When I was growing up, there was a spot in my hometown that couldn’t manage to keep tenants. It cycled through restaurants quickly — so you never really knew what was going to be there. It was a Chinese restaurant, then a Chinese buffet, then a Mexican spot, then a country cooking restaurant, and then I lost track. Now, it’s an Indian food spot. But, from the outside looking in, we always wondered why restaurants couldn’t seem to make it there.
Now that I’m older and I know more about the food industry, I can usually make pretty good assumptions about why restaurants fail: the menu is overpriced, the food is unapproachable, there wasn’t enough marketing, it didn’t know its customer, the competition was fierce or the food was just bad. One or all may apply.
Sometimes I think a restaurant can be a victim of the location’s history; with so much turnover, perhaps new businesses fail to catch the attention of people who have lost track of what’s there — and have forgotten about the location completely.
I’m sure you know of a few places in Grand Rapids that fit that description, but for me, it’s 25 Ottawa Ave., which sits directly across the street from the Van Andel Arena. You’d think with its proximity to the arena and downtown it would be prime real estate for a restaurant or bar, but it seems to be passed by for competitors off Ionia or closer to the city center.
This location has seen many different concepts come and go. Most notably, it held the Margarita Grill, a rowdy college bar that closed in 2008. It was then flipped by Steve Brechting into 25 Kitchen and Bar, a bistro-style restaurant that played off its name, featuring a menu of 25 beers, cocktails and pizzas.
After an unexpected closing, 25 Kitchen and Bar was followed by McKay’s, a kinda-French-restaurant-meets-sports-bar that closed after four months. Next, IRON at 25 Ottawa moved in following a building remodel and patio expansion (and a sizeable investment from Osteria Rossa owner Christopher Perkey) in 2016 and closed after two years.
In August 2019, a new restaurant opened — Social House — described by owner Scott Esterline as “a tavern with a modern take on the new American fare.”
Inside, it’s a casual eatery meets sports bar. The bar lines the left side of the room facing four large TVs, and a scattering of high-tops and four-tops are arranged around the room. The open food windows peek into the kitchen from the dining room while the side doors open onto the restaurant’s outdoor patio.
The restaurant has more of a bar, industrial feel (even with the plants hanging from the ceiling) than its menu suggests. The menu features the expected sports bar nosh (like burgers, wings and pizza) to the decidedly not sports bar food (like goat cheese fritters with apple chutney or a fried chickpea and wilted spinach power bowl).
I found the food to be tasty and the portion sizes fair compared to price. And, with its proximity to Van Andel Arena, it’s easy to see this spot becoming a go-to for a drink and a bite to eat before or after a Griffins hockey game, concert or other visiting event.
And that is the goal.
“With so many new upscale food venues going in, we wanted to cater to the crowd that wanted great food and drinks at a reasonable price,” Esterline said.
The restaurant offers many weekly specials to drive traffic. Another unique benefit: for people who rideshare downtown for games or events, if you take an Uber or Lyft to the restaurant and spend more than $50 on food or drinks, Social House will give you $10 off your bill to help pay for your ride. A nice perk to encourage patrons not to drink and drive.
Esterline said there are plans to renovate the restaurant to take advantage of its location.
“We have one of the best patios in the city,” he said. “We’re working on getting a retractable roof so we can have our patio open year-round. We are also looking into putting garage doors on the front for an open concept restaurant.”
The biggest question is whether this restaurant, with its extensive events schedule and space update, can create a successful (and memorable) niche that caters to the Arena District and keeps patrons coming back.
Social House specials
• Tuesdays: $1 tacos
and $4 margaritas
• Wednesdays: Family Feud night
• Thursdays: Thirsty Thursdays (live music and half-off drinks)
• Fridays and Saturdays: Live DJ and dancing
• Sundays: 10 a.m. brunch with a DJ and “the biggest bloody mary, mimosa and
white Russian bar in West Michigan”