Grand Rapids Magazine traversed the city’s food scene to bring you this year’s Restaurant of the Year, Best New Restaurant, Top 10 Restaurants and the newest neighborhood restaurants. This year, we’ve seen an array of new cuisines come to the city, as well as a return to classic styles. Farm-to-table still reigns, but restaurants know they have to go beyond the food to draw diners in as the city’s restaurant offerings expand.
Foodies need to take Grand Rapids seriously
By Austin Langlois
A food writer asked me on a recent press trip, “What does a 27-year-old guy from Michigan have to say about food?”
Fair question. Harsh, but fair.
Before this trip, I had written for Time Out Miami covering the vibrant food scene of South Florida; toured dessert farms in Aruba; and traveled to Napa Valley to dive into the natural wine scene.
But in the food world, nobody takes you seriously if you’re not LA or NYC. The sentiment also is true for cities. People think that the biggest cities have a pulse on trends. While that often is true, I believe that where trends really gain traction and become part of our daily palette is when they spread to the rest of the country.
In the past decade, we’ve seen the rise in popularity of cupcakes, bacon, doughnuts, bacon in doughnuts, avocado toast, kale and poke bowls. These food trends have mostly spread from our country’s largest cities to the smallest. In fact, doughnuts peaked in Grand Rapids long before they did in Miami, which goes to show West Michigan isn’t as behind as people might think.
Bringing new flavors to town
Some of the restaurants that opened this year continue to underscore that the Grand Rapids food scene is one to take seriously.
Hancock on Wealthy Street brought Nashville hot chicken to our city. Max’s South Seas Hideaway on Ionia Avenue ushered us into the resurgence of the tiki bar, echoing LA’s tiki bar nightlife scene.
AHC+Hospitality properties are elevating the Grand Rapids hotel dining scene with the newly redesigned French-inspired Margaux and the glitzy lobby bar in the AC Hotel; it’s a trend we see in large cities like NYC and Miami where the hotel restaurant isn’t just for guests, it’s a dining destination.
We’ve also seen an increase of ethnic cuisine, especially Balkan and Middle Eastern flavors, with restaurants like Kingfisher, Café de Miro and Živio bringing kaymak cheese, muhammara red pepper dip and nigella seeds to Grand Rapids — echoing the increase in popularity of Middle Eastern and Eastern European cuisine in larger cities.
Farm to table, but not just local farms
The trends also are more subtle than just new dishes or cuisine. There’s also a shift in the narrative around sourcing and ingredients.
Five years ago, the farm-to-table movement was all the rage, accomplished by restaurants like Grove, Reserve and Terra. But with every restaurant sourcing locally, it’s less of a focus now. Especially since in the winter, every farm-to-table restaurant serves root vegetables and Brussels sprouts. To diners, and I’m sure chefs, it gets a little old.
As a result, we’ve seen restaurants turn to sourcing more high-quality and organic ingredients from outside the Mitten, especially during the offseason. Most visibly, this change is seen with Morning Belle, which replaced Twisted Rooster. While its predecessor focused on local ingredients, the newcomer focuses on fresh, vegetable/fruit-forward dishes, sourcing ingredients not only locally but also from farms across the country.
As climate change continues to affect Michigan’s agricultural industry and local farmers, we’ll likely see this continue.
To the snobby food writer referenced at the beginning of this piece, I responded, “I like to eat.” And, I’m assuming, dear reader, that you like to eat, too.
So, take the trends or leave them and just go and enjoy a great meal at your favorite local restaurant. Who cares what LA thinks anyway?
Sovengard cultivates community with systems-wide approach.
By Charlsie Dewey
To prepare for this month’s dining issue, I spent a lot of time reflecting on my dining experiences over the past year. Where had I gone, where hadn’t I gone and the why behind both of those questions.
