In honor of the upcoming holiday, Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday), which will be celebrated Feb. 21, I’m highlighting my top five favorite go-to’s for southern food in the city.
Fat Tuesday has come to be known as a day to indulge before the beginning of Lent, a 40-day season of fasting celebrated all over the world. Perhaps nowhere so famously as New Orleans, Louisiana. A city known for its easy going way of life, jazz music and, of course, Cajun food!
A seemingly unlikely candidate for best southern cuisine in Grand Rapids, Blue Dog Tavern– known for its souped up hot dogs, tater tots and award winning sandwiches – tops my list.
I’m no expert on southern cuisine, but I’ve been to The Big Easy more than once and I haven’t found a jambalaya in Michigan yet that compares to N’awlins jambalaya, but the Blue Dog’s recipe comes pretty darn close. Plus, historically, the staff at BDT put on such a good Fat Tuesday show for their guests – with an annual Mardi Gras party and beefed up menu, offering more-than-usual southern style food and beverages for the occasion.
“We will be doing some traditional New Orleans fare. At this point, we’re planning on jambalaya, shrimp po’ boy, red beans and rice, beignets, a crawfish boil and some other features,” said Blue Dog co-owner, Fred Mackraz.
On the beverage side, Blue Dog Tavern will feature New Orleans beers and Hurricanes, a fruity rum cocktail.
The cozy corner bar, located at the intersection of NW Stocking Ave. and Fourth St. is just a hop, skip and a jump from a couple of other westside favorites (The Holiday Bar and Monarchs’ Club), making it the perfect place to either start or end a night of bar hopping. Large windows, ample seating, a friendly staff and a decent amount of FREE PARKING in a lot across the street make it even more inviting. All present, all street parking near the establishment is also free (no MOTU app needed to park outside…yet).
The beers on tap are rotated often to reflect not only what’s in season, but what’s new and good. Having retained the same key staff members for years, Blue Dog Tavern also maintains a better-than-barfood quality menu and is arguably one of the best kept secrets in Grand Rapids. The eatery has a decent sized lunch crowd, especially between the peak hours of noon-2 p.m. and transforms into a bustling hot spot on the weekends, where a couple of TVs behind the bar display the hottest sporting events and a jukebox add to the ambiance.
Personal favorites include the glazed Brussels sprouts, boneless wings and Jeremy the bartender.
Southern Style runners up:
This funky Creston neighborhood bar and restaurant used to be known by the moniker, Sazerac, the purported oldest cocktail in America invented in 1838 by a Creole apothecary named Antoine Peychaud in his shop on Royal Street in New Orleans. The menu is packed with Louisiana cuisine including a delicious gumbo and Cajun fritters, corn bread, sweet potato fries, candied bacon and surprisingly, some really good pizza.
Pre-Covid Reservoir Lounge was a favorite performance space for some of the avant garde theater acts in town. Burlesque shows and other off-the-wall performance art were once a mainstay on the weekends. A quick perusal of their website doesn’t list any upcoming shows, but offers up this slogan: “A dining experience that doesn’t end with dinner.” That about sums it up.
The absolute best catfish I’ve ever had (this side of the Mason Dixon line) was at 40 Acres Soul Kitchen and Cognac Bar. I always order mine with a side of collard greens and some fried okra. It’s all served up with a smile by an uber-friendly staff. The place also has a bevy of top shelf spirits and the drinks are top notch. The upscale dinner and drinks venue also offers some pretty fantastic T-shirts for sale. I took home two.
Carolina Low Country Kitchen
This East Grand Rapids eatery with a really great outdoor patio is the best place in town for oysters, bar none. You can stop in and buy them by the dozen or get them on the half-shell as an appetizer before gorging yourself on chicken biscuit (Buttermilk fried chicken, biscuit, white cheddar, Sawmill sausage gravy and scallions). It’s phenomenal. There’s also shrimp ceviche, fried green tomatoes, southern poutine and a ton more southern classics on the menu. Main dishes are served with a side of delicious hush puppies. I say this in all honesty, I’ve never liked a hush puppy until I tried one from Carolina Low Country Kitchen.
The name might throw you off a bit. I don’t know what I was expecting when I went into this place, but it certainly wasn’t Nashville heat meets Michigan neat, like the restaurant’s motto suggests. I also wasn’t aware it had a full bar. Luckily, I like fried food, because it’s what they do best. You can’t go wrong with the country fried chicken and house made picnic sides. The four piece Creole style perch is Ah-Mazing! The chicken sandwich is also notable as is the sweet tea, slushies and Faygo Rock & Rye. The large front yard makes it a great summertime gathering spot. That said, it transforms nicely into a cozy year-round casual-yet-sleek eatery and nighttime hangout. Tip: Their “traditional” spice level was spicy enough for me (and I generally like my food spicy). The next level up was a bit too hot. Other than that, consistently good and at prices that don’t break the bank.