It’s worth taking advantage of every minute of warm weather in Michigan, a state with the audacity to get snow in late April. That’s why, when the weather warms up enough, outdoor dining blossoms. Whether it’s just a couple of tables set up on a sidewalk or a large deck overlooking a lake, patio dining at local eateries arrives when spring does.
“The freshness (of eating outside) is great,” says Shawn Hagen, chef and business partner at Bravo! Restaurant and Café. “It’s kind of nice to be out with Mother Nature. It works hand-in-hand with food and nature.”
Whether you want to enjoy the view, climate or fresh air with a brew, cocktail or meal, there are plenty of options in the Kalamazoo area.
A place to start is on downtown Kalamazoo’s eastern end. There’s a cluster of microbreweries and tap houses that not only pour a mean craft brew or two, but offer dining outside.
Bell’s Eccentric Café, Old Dog Tavern, Arcadia Brewing Co. and HopCat all offer unique outside venues to enjoy the day or evening as well as a meal.
The beer gardens at Old Dog, Bell’s and Arcadia make for excellent places to enjoy live music with a drink in your hand, a warm summer sky and beautiful greenery.
Sterling Riethman, marketing specialist at Bell’s Eccentric Café, offered her thoughts on why people enjoy the outdoor seating at Bell’s: “It tends to be a great place for people to come and socialize, whether (customers) are looking for a night out just with friends or whether they’re looking to bring their family out during the day. it really is one of those environments that you can make your own. It’s a great place to hang out and enjoy a beer and some snacks. It’s a nice laid-back but kind of lively environment all at the same time.”
The simultaneously rustic and retro Old Dog has quite a few seats to offer. With about 140 outdoor seats and plenty of standing room spread out across four parts of its property, there are plenty of options to make the most of any summer day.
Old Dog’s live music selection can be described as sophisticated and somewhat strange, which perfectly fits the food offered on the tavern’s menu, which runs the gamut from a quinoa power bowl to burgers to pasties.
Arcadia has a varied menu that includes falafel sandwiches, “Brewer’s Chili,” and chicken and waffles. The microbrewery makes a “British Inspired – American Brewed” beer selection that has close ties to the community, with collaborations like special Art Hop and Kalamazoo Marathon brews.
HopCat offers a rock ‘n’ roll vibe and music selection to go with the large number of beers it offers from around the world and with its delicious pub-food offerings, like its famous “Cosmik Fries” (formerly known as “Crack Fries”).
Bell’s, famous nationwide for its unique and well-priced craft brews, offers a backyard aesthetic and live music.
Bell’s will sometimes open outdoor bars on its patio if things get busy, and grilled on-the-spot food specials are sometimes offered in the beer garden. The menu at the Eccentric Café is seasonal, and this year a special, easy-to-eat-outside menu will feature finger food like tacos and hot dogs.
“It’s kind of a more laid-back feel,” says Riethman.
She says when the beer garden isn’t being used for 1,200-person concerts, it allows for people to just hang out, eat, drink and play “yard games” like cornhole or Jenga Giant.
As far as the bugs that come with eating outdoors, the Bell’s team does its best to limit their effects on customers, but some are just unavoidable, she says.
“We haven’t really had a large issue with (bugs) in the past,” she says. “But we (let people know) that if they are concerned about it, it is an outdoor garden and there is only so much we can do.”
You could even enjoy a nice summer night stroll in the city and visit all four of these great bars and eateries, since they are all pretty close to each other. Just make sure you’re ready for the loud whistle when the occasional train rumbles by.
Food with a view
If you want a venue with a particularly excellent view, there are several regional options. To kick off your night on the town (or end it with a nightcap), head to the SkyDeck, on East Michigan Avenue. This rooftop venue serves delicious cocktails seven stories up to a maximum of 750 people.
