Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine brings island experience to downtown GR

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — A new restaurant is bringing a taste of the islands to downtown Grand Rapids.

A July 2020 image shows a jarros de cafe at Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine.

Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine opened last weekend with an experience that doesn’t stop at the plate. The restaurant at 55 Monroe Center NW immerses guests in Caribbean culture with original art everywhere, including traditional hand-painted metal coffee cups from the Dominican Republic, called jarros de café.

“The local artists … can bring their pictures here, their art, and if customers are willing to buy it, then they’ll be able to do that from here. So it’s a way of support also for our local artists,” owner and chef Gilma DeLaCruz said.

(Artist Picardo paints a mural near the entrance to Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine in downtown Grand Rapids.)

Island music also floats through the Caribbean restaurant, which is the first of its kind downtown, according to DeLaCruz.

“When you travel to the Caribbean, when you get to the airport, the first thing that they have is music, live music. So we want to be able to give you have that experience here without having to travel right now, (since) that is impossible to do,” she said.

ON THE MENU

DeLaCruz’s food made its mark on downtown Grand Rapids in September 2018 with the area’s first Caribbean food truck, El Caribe. The pandemic forced the popular food truck to shut down for about 45 days, but it is once again feeding visitors in Rosa Parks Circle and other areas, now by pre-order.

DeLaCruz says inquiries from visitors in love with El Caribe’s food pushed her to expand to a place that won’t have to close when winter hits.

“With the food truck, we kept traveling and traveling and we had a lot of customer’s asking, ‘When, where are you going to have a brick and mortar? When are … we going to be able to find your food in one spot and not moving around?’” DeLaCruz said.

Some of the food that has made El Caribe so popular is on the menu at Art Caribbean, including the Cuban sandwich with plantain chips, steak jibarito made with plantains instead of bread, and empanadas made from scratch.

The menu also has some new options, including Caribbean nachos. Visitors can also order yuca fries and malanga fries.

“Caribbean (food) is the seasoning, too. All of the flavors that we bring together in a meal … when you taste it, it’s not just blend, but you’ll have different tastes,” DeLaCruz said. “Your taste buds will be able to have so many explosions when you try Caribbean food, from spiciness to sweet, being able to explore all of that in one dish.”

A FAMILY AFFAIR

Creating food is in DeLaCruz’s blood. Her mother runs Rincon Criollo restaurant off Grandville Avenue near Clyde Park Avenue and her sister-in-law is the executive chef for Hard Rock Stadium in Miami.

Her relatives inspired her to pursue a career in culinary arts and helped her open Art Caribbean, from the menu planning to preparing the space.

“We’re a very strong family and we try to support each other,” she said. “So when we’re open, you’ll see my mom … here running around and telling me how to do things and how to open because that’s how we are. We are a family of support and we have each other’s back.”

(Chef and owner Gilma DeLaCruz (left) stands with her family in front of her new restaurant, Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine, located at 55 Monroe Center NW in downtown Grand Rapids.)

DeLaCruz’s restaurant combines her childhood experiences of growing up in the restaurant industry and in the Dominican Republic.

“I wanted to bring, share with Grand Rapids, that culture,” she said.

“My husband and I have always traveled to Florida (and) New York. When we go there, we love the fact that we can visit so many different restaurants and be able to have that diversity. And we wanted to have that change here in Grand Rapids. We wanted to bring that diversity and food to the downtown area,” she added.

(A July 2020 photo shows a piece of art on display and available for purchase at Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine.)

CHANGING PLANS

COVID-19 delayed Art Caribbean’s opening by about three months. While DeLaCruz was waiting, a riot erupted downtown near her restaurant.

“I did not sleep at night,” she said. “My husband and I were sitting on in the bed and we were like, we don’t know what’s going to be tomorrow morning. I mean, if they, if our business got destroyed, what’s next?”

Daylight brought relief in the form of a friend’s phone call — the restaurant only needed its sign fixed and windows cleaned.

“My husband was able to come here and help other businesses clean up their windows, put boards up. And it was very amazing. The night of the riots … (was) a lot of sadness, (being) anxious. And the next morning was happiness, seeing how our community came together to help clean up and get all these businesses back to open,” she said.

DeLaCruz says challenges created by COVID-19 are still emerging.

“Probably one of my biggest right now is food supply. Prices and food have gone up. So we have had to make changes to our original menu to make sure that we’re not losing money and still being able to offer authentic and quality food to our guests,” she said.

DeLaCruz also had to change the dining experience, spacing out seating for social distancing, using disposable menus, adding hand sanitizing stations and utilizing outdoor seating set up by Downtown Grand Rapids Inc. for takeout customers.

(A July 2020 image shows the murals painted by an artist from the Dominican Republic on display at Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine.)

All staff will be wearing masks. Guests are asked to do so as well when they’re not eating.

“We ask that every guest that comes in is also mindful … of the staff that’s here trying to offer you an experience,” she said. “That (we) all work together to make sure that we’re all staying healthy. So that’s one … of the challenges — making sure that we’re all protecting each other.”

Normally, the restaurant could fit 50 people. Coronavirus precautions cut that in half.

“It’s day by day. I mean, we were at a point where we asked ourself, ‘Are we going to go through this?’ We thought this was not going to happen. And then they decide to open this (outdoor seating) thing,” she said.

While there have been plenty of obstacles, DeLaCruz remains positive and determined to diversify downtown.

“There is a lot of opportunities for us to create new things,” she said. “Grand Rapids is growing and it’s such a beautiful city that sometimes we lack the movement of making change. So… I’m here to make a change, to make a difference, to be part of a community and to bring something new to everybody.”

(Artist Picardo’s painting supplies rest near a mural he spent hours creating for Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine in downtown Grand Rapids.)

Art Caribbean Fusion Cuisine will celebrate its grand opening Thursday with a ribbon-cutting ceremony at 3:30 p.m.