Bridge Street. A sunny summer Sunday in Grand Rapids. Today’s food and beverage destination: Butcher’s Union. This spot came highly recommended by reputable sources, my friends Lisa and Erica, but other than a cursory glance at their menu online, I had no idea what to expect.
An upscale yet intimate restaurant, Butcher’s Union occupies the space on Bridge Street which, once upon a seedier time, was Monte’s nightclub, a meat market of a different kind. Thankfully those days were long gone, and the restaurant before me looked clean, classy, and enticing.
There was a line out to the door, but miraculously I was somehow able to get in ahead of everyone for immediate seating. A pleasant surprise! Something to note: Butcher’s Union has a first come, first serve policy, and do not take reservations.
As this place is slightly out of your not-so-humble writer’s typical price range, I suddenly became a bit concerned that I might be underdressed, but my fears were quickly put at ease. The joint was populated with all manner of folk, ranging from the well-dressed to printed t-shirt casual, which was the end of the spectrum I fell on that day. I didn’t detect a hint of a snooty attitude from anyone working there, quite the opposite. The greeters and servers of Butcher’s Union were extremely friendly and personable, not a weak link to be found.
Settling into an old-fashioned round button-tufted booth, I was reminded of the glory days of Mr. Steak and other restaurants of my fading youth. Nostalgia will get you everywhere in my book, er, article. The décor was fancy but yet inviting, and the seating arrangements are intimate without feeling cramped or claustrophobic. Music was loud but not obnoxious, a pleasant background to conversation without drowning it out. Butcher’s Union manages to pull off the tricky balancing act of feeling fancy and casual simultaneously.
Food and drink selections are plentiful, and pleasingly diverse. Ready to whet your whistle? The whiskey menu is intimidatingly large, featuring over 300 selections to choose from! In addition to an assortment of beers and wines, there is an impressive variety of mixed drink categories, including Old Fashioneds, Mules, Manhattans, and more.
Several bars in the area either don’t offer food, or have the basic pub chow standards like chips, mozzarella sticks, popcorn, and maybe a burger if you’re lucky. Butcher’s Union is fortunately as much of a restaurant as it is a bar. Burgers are present and accounted for, along with soups, salads, unique appetizers, plus fish, chicken, and pasta entrees. But as the place is named Butcher’s Union, you’d be 100% correct in assuming there’s steak on the menu. Hanger steak, sirloin, tenderloin, ribeye, New York Strip are all available, take your pick according to your appetite and your budget.
My dining companions Lisa and Erica blew in the door like they’d escaped either a rowdy sports bar or an armed revolt. I didn’t ask which. These femme fatales were thirsty for booze, and frankly, so was I. Our server, Connor, attentive to our needs, was at the ready to serve up the libations.
My first drink, under the category of Old Fashioneds, was The Squirming Coil. Quite a moniker. It came with an endorsement from Erica, who ordered the same. What makes up The Squirming Coil? Rittenhouse rye and Amaro Montenegro, Butcher Union’s own simple syrup, Aztec chocolate and Angostura bitters, served in a smoked glass (really cool) and topped with a flamed orange peel. Potent, and tasty to boot.
Lisa opted for The Pink Lotus, comprised of Hornitos Reposado shaken with Aperol apertivo, cream of coconut, fresh lime juice, and simple syrup, served on the rocks with a tajin rim and a dehydrated lime wheel. It looks like Pepto Bismol, but tastes like heaven. And while it’s a nice visual touch, I don’t recommend trying to eat the dehydrated lime wheel.
Onward to appetizers! Confronted with a dazzling array of choices ranging from Mild-Mannered Meatballs, to Crab Fritters, to Wagyu Beef Tartare, big decisions had to be made. We ordered a plate of Crispy Brussels Sprouts, a plate of Crispy Pork Belly, and to mix things up, I picked a non-crispy item, a small bowl of White Chicken Chili.
The White Chicken Chili was truly unique, containing green chiles, great northern beans, chickpeas, corn, swiss cheese, crème fraiche, cilantro, and with a bacon cheddar biscuit stuffed right in the bowl. Hearty, delicious, and closer to a mini-meal than a soup, but I ain’t complainin’.
Crispy Pork Belly was also unlike anything I was expecting. Cubes of tender pork with a crispy exterior, al pastor glaze, cilantro, and resting in fresh corn grits and pineapple relish. The dish looks weird on first glance, and honestly, it’s a trippy flavor combo, but it works! File under “strange but addictive.” Would order again.
But to my surprise, the Crispy Brussels Sprouts were the clear winner in The Appetizer Games. Crispy fried as advertised, they’re coated in a maple-chili glaze, and come with bacon lardons, which may sound a little funky, but are delicious nibbles of perfectly-cooked pork. The addition of the lardons put the Crispy Brussels Sprouts over the top, to a point where they would work as a light meal on their own.
During the post-appetizer zone prior to the entree, Lisa’s Pink Lotus drink looked so good that I ordered myself one. I guess if tough guys can wear pink, they can drink it, too.
Though it was difficult to resist the siren call of the Bacon-Wrapped Meatloaf, I was really hankering for a good steak. The three of us all ordered the same entree: Wagyu Sirloin from Snake River Farms, cooked medium rare with a red wine reduction, topped with crispy onion flakes. This was my first experience with Wagyu beef, and was easily the best steak I’ve had in ages. It was nice to be able to order a steak cooked medium rare and have it actually come out of the kitchen that way. Sides included garlic green beans and what I mistook for a slice of cornbread. It was, in fact, not cornbread, but thin- sliced potatoes stacked to form “highly-jacked potato gratin.” It was a winner! The distinctive flavors from the entree and each side meld together beautifully to make this plate all of a piece. My compliments to the chef!
After this smorgasbord of goodness, we couldn’t possibly eat another bite. Wait, Chocolate Pot de Creme for dessert? Twist my arm, why don’t ya? The Chocolate Pot de Creme is a small but mighty confection containing chocolate (of course!), Grand Mariner Chantily, and topped off with a fresh raspberry. This final treat was a nice bow on top of the bounty of culinary goodness we’d just had. If you’re looking for more ambitious dessert options, the menu features Chocolate Mousse Cake, Bourbon Apple Crisp, and an Old Fashioned Cheesecake.
Intrepid foodies Lisa and Erica did not steer me wrong. In the land of Bridge Street dive bars, Butcher’s Union is a cut above. Make it a priority to stop in for a whatever manner of drink your heart desires, some truly quality eats, and an all-round great experience! Highest recommendation.