“The green treetops from this vantage point look like they go on forever,” says Amanda Rodriguez, the manager for Kalamazoo’s Entertainment District. “Three-hundred-sixty-degree views are unbeatable, and the ability to bar hop all within the block really make it worth it. Summer is short. This is worth the reservation.”
There are also more casual restaurants with outdoor dining on an upper floor, though not nearly as high. Both the University Roadhouse, near Western Michigan University’s main campus, and Cosmo’s Cucina, in the Vine neighborhood, offer outdoor dining on their second floors.
For a beautiful view closer to the ground, there’s the Cove Lakeside Bistro, on the east shore of West Lake in Portage.
“We’re right on the water and have a great view, which is pretty unique to us,” says the Cove’s general manager, Troy Lutke.
The Cove’s seafood and drink menu is designed to reflect its location. Last year the restaurant held an outdoor seafood boil event. Lutke says that holidays tend to be an especially good time to go to the Cove and enjoy festivities, like the boat parade and fireworks on July 4.
The outdoor section of the restaurant has about 100 seats, Lutke says.
The lake’s natural breeze tends to keep many of those pesky summer bugs away from diners’ food, and the outdoor space is treated to keep lake gnats out too, he says.
“For some reason, people have this idea that we’re more like a fine dining, upscale kind of place,” Lutke says. “We try to (have) the highest quality and everything like that, but it’s not just a special-events location and there is no dress code. We want people to come off the lake in their shorts and their flip-flops and come and eat with us.”
For outdoor dining near a body of water that might better fit the “upscale” moniker, there’s Martell’s. Its small, cozy outdoor dining space presents an opportunity to enjoy its American and Italian cuisine by a small lake between Little Asylum Lake and Lake Lime Kiln.
If a scenic view isn’t your main priority, then, depending on your wants and your wallet, there’s a variety of outdoor options to try.
Upscale diners in the Portage area will find the Bravo! Restaurant & Café’s 24-seat patio a private and relaxing space to enjoy the restaurant’s Italian food. The patio is conveniently tucked on one side of the restaurant.
“We do change our menu with the seasons,” says chef and business partner Shawn Hagen. “So we’re eating lighter foods in the spring and summertime, and that goes hand-in-hand with eating outside.”
The patio is situated right by the restaurant’s herb garden, where the chefs can be seen choosing the right herbs for a delicious meal.
“With Michigan’s nice crisp air, it is really special compared to most major, busy cities,” says Hagen. “We have such an advantage of having such clean, fresh air here in Michigan.”
Latitude 42 Brewing Co.’s Oshtemo Township and Portage locations both offer some fancy dining opportunities in their gorgeous patio spaces.
In Mattawan, Nonla Vietnamese Street Food offers bubble tea and Vietnamese soups and sandwiches on a small but attractive outdoor patio. Similarly, East Egg Mattawan offers breakfast food on a small patio that overlooks a pond and fountain.
A bit of everything downtown
If you can’t decide where to dine outdoors, head downtown and walk along the Kalamazoo Mall. Heading north from Lovell Street to Michigan Avenue, you’ll find outdoor seating at Central City Tap House (a pub), Taco Bob’s (a more casual joint), Principle Food & Drink (an upscale farm-to-table restaurant), The Spirit of Kalamazoo (an ice cream shop), Mangia Kitchen + Bar (Italian food), The Union Cabaret & Grille (American fare), and two restaurants in the Radisson Hotel: Old Burdick’s Bar & Grill (a sports bar) and Zazios (contemporary American fine dining).
Of course, restaurants and bars don’t have a monopoly on the outdoor eating business. Every summer, Kalamazoo holds events like the Late-Night Food Truck Rally, Sunday Brunches and Lunchtime Live, which offer food trucks, stands and carts in Bronson Park and on Church Street. You can find more information and schedules for these events at kzooparks.org and foodtruckrallykz.com.
With such a range of outdoor venues, there are plenty of great ways to enjoy every second of your summer while still enjoying the drinks and grub you know and love (or learn to love).