Discovering Kalamazoo - The Awesome Mitten

The Imaginary City I Never Knew Was Real

Kalamazoo. Who would’ve thought it’s actually a real place? I’m sure every Michigan native who’s reading this right now thinks I’m crazy/naïve/bad at geography (and at least a couple of those are probably true), but for most of my life, Kalamazoo was always one of those funny words that people used to describe an imaginary place. In fact, a lot of people I’ve talked to recently (Michiganders excluded, of course) responded essentially the same way when I told them about my recent excursion: “I always thought that was made-up.”

Well, it’s definitely not made-up. And that’s good news, because the real Kalamazoo is actually pretty cool. A mish-mosh of historic neighborhoods, city life, and repurposed spaces, this city is a hub where old meets new. In fact, the very first stop my husband and I made when we took an afternoon trip to K-zoo was the Vine Neighborhood, a conglomeration of lovely, old homes and popular, new eateries. Destination of choice? An awesome restaurant called Crow’s Nest.

Discovering Kalamazoo - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

While my husband and I were new to Crow’s Nest, it was obvious that the rest of Kalamazoo was plenty-familiar with the establishment. Upon arrival, the line for a table started at the top of a two-story building, ran down a tall staircase, and out the front door to the sidewalk. Thinking there was no way we’d ever get a table, my husband and I started talking to a couple of girls who stood in front of us. They both had only good things to say: “It’s our go-to place . . . totally worth it.” Luckily, my husband and I took their advice as cues to stay, and within ten minutes or so, we were whisked past a couple of larger parties to our very own table (being a party of two sometimes has its advantages).

Upstairs, the dining room was charming and comfortable—exposed brick walls, old hardwood floors with just the right amount of stains and scuff marks, and white-trimmed windows with brightly-colored curtains. After taking in the utter cuteness of it all, I immersed myself in choosing an option off the amazing breakfast menu (seriously, how can you decide when everything sounds so good?). I finally decided on the Schooner, an egg scramble filled with lots of goodies like prosciutto, goat cheese, and roasted red peppers. Meanwhile, my husband ordered a meat-filled, gravy-topped omelet known as the Agriculturalist, and we rounded off the smorgasbord with a plate of banana bread French toast.

Oh, my goodness. Everyone: GO TO CROW’S NEST AND ORDER SOMETHING RIGHT NOW. No one was kidding when they explained to me how good this place was. Sure, we all have our favorite restaurants, but Crow’s Nest is one of those that sticks in your memory as having truly exceptional food. No wonder there was a line to get in—I mean, hello—who else makes French toast out of a hunk of banana bread and serves it up warm with walnuts and a caramelized glaze? If you know of another place, let me know. I’d love to be friends with them, as well.

Discovering Kalamazoo - The Awesome Mitten
Photo courtesy of Jennifer Bowman

Boxing up our leftovers, we embarked on a drive to Air Zoo, located just outside the city in Portage. Lured in by the prospect of a hot air balloon festival, outdoor car show, and a museum filled with airplanes, my husband needed no convincing when it came to joining me on this excursion. It was the promise of a real-life SR-71 Blackbird that really reeled him in, however, and after we spent a little time looking at classic cars, the discussion changed and I got an earful of reasons why this aircraft was so cool. It was kind of like listening to a little boy babble about Power Rangers or whatever kids actually like these days (I really don’t know the answer to this one).

Lucky for him (us?), there was one of those gigantic SR-71 wonders nestled inside the building, along with a wonderland of other flying machines. World War II fighters, spacecraft replicas, even a piece of real-life moon rock—it was an aviation/aerospace lover’s heaven. In addition to an up-close-and-personal plane museum, Air Zoo also featured carnival-like rides for kids, a 4D theater with movies that put you in the seats of World War II pilots and NASA astronauts, and several flight simulators. While we didn’t spring the extra $6.50-each for unlimited rides, I kind of wish we had now just to try my hand at flying an aircraft. Ah, well. Maybe I’ll play pilot next time around.

