Earlier this month, the Crooked Goose closed its doors for the very last time. It was a momentous and bittersweet occasion, because my wife, sisters, and about ten of our friends have been coming here for years.
Achieving “Regular” status is a rewarding endeavor. It doesn’t come easily, especially at busy establishments that see thousands of repeat customers. It’s a rank that must be earned, and, for the most part, respected (the drive-thru guy at Taco Bell once greeted me by name, and I knew I had a problem). Like an open relationship, it requires a delicate balance: You are permitted to see other bars, as long as you check in at this bar on a regular basis. If you intend to keep coming back, you better not complain about the food, price, or service, and you definitely can’t leave a bad tip, ever. But that’s the nature of the game, and you play it for the benefits. If you treat them right, your bartenders will be thrilled to see you when you walk in, they’ll serve you promptly and sincerely, and they might even “forget” to ring up a beer from time to time. They’ll save you a seat on busy nights, charge you the happy hour price, and seek you out when unclaimed food orders can’t find a home. Plus, it’s nice not to have to pull out your ID and be reminded of your hairless baby face every time you go out.
Our favorite bartender insisted we call her “Mom” because all of the other waitresses did. She truly was the matron of the Goose, whereas many of the wait staff were transient college students paying off their loans. Mom took care of both customers and servers with evenhanded compassion and justice. The customer isn’t always right, and whenever Mom felt that one of her daughters was taking a little too much lip from a lingering-eyed roughneck, she’d put a stop to it. She commanded respect.
In Grand Rapids, there is an incredible number of bars, restaurants, and breweries to choose from. In a city booming with nightlife that caters to every patron, it’s not always easy to settle on just one establishment, but the Goose was special. From the day it opened, it was everything I’d been looking for in a bar and stayed that way right up to the end. A part of the Meritage Hospitality Group that owns the Michigan-centric joints Twisted Rooster, Wheelhouse, and Freighters, Crooked Goose sought to capitalize on the “craft-beer-and-local-menu” trend currently sweeping the state.
Crooked Goose was perfect for my friends. For starters, it was located in downtown Standale, and thus perfectly centralized for our group. The menu was eclectic, quirky, reasonably priced, and delicious, with items like deep-fried cookie dough balls, alligator tail, and a peanut-butter-Cap’n-Crunch burger. Daily specials made food options affordable; right up until the end you could still order a medium pizza for four dollars.
Crooked Goose’s mantra was “Commit to the Mitt,” a slogan backed up by the many Michigan-themed decorations and menu items. On the rare occasion we didn’t order Michigan craft beer, we treated ourselves to “Lake Michigan Drive Punch” and spiked Faygo floats. That wasn’t often, though. The managers knew the right people, and it wasn’t unusual to find hidden gems like Founders KBS, Bell’s Hopslam, or New Holland Dragonsmilk on tap there. The inside was decorated with Atwater beer signs, whitetail mounts, and Great Lakes decals.
It was classy enough to rise above the dive bar ranks, but not so swanky that you couldn’t waltz in there with sweatpants and flip-flops. I think they had intended to lure the Grand Valley State crowd living in Standale, and they got us instead, night after night. We constantly showed up smelling of bonfire smoke, lawn trimmings, or diesel fuel. We’d have our trucks lined up out front, kayaks, skis, and mountain bikes protruding from the beds, boots dripping with Grand River mud as we came in to fill up growlers and head back out. We were far from ideal patrons—we have a few crass loudmouths among us—and we tended to stay past closing, but Mom and the rest were always cheery and accommodating to us.
There were some unique quirks about the Goose that became part of the charm over time as well. The musical playlist could not possibly have been more miscellaneous, but it was not random. A waitress explained once that it was a Spotify station that had been meticulously tweaked over the course of six years. Many of the songs were the kind you hadn’t heard in ages and forgot you loved, like Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle,” or “Stacy’s Mom” by Fountains of Wayne. But you could also hear Johnny Cash, Owl City, and Eminem. On one playlist.
Shark Tank was always on TV. In six years, over hundreds of visits, there have been maybe three occasions where it wasn’t on display. I learned a lot about home gyms, backpackable wine glasses, and the “I Want To Draw A Cat For You” guy. Hours upon hours of entertainment when the Lions inevitably failed to provide some.
There was also an odd mural above the bar that sparked constant debate, and I’m kicking myself for not taking a picture of it. It featured a goose and a deer having a beer behind some kind of glass pane, with mountains behind them. That much was agreed upon, but the rest was always hotly contested. For years, I had assumed they were driving some sort of top-down convertible on a country road out west, with the Goose (driver) enjoying an illicit roadie beer. One of our waitresses dismissed that quickly, saying they were sitting at a bar, and the pane in front of them was some kind of one-way mirror. “There’s no steering wheel, or backseat of the car,” she pointed out. What I thought was a rearview mirror was supposedly the blank backside of a beer sign. But the deer was wearing sunglasses, and there was no background of a bar, either. Just mountains. Also, the deer seemed pissed off, while the Goose looked happily hammered. When Crooked Goose finally closed, we offered to buy it, having stared at it all these years and debating. Management said nah.
So why did it close? Other than Meritage’s obligatory response about the “growing trade area” and “different directions,” they wanted to take, that’s not for the patrons to know, I guess. It pains me to admit this, but I can see why, although it was our favorite bar, it might not have lived up to the owners’ expectations. The restaurant was often mostly empty, which never ceased to astonish me. The lite beer loyalists already had their drinking holes, and the GVSU traffic evidently was not as steady as hoped. It often took a while for Crooked Goose to change their tap list because they just weren’t going down that fast; the conservative, blue-collar families of Walker had better things to do than to grab a beer at 10 o’clock on a Tuesday.
But we didn’t. Among the nine of us that lived on the West Side, we were represented almost every other night at the Goose. Whether it was a night of giant Jenga, March Madness, Red Wings playoffs, or just to imbibe some après ski lagers, that was our go-to meeting place for food and fellowship.
And now we don’t have one. I went sledding with the guys the other night, and after we’d had our fill of icy wipeouts and feeling too old for this shit, we decided to get a drink afterward. While we argued about which Walker bars were still open, I remember feeling kind of crestfallen. We were barless. We showed up at a nondescript little dive in Standale that I had passed thousands of times and never entered before, and it was exactly what I expected it to be. A dive.
In the grand scheme of things, this is not remotely a big deal, but still… I really don’t think I’ll ever appreciate another bar the way I loved the Goose.
It’s not all bad. I’ve certainly saved money since the Goose closed, even at the expense of seeing the guys a little less. And it’s not the end of the story, either. Apparently they are reopening as Taco Vista and hiring back a number of the wait staff. Mom seemed pretty optimistic about the idea, and so I guess I will too. In the meantime, I’ll have to make do without. Deep-fried cookie cough can’t be that hard to make, right?