Date of Visit: Thursday, November 12, 2009 at 3:00 p.m.
IMPRESSIONS: Van’s Pastry Shoppe is a small pastry place in an easy-to-forget location on a busy strip of East Fulton Street in Grand Rapids. I say easy-to-forget because my wife and I have been frequenting an Ethiopian restaurant (the AH-mazing Little Africa) across the street for years, and yet have never stopped into Van’s. I think I realized only recently that it was a pastry shop – all the ceramic knick-knacks made me think it was another one of the antique shops that dot the strip. This is all a little sad, because I finally go to Van’s today, order some pastries, and read that the shop has been a family business for, oh, four generations and has been serving Dutch goodies since, oh, the 1920’s. Sheesh, Nick. Shame on you. These little neighborhood gems are the breakfast nooks I pine for.
ATMOSPHERE: Our visit to Van’s was a quick one, but even the ten minutes we spent there showed us a busy crew of four or five handling a constant stream of customers. The shop is small, with maybe ten small tables crammed together, facing the long counter. Van’s does some sandwiches, hot dogs, bread, coffee, cider, and other goods, but the pastries are clearly the featured item. The women behind the counter were all quick to take orders (kudos to them for keeping up with the customers) and get them out the door. I asked one of the girls if they were keeping busy, and she said it had been that way since they opened. Good to hear!
Oh, and don’t let the decor get to you. Van’s is absolutely packed with ceramic sculptures: all the shelves along the walls, all the shelves in the windows. Filled. Fortunately, there are some great retro items in there, so it’s fun to look through them. But don’t let the sheer amount of chotchky overwhelm the history of the place.
FOOD: We tried just two of fifty-odd pastries Van’s offered. Beth ordered a Shakespeare Curl – the standard curled puffed pastry filled with a light cream. I chose a traditional Cream Puff. As far as pastries go, they were delicious. It took us seconds to wolf them down. And I really trusted that they were baked earlier that day. Any place that’s that busy has to keep things fresh in order to feed their customers.
Beth said her Shakespeare Curl was great. I loved my Cream Puff, although it was a little crumbly. It split in the middle, where the two halves were joined around the cream. But the oozing sweet cream and the amazing chocolate on top made up for the loose construction.
SERVICE: Snappy and friendly. I wavered a bit while ordering, and let a couple people go ahead of me, but the girl behind the counter who originally asked what I wanted kept her eye on me. So when I finally did make up my mind, she stepped right in. Impressive. I would have totally forgotten in all the rush.
You can tell, too, that Van’s has its regulars, like any good breakfast or snack place that has been around for over 75 years. One customer came in, sat at a table, and lounged with his coffee. After a while he caught one of the server’s eyes and shouted a hello. She shouted right back and the two joined in conversation like old friends. “Sometimes you wanna go…”
OVERALL: I wish I had a little pastry shop like this around the corner from my house. Or maybe I don’t. Because just the smell alone – much less the good service, freakin’ delicious food, and the wide variety of hand-made pastries – would keep me returning every morning. And then I’d be fat.
-> a better picture of Van’s on Flickr