King Of The Jungle

February 26, 2007
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An overwhelmed Leo Biel was very nearly tearful with joy at last Tuesday’s Grand Culinary Affair at Grand Rapids Community College’s Applied Technology Center. Co-hosted by sister publication Grand Rapids Magazine, the college, the Greater Grand Rapids Chefs Association and Tasters Guild International, the cornerstone of the event is the magazine’s annual dining awards and the chefs association’s culinary awards.

Biel’s downtown restaurant, Leo’s, was crowned 2006 Restaurant of the Year. Chef of the Year was Michael J. Stump, executive chef at Kent Country Club.

The stunning honor for the two-year-old seafood joint — located in, of all places, the Monroe Center II Parking Structure at 60 Ottawa Ave. N.W. — was the perfect ending to a grand night for Biel and wife/co-owner, Amy. Earlier in the evening, crooner Josh Groban enjoyed an early dinner at their restaurant before his nearly sold-out Van Andel Arena concert.

As Leo’s patrons will agree, it is difficult to call the honor an upset. But historically speaking, the 1913 Room has proven the odds-on favorite to win the award in any given year. That five-star restaurant in the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel has won the top award 12 times in the competition’s 26-year history (there was no Best Restaurant category in 1980, the first year the magazine bestowed awards) and finished second in total points this year.

Leo’s win stymied a second 1913 Room three-peat (the first was the 1993-1996 four-peat), forcing it to settle for three wins in the past four years and four of the past seven. It has a lock on its third Restaurant of the Decade, barring two more Restaurant of the Year wins from Rose’s Restaurant in East Grand Rapids (2001 and 2003), three from Leo’s or Sundance Grill in Cascade (2000), or another restaurant winning out the next four years.

In only its second full year of operation, Leo’s did have the benefit of being new blood. Four restaurants have been recognized as Restaurant of the Year as rookies, including the 1913 Room (1982), Charley’s Crab (1984), Gibson’s (1985) and the Sierra Room (1998).

Other past Restaurants of the Year recipients are Sandpiper (1987, 1988, 1990 and 1993), the Macatawa restaurant today known as Piper; Thornapple Village Inn (1985) and Duba’s (1981). Charley’s Crab also won in 1998.

Of the 10 restaurants to have earned the honor, only two, Duba’s and Gibson’s, are not in operation today. On that note, of the 17 restaurants honored in the January 1981 issue with various awards by Joe Borrello, then-magazine-restaurant critic and now the leader of Tasters Guild International, nine have since shut their doors.

  • In the same issue as the inaugural restaurant awards, writer/artist Nancy Yerkes had an illustrated piece documenting possible uses for the neon Weatherball, then regarded as an eyesore in the city’s “billion-dollar downtown.”

Whereas it takes about 15 years for a piece of local history to evolve from eyesore to icon, it only takes a few hours for West Michigan weather to turn on its head. Peter Chan, chief meteorologist for Business Journal news partner WXMI Fox 17, explained that it actually took three weeks for the unseasonably warm weather of December and early January to give way to near record snowfalls and freezing temperatures.

“We saw it coming two to three weeks out,” he said. “We saw the warm weather pattern breaking down, and we knew it would take a dive.”

With 27.3 inches of snow at press time (double the average 12.2 inches), February 2007 is a shoe-in as the second snowiest February on record (29.6 inches, 1994/1895), but will not likely touch the record 35.5 inches of 1900.

With that said, this does not rule out the global warming trend that seemed so obvious six weeks ago.

“Individual weather events are not an indication for or against global warming,” Chan said. “It’s much more subtle than that. … There is no question that we are in the midst of a warming trend. … The question is whether or not we, the human race, had anything to do with it.”

  • Formal proposals for the city of Grand Rapids’ Public Works Island property at 201 Market St. S.W. were due after press time last week. Although the possibility hasn’t been brought up in public discussion, odds are the winning proposal will suggest a land-lease for the property, and not an outright sale.

John Stainback of Stainback Public/Private Real Estate, the Houston consulting firm that will be evaluating the proposals on behalf of the city, told the Business Journal that a land-lease is likely the best option for both the city and the developer. The city keeps control of the land and is able to tax improvements, while the developer doesn’t need to pony up close to $100 million just to break ground.

However the chips fall, this could be the last hoorah for the now-legendary mystery development. Continuing the history lesson, if Duane Faust’s River Grand project does not come to fruition, it will not be the first high-profile development to fail in downtown Grand Rapids.

Other memorable developments that never were include Gustave Hendrick’s 34-story furniture market, Furniture Capitol, in 1926; Byron Kluesing’s 33-story Rainbow Towers in 1974; a Faison Associates office tower and retail atrium in 1988; the office tower at Lyon Street and Ottawa Avenue proposed by DP Fox and the Ellis family in 2000; and Jack Buchanan’s controversial Calder Plaza hotel proposed in 2003.

  • Grand Rapids native Michelle Mulder, president of Chicago-area development interest Revolution Investment Corp., has witnessed the massive growth of downtown Grand Rapids over the past decade during regular visits with family and friends.

“I couldn’t help but think there has to be a way to become part of the excitement and vitality that’s happening in Grand Rapids,” she said, explaining how she came to convert a 20-unit apartment building at 23 College Ave. SE into an entry-level condominium complex.

Marketing the project, called Avenue 23, are Liz Klinzing, Mary Mapes and David Mapes of Coldwell Banker AJS-Schmidt.  

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