Afterwards, we made our way back into the city for a closer look at downtown and a little souvenir shopping. We stopped by a shop called The Spirit of Kalamazoo, a fun place that sells ice cream and college apparel. Finding a photo of a button I loved (“Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo”), I asked the store clerks if they had any more in stock. Unfortunately, they were temporarily out, but were kind enough to call another store a few blocks down to see if they carried any. The second store did, so I was sent off in search of Nature Connection, another lovely business within walking distance. Not only did this shop have the button I was looking for, they also carried scads of Michigan souvenirs and locally-made products. Gathering a few gifts for family members, I made it out of the store with Christmas ornaments, stationery, and local honey, to name a few items. What I really had my eye on, though, was a beautiful, Michigan-shaped, wooden cutting board. I didn’t snatch it up that day, but it’s on my Christmas list.

Any Kalamazoo lovers out there? Which sites would you suggest I visit the next time I’m in town?

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– By Jennifer Bowman, Contributing Writer

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80 Comments

  1. It’s funny because I’ve spent a lot of time in Kzoo, but for some reason I never have a great impression when I leave. I see concrete everywhere and I disdain that 131 Business Route from the north. And I think WMU has the most unfortunate looking campus in the state (And I go to Wayne State). However, every once in a while I do remember the Kalamazoo Mall and thinking it was a beautiful space.
    Clearly, I need to get back there!

    1. You definitely should! Sometimes, I think it just takes another set of eyes or a fresh perspective. Looking past what you know and trying to find something new can make for an amazing experience!

      1. Absolutely! I need to get that way to visit Bell’s anyway…I might as well journey a few more miles to the west.

  2. Come back the first Friday of December for two reasons. 1) Art hop. Google it! And 2) Arcadia, Boatyard, Gonzo’s Biggdogg and Rupert’s will all be open, Kalamazoo is a beer-lover’s haven!

    1. So, correct me if I’m wrong…is Art Hop a spread of art exhibits all over town? If so, sounds amazing! If not, I’m sure it’s something else I’d love anyway. 😉

      1. Primarily downtown. Burdick street and the walkway that extends north at the intersection of Michigan/Burdick. Great fun!!

      2. It absolutely is! It’s basically a walking tour of galleries and studios around downtown, it’s really great!

    1. I’m not typically a tea-lover, but have been wanting to get into some of the tastier, more interesting varieties (keep in mind, I come from the land of iced sweet tea, and that’s all I know). Any suggestions?

      1. You might like Chocolatea (portage) better, more latte-like tea concoctions. And lots of other goodies. Although, Tudor House plum tea is a personal favorite.

        1. Yes to Chocolatea….charming place and lots of sweets as well. Plus they also own an oil and vinegar store a few steps away,

  3. As someone who was born and raised in Kalamazoo, I’m always humbled by others’ first impressions. The breweries are definitely must-see places, but there are also a variety of coffee shops, with Black Owl Café being one of my favorites.

    1. I was wondering about coffee shop recommendations! Kalamazoo is obviously big on beer, but I’m more of a coffee girl myself. 🙂

      1. Water Street is good as is Fourth Coast (right below the Crow’s Nest). And if you’re ever in town when it is open, Caffe Casa on the Kalamazoo Mall makes a fabulous bacon mocha.

        1. Bacon mocha. Two words I never thought I’d use together, but it sounds so intriguing, I don’t know if I could pass it up if given the opportunity.

      2. If it’s coffee you like, you definitely must check out Water Street Cafe. They also have amazing food. Lots of vegetarian choices if you’re into that 🙂

      3. Something’s Brewing, on South Street is definitely where it’s at for coffee! It’s the oldest coffee shop in town…been around since 1984.

  4. I lived there for many years and moved away in 1996. I still go back at least once a year, and it’s amazing how much has changed. The Bell’s Brewery’s Eccentric Cafe is awesome now – it used to be a hole in the wall that now has a large performing area and a huge beer garden.

    I love wandering around downtown. There’s some quirky stores down there that are definitely worth checking out. Different unique restaurants, too. Zazios has a cool chef’s table experience where you watch the chef prepare your meal, I believe. Fandango was really good, too. Bimbo’s downtown is great if you want a cheap thin crust pizza, but Bilbo’s Pizza (I think it’s down in Portage, a suburb?) has amazing pan pizza with a Hobbit theme.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that whatever weekend I’m home, it seems like there is some festival going on downtown. I’ve caught great blues, reggae, food, etc.

    Oh, the Beer Exchange is a great bar just for the concept! Beer prices change based on how popular they are at any moment.