The restaurant I visited the most in 2019 is Sovengard on Grand Rapids’ West Side, and the reason is simple: Every time I go, I make new memories with my friends and family. I love the hygge-like atmosphere, the food is creative yet filled with flavors I expect from each dish, the cocktails are colorful and change with the season, and the restaurant continues to evolve.
Sovengard has offered something unique to the Grand Rapids restaurant scene since it first opened in August 2016. It’s the only Scandinavian-inspired restaurant in town, and it’s interior and menu is distinct and unlike anywhere else in the city.
“Sovengard follows the philosophies of the New Nordic movement, which is less about traditional Nordic or Scandinavian foods and more about sustainability, sourcing and seasonality,” said Rick Muschiana, owner of Sovengard.
Since opening, the restaurant has expanded, first with its substantial outdoor biergarten and then adding HOST upstairs — a new concept that allows the restaurant’s chef to get even more creative with a farm-to-table menu that changes daily.
“Everything we do strives for a true farm-to-table experience, but HOST is a daily changing menu focused on the here and now of seasonal and local ingredients,” Muschiana said. “It’s a smaller menu that really lets our kitchen team play around and experiment with things in a slower-paced and intimate setting. We want people to take their time, talk about dishes with our staff and savor every morsel.
“Our garden level menu has much the same feel as it always has, but we’ve gradually been taking it in a more casual direction that’s accessible, simple and very much carries the relaxed vibe that’s so much a part of our biergarten. We want the garden level and biergarten to be an everyday spot with a fantastic introduction to locally sourced foods.”
The menus reflect the season with hearty fare in the fall and winter months and then transitioning to lighter cuisine in the spring and summer — and always spotlighting Michigan’s peak produce.
“I believe there’s a lot of broken parts to our food and agricultural system on a widespread level, and that local and regeneratively produced foods are an important part of fixing things and the future of our world. That’s why I started Sovengard.”
All of these dishes are served against a hygge-like backdrop of soft, relaxing colors and natural elements. The HOST dining room consists of warm woods, exposed brick, teal accents and a plant wall filled with greenery, while the downstairs dining room has light, airy woods with reclaimed wood serving as accent posts behind the bar and whitewashed brick and a concrete floor giving it a bit of an industrial modern vibe. The bright, cozy atmosphere of both spaces promotes relaxation and encourages groups to settle in for an evening of small and large plates and rounds of drinks from cocktails to wine and beer.
If you choose to spend time in the biergarten (open May through October), you’ll likely make new friends — at least for the evening. The biergarten offers a communal atmosphere with long picnic tables and yard games, including a bocce ball court.
This year, Sovengard is adding three themed tents to the biergarten. “Our biergarten is so interconnected to our identity, it’s tough when it closes for the season,” Muschiana said. “We’ve been trying to think of some ways to utilize it … so when we discovered the large bell tents, we knew they were really perfect for our style.
“We collaborated with Amber Brandt (the Coziness Consultant) on the design and have made them fun and cozy, very much in line with the Danish idea of hygge. They’re perfect for a pre- or post-dinner hangout with friends. We’ll be taking reservations for them by phone or email, or if they’re available, people can walk right in and use them.”
Muschiana said the year ahead will see Sovengard honing its culinary craft and building on its dining experience, as well as sharing stories about the local farms it works with.
“I believe there’s a lot of broken parts to our food and agricultural system on a widespread level, and that local and regeneratively produced foods are an important part of fixing things and the future of our world,” Muschiana said. “That’s why I started Sovengard.
“Eating is so primal with such instant gratification that it’s sometimes hard to think or care where things come from, who’s growing them, or how they’re affecting our planet just as long as they’re cheap and taste good. We are huge proponents of things that taste great but also believe flavor can be in balance with many other noble considerations. Farm-to-table can also have connotations of elitism, and I think we’re trying to help it shed that perception, as well. We’re far from perfect, but we are trying every day to put these ideas into practice.”
I fully expect that in 2020, I will be making plenty more visits to Sovengard and creating even more memories — and I hope you do too.
These eateries will leave you hungry for a return visit.
