Wolfgang’s. For many Grand Rapidians, a necessary pilgrimage. Among students, the restaurant enjoys mythical status as the place you can get a $4 early bird special, that is, if you can peel yourself out of bed in time. It’s common for little herds of Calvin students make the pilgrimage together, emerging from dormitories into the crisp Michigan mornings shuffling to their cars. There will be coffee soon enough and a plate of scrambled eggs with hash browns, or pancakes, or…
A friend and I walked through the door. It’d been a while. As I found myself enveloped in warm light and wrapped up in the scent of hot chocolate, coffee, and pancakes, I knew we’d made the right choice. We sat down on the tall chairs at the bar and stared through the window into the kitchen, at the cooks with their bandannas and aprons, shuffling skillets and hollering as they popped steaming plates of food through the window. This place felt right.
Like a diner in any American classic film, waiters flitted about with pads of paper, taking down orders for things like two eggs and hash browns, omelets with no peppers, triple stacks of pancakes, etc. They soon return carrying Bunn coffee pots trailing steam. No pour over, no fancy Japanese drip contraption. The process is as follows: 1) Drop grounds into a big, white filter, 2) Flip the switch.
I looked around. There was something sturdy and distinctly Midwestern about this place. Maybe it just felt honest, perhaps a bit uncool-and-don’t care. It was “outdated” in design, but even that word seemed completely irrelevant. No pretense, no lies. You sit down, then get the menu, then water in hard plastic cups, followed by coffee, and finally the main dish, served on a hot white plate.
We dug into our meals, bacon, eggs, potatoes, and just talked as the diner hummed around us.
True, West Michigan is transforming quickly and expanding, many would say booming. As we transition, though, I sincerely hope that places like this don’t go out of style—that not everything becomes trendy, hip and new. Because it’s places like this that feel the most grounded. Longstanding joints, full of 30 years of life and something of the steady, day in-and-out joy of just existing anywhere at all.
Spots like Wolfgang’s make locations into places.
Here, we share in what thousands of others have done in the past and what about 30 others are doing in the present. It anchors us together.
A friend recently told me about his stay in a Seattle suburb called Kirkland. I had thought Brandt was living the life. I thought he’d shaken off the dust of his Midwestern past and adopted the Pacific Northwest: the pure air, the coffee, the mountains. But he told me about a phenomenon known as the “Seattle Freeze,” which essentially describes when people leave their homes to go to work, work, then proceed directly back into their house. “Bedroom communities” like these terrify me because of what they seem to think that the good life is: only the individual, only the company. Only work and sleep and maybe taking care of the yard. Brandt seemed to miss home, or, more specifically, the kind of community life that keeps a place like Wolfgang’s serving up hot plates of breakfast.
I deeply value what I’ve found here in West Michigan: the everyday closeness, the longstanding diners and pots of coffee poured the same way for decades and the smiles and nods from strangers on the street. We’re maybe not hip, but we’re definitely Midwestern. This place is worth living in, and I’m grateful. Wolfgang’s, please don’t go away.