    1. Thanks so much for all of the recommendations, Chad! I’ve also heard that the Eccentric Cafe is a must-try (and from the rest of your comment, I think I have to try Zazios, too…and whoa–I have to see what a “hobbit-themed” pizza place is like, so sign me up for Bilbo’s). I also need to stay later one evening for a concert–I love me some outdoor music! 🙂

      1. Concerts will be a next summer thing – I’m guessing they’re done for the year. *sigh*

        For coffee, my favorite was always Fourth Coast. Of course, I was around when it opened, knew the owner, and lived about a block and a half away, so I might have been biased. But, if you loved Crow’s Nest, I assume you’ll love Fourth Coast, too, since they’re connected. Sadly, I haven’t eaten at Crow’s Nest, but I’ll make sure I hit it next time in town after your recommendation!

        I also try to hit Water Street Coffee Joint every time I’m in town. It’s pretty small, but a great place.

  5. Bell’s Brewery, Food Dance (brunch is my favorite), Sticks and Stones & Amy Zane & Terrapin shops on Kalamazoo Mall, Garden Gate cafe for cupcakes, Water Street Coffee Joint, Zazio’s for Italian (reserve a spot at the Chef’s cooking demonstration table for fun!), and Kalamazoo Valley Museum (it’s free!)

  6. Food Dance, Martini’s, Saffron Indian restaurant, parks trade center for art, farmers market !!! I love Kzoo!

  7. For food: Martini’s (Italian… 1/2block from Crow’s Nest), Saffron (Indian… next door to one of the best wine, beer, and spirits stores ever), and Just Good Food (aka Rose St. Market). For art: Park Trades Center on the first Friday of each month, Western’s Richmond Center for the Visual Arts, and Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. For shopping: Retro (awesome vintage furniture and knick knacks for awesome prices), Michigan News Agency (books, magazines, and zines… lots of locally published works here!), and the whole length of the Kalamazoo Mall (aka Burdick St.).

  8. Bring your bikes and ride off your awesome food (great suggestions already) on the Kalamazoo Valley River Trail. It can be taken north out of downtown to D avenue through the Nature Center. Beautiful paved trail! Or, go west and end up at 10th street where you can pick up the Kal-Haven trail and ride all the way to South Haven in a short 33 miles. 🙂

    1. My husband actually mentioned during our trip that he would’ve liked to bring bikes along for the day. Sounds like there are plenty of places to ride…I’ll have to remember to pack mine next time! 🙂

  9. Glad you liked the Air Zoo. If you attended on Saturday morning, I was there, and would have been glad to give you a tour. It’s what I do.

    1. We may have walked right past each other! Next time I’m there, I’ll have to take you up on that tour. 🙂

  10. Go north of town to the Nature Center. Spend the night in our castle- Henderson Castle (West Main Hill). Take bike or roller blade or just stroll on the celery flats (Portage). Drive between Henderson Castle and WMU/K-College- awesome old neighborhood. WMU and K-College’s campus are pretty to walk around. (After all the food suggestions thought you might need to stretch your legs 🙂

    1. I definitely need some activity after all of the delicious food I’ll be eating! 🙂 And what is this about a castle??

  11. I suggest Food Dance for farm-to-table fresh food, enjoy a few songs at Monaco Bay where they have dueling pianos (where Matt Giraud from American Idol got his start), and Bella Patina where Pinterest and local creativity comes to life!

    1. I’ve always wanted to see a real dueling piano show! Definitely going on my list. And how can I pass up a real-life Pinterest shop?

  12. Webster’s Prime for the best steak in town, and they have live entertainment on Wednesday and Friday evenings in their Tasting Room. No cover.

  13. Having grown up here, I wanted to do nothing more than leave for something greater immediately after high school. I went to Chicago, France, and Ireland, and, while I fell in love with all of those places, it really just made me appreciate home that much more.

    Bilbo’s has some of my favorite pizza (the stuffed pizza)–there are two locations: one in Portage on Westnedge, and one in Kalamazoo on Stadium. Latitude 42 brewpub opened in Portage a couple of months ago, and their food is amazing (prime rib sandwich is my go-to). Olde Peninsula is a favorite stop downtown (pub dip–I’m drooling), as is The Heritage Company (an architectural salvage store, along with the connecting consignment area that’s FULL of treasures). Summer is full of downtown festivals, as well, my favorite being the Taste of Kalamazoo.