By Charlsie Dewey
Choosing this year’s top 10 restaurants was no easy feat. Grand Rapids continues to evolve in the dining department, both in the quality of the food and also in creating memorable experiences for diners. And experience really is the key word. While the food has to be on point, the overall experience is what keeps people going back to a favorite.
So, this year, Grand Rapids Magazine selected its top 10 list based on the quality of the food, the restaurant atmosphere and the overall experience of a night out. The restaurants on this list are truly unique and help make Grand Rapids a destination.
Grove / 919 Cherry St. SE
Since it first opened, Grove has continued to deliver with creative dishes that are equal parts delicious and visually stunning. The restaurant is focused on farm-to-table fare that lets local produce and meat purveyors shine. The menu is filled with contemporary comfort foods, and it changes often enough that you can always try something new. This is the restaurant to hit if you are a daring eater or looking for an unexpected dish. Grove offers items that you won’t find anywhere else in the city. With its unique menu serving as the backdrop to any occasion, you aren’t likely to forget a night out that you’ve enjoyed at Grove.
Forty Acres / 1059 Wealthy St. SE
After being named Best New Restaurant last year, Forty Acres has continued to shine along the Wealthy Street corridor. The restaurant is a neighborhood hotspot and the backdrop to many celebrations and casual nights out. Diners flock to the restaurant and are never in a hurry to leave. The casual atmosphere is coupled with a minimalist style with bright, natural elements that suit the menu of modern Southern favorites. The goal at Forty Acres was to elevate soul food and celebrate African American cuisine, and the restaurant has succeeded. This is the place to visit if you want to linger over a heaping course and enjoy dishes that truly represent American history.
Osteria Rossa / 16 Monroe Center NE
Though it’s in the heart of the city, just north of Monument Park, Osteria Rossa feels like a hidden gem downtown. When you are inside, you begin to forget the city around you, in part due to the narrow dining areas and low lighting, all of which create an intimate atmosphere perfect for a date night, special celebration or happy hour. The design concept helps diners turn off from everything and focus on their food, family and friends. What you won’t forget is the food — or the wine. An Italian restaurant that focuses on wood-fired pizzas and hand-cranked pastas, its motto is “warmth of the mitten, soul of the boot.” The food is elegant with distinct flavors and the atmosphere is inspired by the casual Italian pub.
Marcona on Lyon / 623 Lyon St. NE
Tucked away in an unexpected spot, just down from the corner of Lyon Street and Union Avenue, Marcona on Lyon was meant to serve the surrounding neighborhood by giving residents a walkable option for lunch and dinner. It is helmed by well-respected chef Matt Overdevest, who co-owns and runs the restaurant. Marcona offers Mediterranean fare, including dishes with Middle Eastern, southern European and African influences. Visiting Marcona feels like taking a trip back in time to the Mediterranean thanks to the careful detail put into the interior design, which is inspired by 1940s art deco travel posters, and the food is a lesson in Mediterranean culture, using ingredients popular in the region. Marcona offers diners a small escape for a few hours.
New Hotel Mertens / 35 Oakes St. SW
New Hotel Mertens is a labor of love for owner Anthony Tangorra, which becomes apparent upon entering the restaurant’s well-preserved dining room. History and elegance come together here, from the original flooring once tread upon by hotel guests passing through town to the cheese cart that rolls around the dining room serving guests. Since opening, New Hotel Mertens has expanded to include Haute at New Hotel Mertens, its rooftop lounge, and a bakery. All of these elements combine to create a downtown dining destination. Whether you are stopping in for a pastry and coffee on the way to work or joining friends for happy hour and a view of the city or enjoying a classic French meal in the dining room, you are sure to have a memorable experience.
