Home of the wet burrito turns 70

Popular Beltline Bar offers throwback prices on its signature item
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The Beltline Bar, which turns 70 this month, is famous for its wet burrito. Courtesy photo.

A Grand Rapids restaurant that lays claim to the advent of the wet burrito is celebrating a milestone.

Beltline Bar, 16 28th St. SE, known for its Tex-Mex cuisine, was founded in 1953 by George Wilkerson as “just a bar.” It took up about 20% of the space that it does today. It served beer, wine, popcorn, and peanuts and was a favorite among third shifters, according to current owner Jeff Lobdell of Restaurant Partners.

Jeff Lobdell and Jerry Rutkowski, Oct. 2022. Courtesy photo.

Today, the bar moniker is just a name. Sure, a bar makes up part of the sprawling, cheery establishment, but the excellent food is what makes this place stand out.

In honor of the anniversary, “The Famous” wet burrito will be priced at $7 Oct. 1-8 and everyone over the age of 18 who enters the restaurant Oct. 6-8 will be given a scratch-off ticket (think: lottery), with the chance of winning prizes like 70% off the bill, a year’s worth of burritos (70 of them), or a free T-shirt. The scratch-off tickets will also reveal who will win one of 70 free burritos.

So, when and how did Beltline Bar start serving wet burritos? 

Around 1958 or 1959, the bar was purchased by Tony Rutkowski and then subsequently taken over by his son, Jerry, in the sixties. It was the Rutkowskis who started the Tex-Mex offerings. As the story goes, one day when Jerry was not at the restaurant, some extra-large tortillas arrived off the delivery truck. Instead of sending them back, the cook on duty went ahead and used them to make extra-large burritos, which he topped with a cross between a brown gravy and ranchero sauce to be “soaked up” by the extra tortilla. That became what we know today as a wet burrito and the idea took off. The dish remains so popular and iconic that people have had them shipped to other parts of the country packed in dry ice, Lobdell said.

What’s the secret to this mouthwatering delight? Fresh ingredients, never frozen; Tolman’s beef (from a local Hudsonville farm); fresh chicken; 90-day aged Colby cheddar from Wisconsin; and the clincher– a secret blend of six spices passed down from Jerry Rutkowski to Lobdell.

Video of Lobdell creating the mixture in Beltline Bar’s  “secret spice room” was captured and aired by the Travel Chanel, season six, episode 12 of Man V. Food, hosted by Casey Webb– a highlight of Lobdell’s career, he said.

That’s saying a lot for a guy who has spent the better part of his life involved in the restaurant business. A graduate of MSU’s renowned hospitality program, and the son of a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisor, Lobdell forged his own ground with a stint as manager at Cleveland’s Cooker Bar and Grille after college. Lobdell also worked in Indianapolis and Detroit before putting down roots in Grand Rapids, where he is now the owner of several local favorites including Red Geranium, Noble, Sundance, the Grandville Rainbow Grill, Omelette Shoppe, Real Food Café and the Bagel Beanery on Michigan St. He’s currently the vice-chairman of the board of the National Restaurant Association and in 2024 will become the chairman (read more on that in January’s edition of Grand Rapids Magazine).

In addition to excellent Tex-Mex cuisine, which Lobdell jokes was “very exotic” for the 1960s when it began at the South Beltline (28th Street) and Division Ave. location, the popular spot has a full bar and serves a stellar margarita, an infamous drink called the Cockatoo, and offers margarita kits to go. There are also designated parking spots for people who don’t have time to soak up the lively fiesta-like atmosphere.

The family-friendly institution is open seven days a week from 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. – 12 a.m. Thursday through Saturday; and 11 a.m.-10 p.m. on Sunday. For more information, check out beltlinebar.com or visit the Beltline Bar Facebook Page.

 

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