While the Grand Rapids culinary scene continues to improve every year, there has been one steady ship pushing the boundaries for West Michigan diners the past decade.
Grove, 919 Cherry Street SE, returned from a COVID-19 hiatus and has continued to wow diners with its innovative menu, incredible cocktail and wine selection and top-notch service. While it’s long been seen as a special occasion hot spot, Grove’s recent commitment to providing its experience at more affordable prices than comparable meals elsewhere in town, particularly downtown, is a sight for sore eyes in this economy.
Restaurants in Grand Rapids tend to struggle impressing on multiple visits, but Grove rarely stumbles and that is why it is Grand Rapids Magazine’s Restaurant of the Year.
Grove is now a six-time winner of the magazine’s Restaurant of the Year accolade, an impressive feat considering it opened in 2011 (for which it won the 2012 best new restaurant) and there has been a few pandemic influenced years that did not see the honor bestowed upon an establishment.
“For us, Grove is the epitome in West Michigan of dynamic dining,” said Tristan Walczewski, COO of Essence Restaurant Group, Grove’s parent company, which also owns Bistro Bella Vita, The Green Well and Lucy’s.
“It’s been an ever-evolving and growing concept that’s been relatively fluid.”
Perhaps now, Grove fits in better than ever in the constantly evolving and maturing West Michigan restaurant scene. Restaurants like Reserve, MDRD, The Little Bird and The Sovengard have helped advance what Grand Rapidians look for while dining.
New restaurants like Myrth in Ada, helmed by a James Beard Award winner, will help further the expectations and offerings. The influx of Grand Rapids residents coming from larger markets will only continue to fuel the expanding culinary options.
“Grand Rapids is a very dynamic and growing city, so there has been a lot of transplant movement, especially since COVID,” Walczewski said. “The frequency of people transitioning here from larger markets is increasing, coming here because the community is growing and a lot of them have lived, worked and played in those bigger markets that have the Michelin Guide or James Beard nominations. They are looking for an elevated dining experience in Grand Rapids, and up to this point, it’s such a small community of great restaurants striving for some really amazing things.”
While the Grove menu changes seasonally, since its reopening last year, it’s had a few staples that have made their presence fairly permanent. Despite the permanence, the items also change with the seasons, like the crudo, potato crusted fish and beef tartare.
“As long as the chef team continues to feel creatively challenged, we’re going to keep a dish on the menu,” Paquin said. “Seasonality makes things challenging, particularly in the winter, that’s a lot of root vegetables. But we do our best to use those ingredients in ways maybe you haven’t thought about.”
Other items come and go with the season, like the heirloom tomato plate. The incredibly simple dish lets the local tomatoes shine, and as Essence Restaurant Group Chief Culinary Officer Jeremy Paquin says, one day disappears because the farmer simply stops delivering them. The dish is completed with a sunflower seed granola, compressed cherry and basil oil, none of which overpower the beautiful taste of fresh, locally-farmed tomatoes.
Perhaps most impressive on the visit preparing for this piece was the grilled peach, a true highlight of the summer menu. Normally seen as a centerpiece for a sweeter dish, particularly dessert, the peach shined in this savory plate. The grilled fruit sat on a layer of fontina cheese, before being smeared with a herb pesto and dusted with hazelnuts and topped with mint. Each component played wonderfully together and resulted in one of my favorite dishes I’ve ever had.
The restaurant also regularly hosts special wine dinners with winemakers from across the globe, and also partners with other local businesses for events, like a old school steakhouse dinner with EA Brady’s butcher shop and a “high brow, low brow” hot dog meal with One Stop Coney. Walzcewski said more events will be on the calendar throughout next year.
Perhaps most understated and under appreciated within Grand Rapids is the beverage program at Grove. Walczewski is a Level III Sommelier, one of just two in West Michigan and likely sit for a Master Sommelier Exam in the spring. The wine list at Grove is small and curated, something he enjoys doing compared to the massive dining room and coinciding wine list at Bistro Bella Vita.
“One thing that’s great about having a 500-seat, extremely busy restaurant is we draw volume with a lot of really great importers, so we can get special allocations of really unique product,” Walczewski said. “It allows us to maybe highlight things that you can only get three or six bottles of.”
Grove’s new iteration started with a new world focus on wine, but that has shifted to include some old word selections. Walczewski also hosts “Cellar Uncorked” on Thursdays, where patrons can try wines that might otherwise be out of a price range for $15.
The cocktail program also might be the best in the city, or at the very least among the tops. Bar Manager Josh Nicholson is incredibly imaginative in his creations, which also change seasonally.
Again, for a restaurant pushing out some of the more inventive fare in Grand Rapids, the commitment to pricing is admirable. On Tuesdays through Thursdays, Grove offers “A Taste of Grove,” providing diners any three courses for $50.
On Fridays and Saturdays, the deal moves to “Tasting For Two” which provides five courses, as well as bread and dessert, for $125. The food is plenty, and without beverages, a meal of that quality for less than $200 is a downright steal as it becomes increasingly harder to leave a lunch place for less than $50.
Then, there is “The Grove Experience” which brings out every item on the menu — easily enough for four diners — for $300. A more indulgent choice, in both food and price, this is that special occasion night in a nutshell.
“We learned a lot in the first year back of operations for Grove,” Walczewski said. “The dynamic and fluid concept helps us pivot and it doesn’t drastically change who we are. We’ve always scratched dour heads at the concept that it’s impossible to get into Grove or that it’s expensive or exclusive. We love that people continue to come to us for an elevated special occasion, but we really tried to structure the menu so people can come in and you don’t have to break the bank to get a couple small plates or something off the snack menu.
“You can get out of here very economically for a tasting menu experience that we offer, that is unlike anything in the Midwest region at that price and feel fully taken care of.”
It’s all part of Grove 2.0, which came through on the other end of the COVID-19 pandemic — it shut down operations in 2020 until 2022. But at its heart, it is still the same concept that Essence intended to help Grand Rapids restaurants evolve in 2011.
Prior to reopening, the executive management team, including Walczewski and Paquin, as well as Managing Partners James Berg and Hillary Edwards, went tasting in key markets across the United States, including New York City, Chicago and San Francisco.
“Fortunately, we have such a great team and the core team who was such a defining part of growth in its first iteration, many of us still had a tendency to what that growth was pre-pandemic,” Walczewski said. “We always had that nostalgia and the idea of where we wanted to go and how we wanted to be playful and how that could grow in the new iteration.
“We checked out a lot of restaurants and took inspiration for what we felt that the market was ready for. We’re so grateful to be part of this hospitality community, but we want the bar to be high for everybody, and that was something with Grove in particular, we really wanted to create an environment where you can separate the difference between going out to eat and being dined.”
Other Restaurants Grand Rapids Magazine Loved This Year:
Grove is not alone in restaurants providing Grand Rapids with excellent food.
Reserve keeps diners on their toes and pushes for excellence, all with great wine and cocktails.
MDRD and its elevated Spanish fare is perfect for the gorgeous setting atop the Amway Grand.
The Chop House keeps it old school cool with coat and tie fine dining atmosphere that is nearly lost everywhere else in town.
Bowdie’s Chophouse has East Grand Rapids enthralled with its steak house vibe.
Leo’s continues to provide Grand Rapids with quality seafood offerings, along with its classic fine dining experience.
Brewery Vivant and its sibling Broad Leaf locations are challenging what brewery food is all about — but Mitten Brewing’s pizza continues to reign supreme.
Cafe Mamo’s mission is admirable and outstanding, and worth several visits to try out its ever-changing menu.
The Sovengard is a place I cannot wait to reopen. (It was not back as of press time.)