Grand Rapids Magazine Top 10 Restaurant of 2021: Mertens Prime

Adjusting to the pandemic with a new concept.

Editor’s note: This is Part 4 of a 10-part series on the top 10 Grand Rapids restaurants for 2021. To see a list of all of the restaurants, click here.

With a gorgeously restored 1914 historic building, James Beard Foundation award-winning chef (Paul Berglund), tableside beef tenderloin-carving theatrics and a soul-searching approach, Mertens Prime flourishes with a delicious magnetism.

Anthony Tangorra, owner of Mertens Hospitality, knows a thing or two about running a restaurant with innovation and improvisation — considering he developed airport lounges before moving to Grand Rapids. In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, Tangorra turned a fifth-floor conference room of the New Hotel Mertens building into a little control room focused on reinventing every aspect of his business.

“The idea was to hold on tight to our core conceptual values of being a business that celebrates the history of Grand Rapids and serves incredible French cuisine,” Tangorra said.
As Mertens Hospitality diversified in real-time through social media, COVID-19 safety measures in the restaurant, a slimmed-down menu, takeout and delivery (including alcohol), all restaurants in the state were shuttered.

That pushed Tangorra to accelerate the launch of pop-up restaurant 9th Street Steaks to just a few days after the state’s shutdown.

Offering from-scratch cheesesteaks, 9th Street Steaks can be ordered for takeout and delivery at “The bread is made from scratch in our bakery, the meat is sliced down in-house from the whole ribeye, we make our own cheese whiz,” said Tangorra, who spent a fair amount of time in Philadelphia around the aughts. “We make the ice cream from scratch for our shakes. We slice and hand-dip every onion ring.”

In 2020, with feedback from a comprehensive survey sent to 2,000-plus past guests, Tangorra decided to tweak his entire enterprise, reimagining New Hotel Mertens into fine dining Mertens Prime and French street food venue Café Mertens — along with a top-floor outdoor lounge called Mertens Rooftop and pop-up restaurant 9th Street Steaks. All are at 35 Oakes St. SW.

For a brief shining moment in autumn, Mertens Prime rolled out its newest and brightest in the French-style steakhouse and brasserie — before indoor dining closed yet again.

Turns out the timing was an opportunity for Berglund — the 2016 James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest recipient (executive chef at The Bachelor Farmer in Minneapolis at the time) — to join the team.

“We take absolutely zero shortcuts and love the products that we are able to produce by doing it the old-fashioned way,” Tangorra said.

This story can be found in the March 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox each month, subscribe here

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