Linear / 1001 Monroe Ave. NW
What makes dinner at Linear special is its location. The restaurant is perched beside the Grand River, and its floor-to-ceiling windows spanning three-fourths of the dining room offer diners impeccable views all day and night long. Sometimes when you’re out in Grand Rapids, you feel very cut off from the giant river that is supposed to be the city’s heart, but at Linear, you feel connected to the city’s namesake. The restaurant also brings nature indoors with a wall filled with plants, all of which contribute to a calming, restorative atmosphere. You can relax here and settle in for an evening of elegant and flavorful courses. And you will want to take advantage of the many course options. This restaurant offers unique appetizers, entrées and desserts.
The Commons / 547 Cherry St. SE
The Commons brought something truly unique to Grand Rapids’ dining scene — a theme restaurant. Its 1970s vibe creates an atmosphere like no other in Grand Rapids. Owner Beth Rich noted when she first opened the restaurant in 2018 that restaurants out in Los Angeles have to create an experience to attract and keep diners, so it’s no surprise when she relocated back to Grand Rapids from a stint as a Santa Monica bar owner that she’d bring the idea for a great theme restaurant. Diners have flocked to The Commons for the experience and returned for the food, which consists of a modern spin on classic ’70s comfort foods like mac and cheese and Brussels sprouts.
Amore Trattoria Italiana / 5080 Alpine Ave. NW
Amore Trattoria Italiana has been a Grand Rapids staple for 10 years, and for many, the restaurant’s dining room feels like home. A night out at Amore is a vibrant affair. It’s going to be loud, there’s going to be laughter, the wine will overflow your cup and you’ll eat until your pants are ready to burst — and then Chef Jenna Arcidiacono might stroll by and drop off a plate of some delicious goody you didn’t order and you’ll “find room” for it. When you leave, you’ll already be plotting a return trip. Amore is the place to go in town for heaping Italian portions and when you want to feel like you’re home while letting someone else take care of the dishes.
Bistro Bella Vita / 44 Grandville Ave. SW
Bistro Bella Vita has been a constant downtown for over 20 years — no easy feat for a restaurant. While plenty of other restaurants have come and gone, Bistro continues to provide quality food and a consistent experience. What’s interesting is that Bistro is the perfect backdrop for a special night out or a casual jeans and a T-shirt evening. Concentrating on modern French and Italian cuisine, Bistro keeps its menu fresh and recently underwent a makeover to ensure it is keeping up with Grand Rapids diners’ tastes.
Terra / 1429 Lake Drive SE
Opened as a farm-to-table showpiece, Terra has only grown better over the years. This restaurant offers up new dishes based on local produce, as well as keeping a consistent menu so you can always go back for a favorite. The dining area is bright thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, and in the summer, a nice patio offers diners a chance to enjoy the sunshine. This is a great spot for celebrations or a casual night out. Chef Clark Frain joined Terra recently, and he has only contributed to the restaurant’s stellar reputation. You’ll find Terra bustling at any time of the day, whether it’s Sunday brunch, happy hour or a weekend dinner. This Eastown favorite is a neighborhood hotspot.
Margaux combines classical French techniques with modern plating.
By Charlsie Dewey
French restaurants have a reputation — upscale, stuffy, a little pretentious — but the JW Marriot’s newest offering, Margaux, hopes to change that. The former six.one.six space underwent a transformation last year, reopening as a casual French restaurant in October.
Walking into the dining room, it feels lighter and brighter than before and offers a more comfortable vibe while still giving off a hint of luxury. There are live plants that also help create an airy atmosphere, and the sunlight dapples the dining room as it sits over the Grand River.
“Before, it was a bit dark and heavy. The room feels light in general, and it feels like you are walking through a floating space, not the heavy wood, dark look,” said Caprice Mikel, executive chef for Margaux. “I feel like with this room, you can feel so many different emotions. There’s a lot of plants in here now and more life to the room.”
The goal of the interior design was to create a backdrop that fits the restaurant’s French-inspired menu, which relies on classical French techniques but with a focus on modern plating.
