Aaron Van Timmeren, head chef at Bistro Bella Vita, said there was a time when the Grand Rapids Griffins would play and the restaurant would be dead. Now on game nights, Bistro Bella Vita is packed — as it is most other nights when something is going on in downtown Grand Rapids.
There are several factors that have likely led to the change, including the local food movement, downtown development, generational differences and an increase in cooking shows, all of which have given people a deeper understanding of food and willingness to try new things.
Van Timmeren said today’s “foodies” mean he can have more fun with the restaurant’s menu.
As Bistro Bella Vita approached its 20th anniversary, its culinary team and staff didn’t exactly want to celebrate the past, rather, they wanted to celebrate what’s next.
“We wanted to evolve,” said Lauren Jaenicke, marketing and sustainability director for essence restaurant group, which owns bistro bella vita. At the same time, Jaenicke said the restaurant didn’t want to move too far away from what it was already doing well.
“We didn’t want to re-concept,” she said. “We didn’t want people to feel like it was something new or different.”
So, the restaurant began making a series of subtle changes, which included physical and aesthetic updates to its interior. It also updated its logo to reflect a modern vibe.
The restaurant also took a look at its menu, identifying both patron favorites as well as items ready for an update.
“We honed in on what our guests love about our menu and also strengths of our chef team,” Jaenicke said. Bistro Bella Vita recognized the need for more modern takes on its French and Italian cuisine.
Jaenicke described the concept as putting a “modern twist” on food that comes from “humble beginnings.” For instance, she said menu items like beef bourguignon, roasted chicken and gnocchi were perfect candidates for elevation.
Van Timmeren said the question really became, “What do people enjoy and how can you make this better?”
He said the opportunity to get creative has always been a part of Bistro Bella Vita, but certainly, right now it’s front and center on his mind.
“I think there is always, from a chef’s perspective, a push to create and you are constantly coming up with reality of what people actually want to eat and what you want to make. You have to find the balance,” he said.
Van Timmeren didn’t name a favorite Bistro Bella Vita menu item, instead, he pointed to the feature menu, which changes daily and provides him with a chance to test his creativity. He said whenever someone orders one of the feature dishes, it makes his day.
He did say he is particularly proud of the restaurant’s pasta dishes because the pasta is made in-house and from scratch. “It’s night and day when you make pasta yourself,” Van Timmeren said, “there are no preservatives, and when you eat it, you can tell the difference.” He also said he likes doing anything braised.
As part of its 20th anniversary, Bistro Bella Vita changed 25 percent of its menu. “Instead of changing the whole menu, we change the same 25 percent all the time and use the feature sheet for the bigger things we want to change,” he said. “If you came in last week to this week, you’d see probably seven different things on the menu.”
Van Timmeren said while the restaurant is proud to offer modern versions of French and Italian foods, if someone comes in asking for a traditional chicken Alfredo, he’s happy to do it. “We can make a good chicken Alfredo,” he said.
Bistro Bella Vita also touts its beer and wine program, something that’s advanced hand in hand with Grand Rapids growing craft breweries over the years.
Van Timmeren, who has been at Bistro for the past 16 years, said his plan now is to continue moving forward. “I’m extremely grateful for the community and excited about what we are going to do.”
Bistro Bella Vita is officially celebrating its 20th anniversary today from 3 p.m.-10 p.m.
*Main photo courtesy of Bistro Bella Vita
Watch Chef Aaron Van Timmeren whip up Bistro’s whole roasted branzino.