Sometimes all it takes is once to make something feel like home.
That’s truly how a dining experience at Chez Olga, 1441 Wealthy St. SE, can make a customer feel. Whether the dining room is full or there’s just a lone table of visitors watching as the to-go orders cycle through the door while Olga stops to chat them up, the welcoming atmosphere is palpable.
Olga Benoit often is the lone worker, running the whole operation on her own. Which makes a lot of sense, since she will tell anyone to make themselves at home — because it’s her house. That’s literally what Chez Olga means, in the home of Olga.
What Olga sets out to do is make it feel like a residential party of sorts, and she hits the nail on the head in the somewhat iconic building in Eastown. She’s incredibly welcoming and willing to chat with anyone in a caring, maternal way. One interaction with her and it will feel like you’re welcomed for life. She also will guide an uneasy diner through the food on her menu and make sure it’s enjoyed appropriately.
The quality of the food aside, a stop at Chez Olga is a necessity just to meet one of Grand Rapids’ shining personalities. The good news, however, is the food rates right up there with the hostess and is deserving of a stop in Eastown on its own. The good company is just a bonus!
The Creole and Caribbean restaurant’s doors opened in 2010 and is run by a mother and daughter (Dodlie Benoit), perhaps made famous by a 2019 episode of the Food Network show “Restaurant Impossible.” This year, it was listed in Grand Rapids Magazine’s Best Restaurants issue as a gem to not miss.
That’s a definite recommendation for spice lovers. The restaurant’s slogan is “Taste the Caribbean Heat,” after all.
A good start for a visit to Chez Olga is the fried plantain, a Caribbean staple. Like a savory banana, the fried fruit is a load of crispy, salty goodness that pairs well with the spicy coleslaw it is served with.
Most of the items on the menu are delicious, but there’s one must-try on the menu: the jerk chicken.
The chicken leg is spiced to a diner’s desire, and it’s probably wise to start lower than you might otherwise think. If you love spice, you’ll be sure to book a return trip. The chicken is moist and succulent, accented by its coating of a coconut-based jerk sauce. The sauce then mixes with the side of red beans and rice, which would be a hearty meal in itself. It will make sweat bead on your forehead, but in a warm, flavorful way.
That heat is available on any of the dishes, from the gumbo to the curry to the simple and satisfying Broccoli Sensation dish.
A spicy meal at Chez Olga calls for a sweet, cooling drink, and there are plenty on the menu: the mango lemonade or one of the Haitian island drinks — papaya and mango, papaya and passionfruit or corossal. The tall, chilled glass will make other diners salivate as they down their own spicy plates and look for liquid salvation.
The creamy rice pudding topped with coconut provides a soothing stomach coating and the Haitian coffee packs a delightful, caffeinated punch.
Be warned, however. As it says on the menu, the food is made to order by the incredibly small staff (again, sometimes just Olga, who also acts as the server) so patience might be required to fully enjoy the meal. But often, that’s the way Caribbean food should be enjoyed — at a slow and relaxed pace where every bite can be savored.
This story can be found in the May/June 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.