Mikel said French cuisine isn’t necessarily the most attractive, and in many French restaurants, plating is an afterthought — if a thought at all. At Margaux, the plating is as much of a focus as the flavor profiles of the dishes. Mikel jokes that he is always searching websites for plates that will serve as the perfect backdrop for the restaurant’s seasonal French dishes.
“We cut our ribeye tableside. It’s impressive. People enjoy that.”
The plating is part of the overall experience Mikel is hoping to give diners visiting Margaux, and Elle Wadel, general manager for Margaux, said little things from the garnishes to the macarons served at the end of the meal help create a unique experience.
Mikel also noted the tableside service that accompanies the bone-in ribeye for two, “We cut our ribeye tableside. It’s impressive. People enjoy that.”
The restaurant also offers a series of wine dinners, each of which focuses on a different region in France and helps guests delve deeper into the history and culture of what’s on their plates.
With diners looking for memorable experiences, all of these things help set Margaux apart. But you might be wondering, why French cuisine and how is that unique?
Mikel notes that for a time, restaurants were focused on deconstruction — taking apart dishes and playing with the flavor combinations, but now the pendulum is swinging toward “putting it back together” and using classic ingredients and flavors.
“A lot of chefs want to focus on their belief that making things complex is better. I think that is a skewed vision,” Mikel said. “You see it a lot with younger chefs, adding 20 ingredients to the dish is the way to go. Personally, I’d rather braise you a good piece of meat and give you a really good starch and veg and present it to you in a way that you are looking at it and think, ‘Wow, that is beautiful’ and then you’re going to taste it and think, ‘Wow, that’s delicious,’ and at the end of the meal, you feel that comfort feeling.”
The decision to stick with the classics and focus on creative presentations is working for Margaux. From its impressive seafood tower to its ribeye for two, every dish on Margaux’s menu hits the spot.
This restaurant combines an impeccable menu with a relaxed, modern atmosphere.
The biggest challenge for Margaux will be its location inside the JW. While hotel restaurants in other cities often are destination spots for visitors and locals alike, in Grand Rapids, that’s just not the case. But Margaux hopes to convince locals to give it a shot and points to its approachable vibe.
With all the new restaurants that opened in Grand Rapids in 2019, Margaux leads the pack. It’s getting back to basics while still creating a luxurious feel and an atmosphere that promotes vivacious conversation and lingering at the table.
Getting to know Caprice Mikel
Margaux chef Caprice Mikel came to Grand Rapids from Minneapolis, where he started out working alongside James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Roberts, and later served as a chef consultant.
He first started cooking as a kid because his mom was a busy pediatrician, and he needed to learn how to make dinner for the family.
His favorite dish at Margaux is the lamb. “It comes out in front of you, and our server pours the reduction around the plate; it looks beautiful and then you eat it and you are overly full but want to keep eating more, but you are so full that you can’t have more. That is the dish for me.”
His cooking style is more savory, but when it comes to his personal palate, he’s got a sweet tooth.
This sandwich is hot!
By Charlsie Dewey
There is no doubt the Nashville hot chicken sandwich was the hottest food of 2019, and with good reason, because this sandwich is delicious. While national chains duked it out for the title of best sandwich, Grand Rapids restaurants scrambled to add this offering to their menus.
Hancock and New Holland Brewing – The Knickerbocker both offer true Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, while The Friesian offers a harissa hot chicken sandwich, and Juju Bird, Kitchen 67, The Commons and Third Nature Brewing offer chicken sandwiches from mild to spicy.
We expect to see the hot chicken sandwich continue its reign this year and appear on even more local menus.
9 new restaurants we’re excited about
By Charlsie Dewey
New restaurants seem to open monthly in Grand Rapids, making it hard to keep track of all the hottest places. Here’s a list of nine restaurants that opened their doors in 2019 that we still are talking about.
