This summer, Grand Rapids welcomed a high-end seafood restaurant ready to serve an underserved niche in the downtown food scene.
Michigan is not exactly a haven for seafood — the nice fish from the Great Lakes notwithstanding — so it’s no surprise there is not a huge array of restaurants serving a vast lineup of seafood. Leo’s has checked the box since the early 2000s, Fish Lad’s is a dynamic retailer in the Downtown Market, and Beacon Corner Bar recently opened to fill the niche, but the May opening of the Real Seafood Company, 141 Lyon St. NW, was a welcome addition. So far, it is delivering on its promise to add quality seafood to the marketplace.
The fact Real Seafood Company is delivering should not be too much of a surprise, as its parent company, Mainstreet Ventures Restaurant Group, has delighted plenty of Grand Rapids diners over the years at The Chop House and Palio.
The Ann Arbor-based Main Street operates much like a local company here in Grand Rapids and Mainstreet CEO Kevin Gudejko said it hopes to add to the increasingly vibrant culinary options in Grand Rapids.
“We made the commitment almost 20 years ago with The Chop House. I feel really strongly about the city and west side of the state,” Gudejko said.
The Chop House has been a staple in the downtown Grand Rapids dining scene since 2004. In 2017, the company opened the Italian-focused Palio on Michigan Street NE, near the edge of the Medical Mile as the company anticipated the accelerating growth of the city’s health care industry.
“Those both have exceeded our expectations and it’s been a business- friendly environment,” Gudejko said. “The city has done a great job of welcoming us and a lot of industries in town. The community has made it a positive experience to come in and it’s a great market to hire in. There are a lot of great people in Grand Rapids.”
Mainstreet has multiple concepts, so the Real Seafood Company was the next logical step in Grand Rapids.
Gudejko said he had been interested in the new retail space in the redeveloped Fifth Third Building. The location was slated to be a Brazilian steakhouse chain, Texas de Brazil, but Gudejko said that ownership group couldn’t make the commitment to Grand Rapids. As Mainstreet has a solid relationship with CWD Real Estate Investment, which owns the building, Gudejko said they were able to claim the open space because of the COVID- 19 pandemic.
Picking what went into the space was not a cakewalk, however. Thankfully, Mainstreet has multiple concepts already proven in various markets across the Midwest and Florida. Real Seafood Company has locations in Ann Arbor, Bay City, Naples, Florida, and Toledo, Ohio.
“One of the benefits we have is having four different concepts, so we can evaluate a market and determine what to do next,” Gudejko said. “The city of Grand Rapids, we felt strongly about. We were already looking for what else we can do here that fits the need and the market. There’s not a lot of seafood to be had, so this was a no-brainer.”
For years, one of Grand Rapids’ favorite restaurants was Charley’s Crab — which for its time was a high-end seafood restaurant, a quintessential date night for many Grand Rapidians. Since its closure, Leo’s has continued to carry the torch for high-end seafood in Grand Rapids. But as a growing city, there is more than enough room for multiple quality seafood menus.
While Mainstreet was opening a concept with multiple locations already, Mainstreet Executive Chef Brent Courson said that did not mean it was destined to be exactly the same in West Michigan.
“We do have a bunch of restaurants, but it’s not cookie-cutter for us,” he said. “The people of Grand Rapids are different than the people of Ann Arbor and even the seafood available in South Florida is different than that in Michigan. All the menus are unique.
“It’s a combination of all those great menus. It’s the top performers from those locations and some colorful plates with new ideas.”
Real Seafood Company has history. While it’s not here in Grand Rapids, the restaurant has been open in Ann Arbor for more than 40 years. It continues to carry on and evolve, at least as much as a seafood restaurant can.
“Chef [Courson] has done a great job of anticipating what we’re seeing in the market,” Gudejko said. “You go back 20 years ago in the Real Seafood Company world, even 1975, and the tastes have changed. It’s not just real great fish and proteins coming in with a great choice of sides. It’s a great job of composing overall dishes.”
The menu starts with a small selection of raw bar options, including market fresh oysters, served with a strawberry mignonette. There also are broiled oysters, oyster shooters and a chilled seafood platter that comes at a relative bargain compared to other seafood spots in town ($70).
The starters were an interesting collection of options. Some were better than others. The calamari was an uninspired fried version seen in multiple restaurants across town. The shrimp cocktail was, of course, simple, but the cocktail sauce added a nostril-clearing rush. The crab guacamole sounded interesting, and while its presentation was less than spectacular with what looked like store-bought tortilla chips, the taste was eye-opening after the initial impression.
The server was unsurprised by the starter opinions and let us know her true feelings about items, which helped guide our next orders. Servers guiding diners is an underrated feature of restaurants and they should not be shy in their opinions to help diners have the best experience at the establishment.
There often are at least six options of fresh fish dishes.
The signature entrees also have a few tantalizing options. The scallop risotto — which includes two food items that are incredibly easy to miss on — was impeccably cooked. The scallops were like perfectly seared coins of butter, while the risotto was cooked extremely well with a fresh vegetable mix, making the otherwise heavy dish rather summery. Other entrees include surf and turf, crab-stuffed salmon roulade and paella, but also more inexpensive dishes like fish and chips and lobster and fries.
The menu was similar in a lot of ways of any seafood restaurant across the U.S. But there were more than a few interesting twists on plates that help separate the eatery from similar concepts.
“I appreciate the style and concept, the demand it puts on chefs and their abilities,” Courson said. “We are not tied to any one thing. What is the Midwestern taste? We’re honoring certain preparations from countries across the globe with great seafood. We have great Latin American, Mediterranean, Asian, New England and southern states represented in colorful dishes.
“We want to take diners on a spin around the world with flavors and textures and colors.”
Real Seafood also stays on the fresh side of products, which of course can be a pricing and supply challenge now.
“I liken this to shopping in the grocery store,” Courson said. “The supply chain on the food side is not unlike what we experience in almost everything. If I had bananas on the list, but the bananas might not be great on the shelves, so you have to pivot to what does look great and that’s what we’re going to serve.
“There will be times we don’t have fresh baby snappers. If the high-quality fish wasn’t available, we won’t have it on the menu. Those outages will happen and, thankfully, it does seem like people are more forgiving in these times opposed to needing items all the time. When customers do come in, we’ll have the best, highest quality fish possible.”
While Courson is focused on navigating the increasingly difficult sourcing of high- quality foods, Gudejko said he wants the front-of-house staff focused on ensuring customers have a great experience, no matter what is in their glass or on their plate.
“We try to focus on the total experience,” he said. “We’re here for people to enjoy their time and I think the table turnover time has increased post-COVID.
“It’s not just a meal, but they’re spending time to have a great experience. What used to be a party of four taking an hour and fifteen (minutes) will be an extra half-hour. It’s not just dining; we want to be part of the entertainment.”
For more information, visit the Real Seafood Company website.