at Nick Fink’s long ago, with many an individual having carved their monikers into the tables, which still remain in the bar, over the decades.

With the upstairs, hotel/brothel area untouched and much of the building staying the same after John Gilmore acquired it—including the gold and black velvet wallpaper, the Gilmore Collection "kept the old, eclectic feel," says Rule, who sometimes even gives tours of the historic second floor. Adding a kitchen and serving its own food for the first time in 2008, Nick Fink's has, for the past eight years, transformed into a restaurant, but still welcomes many of the same locals whose families have, for generations, called the bar home. "It's a place where you can be who you are," says Rule.

It’s even a place where you may get to glimpse the supernatural. Ghost hunters have visited the bar a number of times and have reported paranormal activity. (Matt Dowdy of the Gilmore Collection sent us the above clip of ghost hunters at Nick Fink's.) Rule tells the Comstock Park DDA that “he and other employees have experienced ‘weird things,’ such as the juke box starting and lights and water turning on and off by themselves."

The Holiday Bar

On Grand Rapids’ West Side is The Holiday Bar, which was first opened in 1905 as the Ideal Tavern by John Arsulowicz, a Polish immigrant and the great-grandfather of the current owner, Todd Wawee.

“In the early 1900s, when immigrants came to a city like this, you were probably either going to become a grocer or a barkeep,” Wawee says. “There weren’t as many business opportunities as there are today. With language barriers, alcohol is sort of a universal language.”

The Ideal Tavern originally operated in the building where the Arsulowicz Brothers Mortuaries is currently located at 585 Stocking Ave. NW. The watering hole closed down when Prohibition arrived in 1920, and the area the bar had occupied sold religious goods — though Wawee notes it’s rumored that you could also land some spirits “out the back door.”

“Back then, during Prohibition, there was a police precinct that sat right across the street on Stocking, but there were allegedly a couple speakeasies on the West Side,” Wawee says.

In 1959, the bar moved to the space where it’s located now at 801 5th St. NW. In those years, you could often hear Wawee’s great-uncle playing the organ in the bar, and there was even a shuffle board in the space at one point. But, no matter what kind of changes occurred at The Holiday Bar, Wawee says there’s one thing that remained the same: it was a space synonymous with community.

“You become entrenched in the neighborhood,” he says. “You’re lucky enough to weather the good times and bad times. Now we have the opportunity to be part of the resurgence and revitalization and excitement that’s happening on the West Side.”

Last week, The Holiday Bar announced it is undergoing major renovations, including the addition of a full kitchen, in order to launch a full menu and  a 125-person beer garden this summer. The beer garden will open Saturday, May 21 with a party featuring limited supply drafts and a free cook-out for patrons.

The Corner Bar

A bit north of Grand Rapids, on Rockford’s Main Street, lies The Corner Bar, a West Michigan favorite for beers and hot dogs. Opened as a pool hall some time in the 1930s by Carl Hyde, The Corner Bar began selling beer after the end of Prohibition. With the law requiring hot food service along with beer consumption in the immediate aftermath of Prohibition, Hyde added hot dogs to the menu, and the legend was born.

In 1965, the Corner's new owner created the establishment's famous hot dog eating contest, in which a challenger must consumer 12 hot dogs with the bar's signature chili sauce within four hours. The bar's wall is littered with the names of more than 5,600 successful challengers, with the venue noting that the “most notable champion was Sharon Scholten (now VanDuinen) of Jenison, Michigan. Sharon consumed 42-½ chili dogs in the four-hour time allotment on March 15, 1982. She remained champion for 24 years.”

Once a destination for a quick bite and a good beer, The Corner Bar has become "the original family bar," says General Manager John Vanaman. With "a natural nudging from the community," it has grown to incorporate craft sodas, root beers and a family-friendly atmosphere. Unafraid to change with the times, this 80-some-year-old institution is a destination for fundraisers, events and catering. "The community really supports us," says Vanaman, and "we support the community."

Pickwick Tavern & The Kopper Top (now The Blue Dog Tavern)

These aforementioned bars are not alone, as many other establishments have called Grand Rapids home for decades.

The neighborhood of Cherry Hill also has its own historical bar, with Pickwick Tavern on Cherry Street. Founded just after Prohibition was repealed in 1934, this friendly establishment has been cherished by locals for more than 75 years. At the helm for over 20 years, owner John Rusilowski creates a casual, laid back atmosphere that welcomes all sorts of clientele in the mood for a great dive bar.

In other spaces, like the West Side’s Blue Dog Tavern, the business itself is new, but there are many echoes of history at the corner of Stocking and 4th. Originally built as a grocery store and operating as the City Trust and Savings Bank during the Great Depression, the space at 638 Stocking became a bar when Frank Nawrocki rented the building from the bank and operated Frank’s Tavern and Beer Garden. In 1972, the building became home to the Kopper Top, which operated for 42 years before it closed in 2012. The Blue Dog Tavern debuted in 2014, and you can still find remnants of the building’s past, including the bank vault door, a handmade coat rack from Frank’s, pieces of copper from the Kopper Top, beer delivery receipts from the 1930s and 40s, a photo of Frank tending bar, and other pieces of the venue’s past, much of which was found in the crawlspace below the building.

The Kopper Top, now The Blue Dog.
In just about every nook and cranny of GR, you'll find a great brewery or a cozy bar that locals will swear by. At GR's oldest bars, you’ll find establishments that have stood the test of time, and continue to serve up great drinks, food and atmosphere to regulars and visitors alike. Along with a great drink and a filling meal, you may also stumble upon an incredible slice of history.

Additional reporting provided by Anna Gustafson

Original Photography by Adam Bird, archive photography courtesy The Grand Rapids Public Library and The Gilmore Collection/Nick Fink's.
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