Kingfisher / 1001 Lake Drive SE
Kingfisher has some big shoes to fill, opening in the former Marie Catrib’s location. The newest addition to Joel Wabeke and Sarah Wepman’s restaurant portfolio has kept a comparable vibe to its predecessor but with a similarity to the pair’s other restaurants, Littlebird and That Early Bird, as well. This “vegetable-forward” Mediterranean-influenced restaurant offers omelets, bowls and hash, soups and salads, toast and sandwiches, and sweets and pastries.
Živio / 724 Wealthy St. SE
Damir Duratovic and his sons, Dino Duratovic and Denis Duratovic, brought this new Bosnian-inspired restaurant to life on Wealthy Street. Described as a modern European tavern, you’ll find eastern and central European- and Mediterranean-influenced dishes here, such as shish kebab, wiener schnitzel, gyros, pitas, hummus dips and wraps, stroganoff and paprikash, as well as a selection of soups, salads and desserts.
Hancock / 1157 Wealthy St. SE
The latest entry in local restaurateur Paul Lee’s portfolio is hot — Nashville hot, that is. Hancock (also owned by Jessica Lee and Arnold Lee), is a fast-casual restaurant offering Nashville hot chicken sandwiches, regular fried chicken sandwiches and a plethora of sides including mac ‘n cheese, baked beans, braised greens, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and more. This place has a relaxed vibe and a great outdoor space.
Friesian Gastro Pub / 720 Michigan St. NE
Comfort food and craft beer nestled into the Medical Mile early last year in the form of Friesian Gastro Pub. Co-owners Craig Jones, Zan Lamkin and Phil Rienstra wanted to create a space for people in the neighborhood to stop in after work or on the weekends, where they can hang out and catch up. This neighborhood spot offers a relaxing atmosphere, a solid menu and a rooftop bar that overlooks the surrounding neighborhood.
Ginza Sushi and Ramen Bar / 1015 Michigan St. NE
The fourth restaurant offering from Shun Ci Chen and Dong Wen Wang, Ginza Sushi and Ramen Bar brings Japanese flavor to Midtown. You’ll find sushi and ramen along with poke bowls, hibachi dinners, appetizers, soup and salad at this upscale spot. The interior has a sophisticated charm that is instantly relaxing, and the menu is impressively large.
Fratelli’s Kitchen & Bar / 443 Bridge St. NW, Suite 2
After 10 years in the pizza business, Vincenzo “Enzo” Cannizzo and Maria Cannizzo decided to expand with Fratelli’s Kitchen and Bar, an Italian restaurant adjacent to Fratelli’s Pizza. Fratelli’s focuses on Sicilian cuisine and includes a handful of pastas, entrées and pizzas. The new restaurant has become a popular gathering spot on the West Side.
Max’s South Seas Hideaway / 58 Ionia Ave. SW
With its tiki theme, Max’s South Seas Hideaway brings something truly unique to Grand Rapids. The restaurant is the passion project of Mark Sellers, owner of BarFly Ventures; Gecko, a Hawaii-based tiki and Polynesian artist; and Martin Cate, a James Beard-winning author, bar owner and mixologist, who teamed up to create this tropical escape in the heart of downtown. The menu includes Polynesian fare and cocktails that will have you dreaming of the beach.
Social House / 25 Ottawa Ave. SW
Across the street from Van Andel Arena, Social House is a go-to place for before or after a concert or Griffins game. The “casual pub” offers traditional American fare. You’ll find burgers and sandwiches alongside a handful of entrées and popular side dishes like fries, garlic “smashed potatoes” and Brussels sprouts.
Brickyard Tavern / 940 Monroe Ave. NW
Brickyard Tavern is a bit of a well-kept secret. Tucked inside the Boardwalk Building, where JD Reardon’s used to be, the restaurant is quietly serving the Monroe North area. Offering American fare such as brisket grilled cheese, the Dirty Bird (chicken) burger, salmon mac and cheese, perch, and a chicken and waffles sandwich, this is a fun, upscale pub to put on your dining list. Brothers Elias, Dimitri and Vasili Sepsakos are behind this spot.