A restaurant that dropped out of the Grand Rapids fine dining scene due to the Covid-19 pandemic recently celebrated a victory.
Grove, the popular farm-to-table restaurant located at 919 Cherry St. SE, was abuzz with excitement on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2023 as friends, family and colleagues gathered to salute the esteemed establishment’s Restaurant of the Year award, an honor bestowed by Grand Rapids Magazine (the first time the award has been presented since prior to the 2020 pandemic).
The event, which included a cocktail party, an unveiling of a framed magazine cover and speeches, gave the owners a chance to showcase the restaurant’s expertly redesigned interior to guests who may not have been back to see it since reopening.
Grove is owned by Essence Restaurant Group, a venture that began with the acquisition of Bistro Bella Vita in downtown Grand Rapids and includes Green Well, located directly across from Grove on Cherry Street and the newly acquired Creston favorite, Lucy’s, located on Plainfield Ave.
Managing Partner James Berg talked about how Grove had to pivot as a result of the pandemic, temporarily converting the space into Jimmy Berger’s Chicken Shack to serve takeout to the Grand Rapids community. The restaurant reopened again as Grove in late 2021.
“When we were able to open back up, we really tried to evolve it like it never closed, but it gave us a great opportunity to change where we were,” Berg said. He mentioned having played golf earlier in the day with a friend who asked him if Grove was “still a chicken joint.”
In the context of receiving an award for culinary excellence, the comment was aptly met with laughter, but it served as a poignant reminder of the many establishments that did not emerge triumphant from the shutterings that occurred in 2020, and even more of a testament as to how difficult it is to get the word back out, even for an establishment with such a stellar reputation (it’s Grove’s sixth time receiving Restaurant of the Year).
“In ‘24 we’re flipping the page and ‘Covid’ is not allowed to be in our vocabulary,” Berg said.
Members of the Grand Rapids Magazine staff were present to explain the reason for the restaurant’s esteemed prize. The overarching theme as to why Grove was chosen came down to the staff’s commitment to quality ingredients, sourced locally whenever possible; a menu centered around those ingredients (instead of imagining what might taste good, the dishes are curated in accordance with what is good, fresh and locally available); and the excellent service provided by the staff.
“Grove has always been the intelligent risk of our company. It was never meant to be a Bistro (Bella Vita),” Berg said. “Bistro is holistically different. Green Well is a concept, and our recently purchased Lucy’s…they’re just concepts we just try to stay true to,” he said.
“Grove is whatever you want it to be in a sense. That’s why when Hillary (Edwards, Managing Director of Essence Restaurant Group) and I started this thing in 2011, (we said) it’s going to be something that would always evolve. It was never just going to be true to one concept. It was going to be true to just the best we can do with the ingredients; what’s cool and fun in the market.”
Placed on each table at the event was a hot-off-the-press booklet celebrating the stories of Grove’s local purveyors and showcasing the locally grown, artfully crafted foods– an homage to farms and suppliers (the bulk of them from Kent and Ottawa counties) as far north as McBain and as far east as Royal Oak.
“I feel fortunate to be a part of this team and company,” said Berg, as he insisted the accolades belong to the Essence Restaurant Group staff. “This (award) is really nothing to do with Hillary or me,” he said, and thanked employees individually by name:
Tristan Walczewski, Chief Operating Officer of Essence Restaurant Group; Devon Cook, Grove’s chef; Jeremy Paquin, Chief Culinary Officer; Chris (an employee who has since transferred efforts from Grove to Bistro Bella Vita); Front of House Manager, Roxanne Dragon; Julie Archer, (who has been with the company since 2000); Katy Waltz, pastry chef; and Josh Nicholson, bar manager.
Berg then turned the floor over to Walczewski.
“It means a lot for everybody to come celebrate with us,” said Walczewski.
“We’re just very grateful to be here. It took us a very long time for this restaurant to get to where it is, especially to think two short years ago when we closed, and this was just an empty concrete box.
“The team that works on site here is really who everyone should be celebrating and congratulating. They’re the ones here working night in and night out.
“They come in every day and every week with the same passion and approach. That’s really important and something we never take for granted as a restaurant group to have a team that’s so excited about the level of dining that we collectively saw an opportunity (for) in Grand Rapids that didn’t exist,” Walczewski said.