Having lived in Lowell for four years, it was entirely conceivable to me that I had experienced all this small city had to offer in terms of dining. There is the typical bar scene known as Sneaker’s, the family-friendly, greasy spoon Keiser’s Kitchen, the showboat neighbor Flat River Grill, both highly-overpriced Chinese places, and all three of the worst fast food joints to have on a one mile stretch. The food in Lowell is terrible, and for a family of three who only eat takeout and live in the heart of this small city, this is a problem. Most days, if we can help it, we eat in Cascade on 28ths stretch of a million choices. But some days, like weekends, when my mother doesn’t have to drive me to school or herself to work downtown Grand Rapids, that solution is impractical. There is no reason to drive fifteen minutes to get food when you do not have to. On those days, we make do with what is in the house. Naturally, not actual meals, as that would require turning on the stove that my mother so desperately hates, but we do our best.
Until last week, I had never heard of The Backwater Cafe before. Leaving the dentist’s with zero cavities for the both of us, my mother decided to take my sister and I to breakfast.
The lovely dental secretary had recommended this small establishment not even a hundred feet from the office, Backwater Cafe.
With a name like that, our expectations were not high, but we proceeded to its entrance anyway.
The entryway is almost the very definition of whatever Backwater means: a community bulletin board bare save for a few sports fliers hangs on the wall, a carpet that smells of dust and rain boots stews below your feet, and a door that you have to open and shut yourself like a horror movie basement door sits on weak hinges as you come in.
The after sight is not much prettier. A hallway smaller than a college dorm kitchen leads you to the smallest restaurant dining area I have ever seen in my life, complete with probably-wallpaper-covered tables and booths with busted-in seats. The few people in the small amount of space are old and strange-looking: the kind of strange that makes you uneasy.
The waitress gave us menus, and she may have been in a particularly bad mood that morning because she did not like the idea of a smile.
At this point, there is not a sign that has not occurred to keep our hopes up. The Backwater Cafe was a hole in the wall breakfast joint, and we had to use the same standards we used for the rest of the Lowell restaurants.
Except that was not the case.
The moment that truly set me off about this place was the second my cinnamon roll was sat down in front of me. I had no clue why I ordered it, everywhere I went they have been terrible. But I love cinnamon rolls with a burning passion, so I decided to take a leap of faith.
It came out steaming, drenched in cream cheese icing, and legitimately visibly soft.
This was the turning point. Regardless of whether or not the food was good, I would be a returning customer.
However, our food came out, not particularly challenging items, but the ones every eatery seems to get wrong. We got biscuits and gravy, toast, and diced potatoes.
The biscuits and gravy was to die for, far from dry and nowhere near soggy with just the right amount of sausage. Shockingly filling, even my half order wound up in an industrial-size to-go box.
I will equivocate for every one of my tastebuds; their toast is the best toast out of any restaurant in the Grand Rapids area. I have no clue what kind it is, but it has a unique look to it. It was the perfect combination of fluffy and crunchy and went exceptionally well with grape jelly.
The diced potatoes made even the fanciest of diners look dismal in comparison. Any place with a variety of potatoes fried in a variety of seasonings and served next to the main entree could enter a contest with The Backwater Cafe’s one kind of potato, no special seasoning side dish and lose miserably.
After returning a few times, The Backwater Cafe, our new weekend restaurant of choice, has shown its shack-like appearance for what it truly is. You walk into the little hut and recognize the home qualities immediately, rather than a corporate-controlled atmosphere. The small space is for a sense of family; everyone who eats there is closer in vicinity and emotional presence. Busted in booths and chairs are not a lack of tending to them, more of a sign that years and years of history happened in them. Families mended, relationships struggled, lone people grieved in those very seats. It takes a minute to notice after all the initial setbacks, but real pictures line those walls. Ones that aren’t framed, but actually taken and pinned to bulletin boards. An old man laughing as he blows out his birthday candles, a waitress you recognize the face of on her first day, people who lived and learned in the cafe.
That waitress who was stressed out, I learned her to be the sweetest woman who welcomes me back by name every time and asks about my family.
The Backwater Cafe may be a run-down little hut that goes against all of society’s standards for what an enterprise is supposed to look like, but on a Saturday morning when you have a craving for good food and want to feel like a part of a family, it is the perfect choice.