On a sunny evening in September, Reserve Beverage Director Ben Vanderwaal and Executive Chef Josh Verhulst helped guide a number of dedicated diners through a special Italian Wine Dinner.
They were joined by guest Sommelier Adam Fortuna, the experience helped showcase what Reserve wants to refocus on as the world returns fully to its new normal. Fortuna casually discussed the less popular wines of Italy he’d chosen to feature along with the restaurant’s food, then strolled through the tables chatting with customers.
His attitude was lax and he lifted the curtain on the often snobbish wine culture to help curious wine lovers gain a deeper understanding of the liquid.
That, in its essence, is what Reserve set out to offer when it first started back in 2010. It is also what helped it achieve Grand Rapids Magazine Restaurant of the Year in 2017.
“One of our primary pillars and foundational elements is we want to not only teach and learn, but to provide an experience to the community,” General Manager Peter Marantette.
It isn’t that the restaurant pulled away from those pillars, but Marantette said the shutdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic helped reset a focus and set a new course moving forward.
“It was one challenge after another,” Marantette said. “We had to make a lot of difficult decisions and it forced us to reevaluate the business model and forced us to be really creative in ways we weren’t.”
The specialty wine dinners, although they’re not always directly focused on wine, happen normally at least once a month. They take a normal dining experience and, in the wise words of Chef Emeril, kick it up a notch.
“I see them as a way for us to give back and reward our regular clientele,” Verhulst said. “It’s an intimate group setting, having that face-to-face experience with the people curating the experience that you might not otherwise get to see regularly as a dinner.
“It’s really nice for that creative outlet and a good opportunity to focus on wine houses and labels we want to highlight.”
Reserve has long built its foundation on an incredible wine list — more than 100 by the glass and a cellar list of more than 900 — but whether it is the food or the wine, it’s constantly been evolving, Peter Marantette said. (Editor’s note: Like a few other establishments in town known for wine, Reserve has a monthly wine club at two price points, $75 and $200.)
Not unlike many restaurants across the United States, or really any industry, Reserve has emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic with a new lease on life and fresh thoughts on how to move forward in the new normal. As the restaurant gets sets its new foundation, long time employees Marantette and Verhulst are using the hellish experience that was the pandemic to shape where it is going.
“We’ve been reimagining what it’s meant to be and how it can operate,” Marantette said. “We were challenged, it was challenging, but it was a good challenge.”
The pair of leaders gave an immense amount of praise to restaurants that are able to do takeout on a daily basis, making food taste as good 30 minutes out of the kitchen as it does after one minute. “That is an art in itself,” Marantette said.
It was an art that Verhulst didn’t pick up on immediately, he concedes.
“The initial change was definitely difficult,” Verhulst said. “I went from an award-winning, food-focused restaurant to making things that go in a box. That was hard switch and we went through five menu iterations with that early onset; just trying a fast-casual concept. It went pretty well, but it’s not where my passion lies.
“It really made me see where I wanted to go and do at this restaurant and allowed us to trim some fat as we came back.”
Now that diners are back in full force, Reserve is settling back to what it does well: a full dining experience. From the moment diners sit down, they’re greeted with a knowledgable staff and a swanky setting. The beverage menu, from beer to cocktails to wine, offers a nice selection for whatever a palate might desire.
The food menu, as Verhulst noted by trimming the fat, is nice and condensed, but does certainly offer a great selection of dishes for any mood. It could be a full meal from appetizer to main course to dessert, or it could simply be a quick cocktail-hour stop in for some charcuterie and wine from its great selection of meats and cheeses.
“It’s more than dinner, it’s a full on performance,” Verhulst said.
Marantette added, “We’ve decided to go all-in on service. It’s something we not only pride ourselves on, but something we try to differentiate ourselves with, whether the customer is an angel or an asshole, we still want to give you a great experience. That’s what we love doing, we want to take care of people who come to spend money and want us to entertain them, feed them and provide them an experience.”
What that experience is for any given customer varies greatly at Reserve. Marantette said a busy Friday or Saturday night might have 170 tables on the reservation list.
Prior to COVID, about 100 of those might just be stopping in for after-work or pre-show cocktails or that quick glass of wine and charcuterie board. That left about 70 tables for full dinner service, not exactly an ideal situation for a full-service restaurant.
Since reopening, that ratio is probably flipped upside down, he said.
“We’re predominantly full-dining experiences now and we’re leaning into that and providing that full-scale experience,” he said. “That’s not to say we don’t have those people still coming in for charcuterie and a glass of wine, we still welcome anyone. You can come in and sit down and eat two dozen oysters with a bottle of wine.
“It’s just a crapshoot.”
The pandemic has forced multiple restaurants to close in West Michigan and altered the way many more operate. There are some restaurants in Grand Rapids that could claim a better menu than Reserve, but few can offer a more rounded experience that could just as easily be found in Chicago or New York — just purely based on its setting, ambiance and wine menu.
Keeping that in mind, Verhulst came back swinging, aiming to amp up the food as well.
“The pandemic, it made me want to set us apart even more to be the premier dining destination in town,” he said. “It made us double down on food, go toward higher end items, higher price points. We want to be a big city model in a small city. We should be able to eat well in Grand Rapids and not have to travel to Chicago or Detroit.”
Reserve is not alone on that journey, as multiple other restaurants in town are certainly working to upgrade the food scene in West Michigan. And that’s something Marantette acknowledges.
“We are only as good as the next best restaurant in town,” he said. “Until there are a lot of great restaurants in the city, we as a community can only be so good.”