Walking into New Hotel Mertens is like stepping back in time. That’s because many of the building’s features harken back to previous decades, including the original flooring, which bares the building’s name and was first laid in 1914, when it opened.
At that time, New Hotel Mertens, 35 Oakes St. SW, served as a hotel where many visitors to Grand Rapids stayed after departing from Union Station. The hotel remained active for well over 60 years, but as downtown Grand Rapids began to suffer from the blight that impacted many downtowns in the 1970s and 1980s, the hotel eventually became Heartside Manor, described as “a place for the downtrodden,” and later closed entirely.
Anthony Tangorra, New Hotel Mertens owner, said while he was eager to give the former hotel new life as a restaurant, he didn’t want to lose the decades of history throughout the space, so he instructed his team to preserve as much as possible in the renovations and to maintain the original design of the place with any additional upgrades.
“We’ve kept so many old details in tact or brought them out,” Tangorra said. He noted the brick lining around one of the restaurant’s windows was chipped away rather than plastered over, and an electrical conduit running along one of the walls was left exposed. There also is graffiti, likely from its abandoned years, still visible on one of the dining room columns.
“All the millwork is new, but it doesn’t look particularly new,” Tangorra said.
Tangorra’s team also focused on acquiring vintage items that would maintain the building’s historical feel. Dining chairs dating back to the 1960s were purchased along with a vintage chalkboard and a Hoosier cabinet.
The far wall of the restaurant serves as a walk through history, with several letters, postcards, matchbooks and other items scored off eBay and other websites popular with collectors.
“We worked hard (to collect the memorabilia),” Tangorra said.
He said the architectural and design elements of the space helped him decide on the French brasserie theme.
“The very first time I walked into the space, it was very clear it was meant to be a brasserie,” he said. “Since that day, we’ve been trying to fill the vision of what the space told us it wanted to be.”
A traditional French brasserie is a place that is always bustling, with diners coming and going and customers popping in and out after grabbing a quick and delicious item to go.
“The brasserie has been around for hundreds of years,” Tangorra said. “It’s meant to be a place to come that is open very often, seven days a week, many hours a day, every day, and it’s a place where you can dress it up on date night or dress it down on a Wednesday morning for breakfast.”
The restaurant layout includes a pastry counter for customers looking to grab a quick bite and coffee on the go, as well as a long, inviting bar, a waiting area with street-facing seats that can double as a great space for someone who wants to hang out and enjoy a drink or snack in the morning or late afternoon, and the main dining area for those looking to enjoy a lengthy, sit-down meal.
Already a lover of French cuisine, Tangorra quickly honed in on the type of menu he hoped to create.
“Bouchon’s cookbook, Balthazar’s cookbook and Culinary of France represent directionally where I wanted to go,” he said.
Serendipitously, Tangorra was able to lure chef Patrick McKay — formerly of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Las Vegas — to serve as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine. “Chef Patrick was a great find for us,” he said.
McKay was tasked with bringing Tangorra’s vision for traditional “meat and potatoes” French cuisine at an affordable price to life.
“There are a lot of classic components to the menu,” McKay said, noting that many of them have a contemporary spin. The Coq Au Vin, for instance, uses chicken instead of the traditional rooster. McKay said the reasons are practical ones, “rooster is hard to source and chicken tastes better, so we go with chicken.”
Coq Au Vin is a traditional French countryside peasant food. It is braised in red wine for an hour and a half, followed by a period of letting the liquid rest and then using it as a finishing sauce (the restaurant creates its own stock, which McKay said is constantly being made in the kitchen). Potatoes and mushrooms complete the dish.
“It’s a classic dish with roots going way back, but we’ve added a bit of refinement,” McKay said. “All the components are still there. Traditionally, the dish is served with roasted potatoes and mushrooms, so that is what we do.”
Other classic dishes on the dinner menu include omelet aux fine herbs, quiche Lorraine and choucroute. Prices fall anywhere from $10 (omelet fine herbs) to $30 (filet mignon).
McKay said while the service aims to be quick, the food preparation is not. He noted process and ingredients set the restaurant apart. “We are trying to cook good food at a decent price with good method and ingredients behind it.”
He added, “My philosophy on food has always been clear, defined flavor, using good products and keeping it simple.”
The dessert menu also is focused on classic items, including apple tart tatin, croquembouche, canele and chocolate torte.
There is a cheese cart furnished with cheeses from The Cheese Lady. Tangorra said the cheeses are priced based on weight rather than type.
Step back in history with a visit to New Hotel Mertens.