  14. Stop by Urban Cottage they sell Michigan cutting boards,as well as some great pieces of furniture and home accessories!

  15. Definitely try to time your visit for Art Hop. There are a couple great museums right downtown: the Kalamazoo Valley Museum (great for kids!) and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art. I’d also check to see if there are ever any musicians coming through and playing at the State Theatre downtown–it’s such a cool old building, a very beautiful and rather intimate venue. And if you’re looking for a college campus that isn’t as “unfortunate looking” as one commenter mentioned about WMU, definitely take a walk around Kalamazoo College’s campus. Founded in 1833 it’s the oldest institution of higher learning in the state (founded before Michigan even was a state) and many describe it as looking like an Ivy League school plunked down in the midwest. It’s beautiful year-round!

    1. I remember seeing some signs around downtown for the Kalamazoo College, but next time I’ll try to get out to look around. Thanks for the suggestions! 🙂

      1. I live a block from K College and it is like walking around an east coast ivy league school. Cobblestone streets, little houses for staff set back in woods, brick and stone everywhere, the tennis finals are held here, and the Arcus Center for Justice is one of the most architecturally interesting structures in town. Great walk, and you can then visit the Henderson Castle, which is just on the other side of the hill from it. They have a French tasting menu that is paired with wines. You can stay there as a bed & breakfast spa, or just dine.

        I’m going to reinforce the suggestions for coffee at the Black Owl. They are only open until 3pm, though. They serve food on the weekends. Also, Rustica and Food Dance are wonderful for dinner. When you’re back on the mall street again, hit Peregrine Plaza and go visit the fine folks at Juicy Leaf. They make amazing cold-pressed juice and it is a staple in our house. If you’re around on a Saturday morning, I would highly recommend you come to the Farmer’s Market. http://farmersmarketkalamazoo.com/ It isn’t just for locals shopping for food. We have food trucks to choose from, locally made products to purchase (you want handmade underwear made from upcycled t-shirts? We’ve got that, stop by La Vie en Orange’s table at the market, or online @ http://www.korijock.com/ ), bands play while you roam and eat your food and chat with people. And, they even have a table set up with those Michigan cutting boards you had your eye on!

        1. And the food trucks set up at our lovely Bronson Park in the summer….on Fridays I believe, through the summer. Games are set up in the park and there’s music. People laze around (aren’t you sure you don’t want to move here, by now?)

  16. Shakespeares! Located downtown. They have, hands DOWN the very best Nachos in the history of ever. Not to mention their assortment of brews. Theres even a cute comedy club below them.

  17. Definitely the Parks Trade Center. Also if you are in the Vine Neighborhood there is SO MUCH local music that will blow your mind. There are some small house venues that are free to get into and I’ve seen people in their 50’s at these shows. In addition the people running the places are big on a safe place to hang out. Keep in mind it’s not a party, it’s a performance – but there are always talented local acts around bringing in talented out of towners as well.

  18. If you’re a food lover, O’Duffy’s anf Cosmo’s always have great food. They are tucked into the Vine Street neighborhood, on the corner of Vine and Locust, just down the street from Crow’s Nest/4th Coast. Ole Peninsula is another personal favorite.

  19. We lived in Kalamazoo for over 30 years. While on a road trip through Pennsylvania we stopped at a gas station and the guy looked at my driver’s license and then looked at me and said, “You’re from KALAMAZOO ? You mean there’s really a place named Kalamazoo ? We both laughed when I said, ” Yes, and I’m the gal from Kalamazoo ! Wonderful place to raise a family .

  20. For just being a Chinese take-out place, Campus Kitchen (or it might be Campus Wok now, I can’t remember) on the far side of WMU has the absolutely best Chinese food I have ever had. To this day, across numerous cities, I still cannot find one that is as good. Every time I’m in Kzoo, I try to stop by. Pretty different from my college days at this point, but the food is still incredible

  21. My college town!! : ) I always like to go to the People’s Food Co-op when I’m there – one of my favorite health food stores. Also love Natural Health Center. Kzoo rocks!

  22. There are some good antique stores. plus Black Owl Cafe is home to Kalamazoo Coffee Co. That place is a nice little Kalamazoo secret.

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