Scholar serves up old school favorites

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Bison meatballs, with huckleberry jam, farm cheese, almonds and sunflower seeds make for a hearty appetizer at Scholar, 11 Ionia Ave., SW (former space occupied by J. Gardella's). Photo by Stacy Feyer-Salo.

Few restaurants have opened up in Grand Rapids with such a specific approach in mind, particularly one that fit its building so well.

Scholar, 11 Ionia Ave. SW, opened in October 2023 in the former building that was occupied by the long-time Grand Rapids nightlife spot, J. Gardella’s Tavern.

Michael Winks, a Northpointe Bank executive, purchased the building in December 2021 and set out with the hopes of creating an upscale dining experience without stuffiness, a desire found while hosting client meetings.

“The hope is to have elevated dining with a fun atmosphere, a littler cooler vibe than you find most places and not stuffy,” Winks said. “I’ve been in banking my whole career, and there aren’t a lot of great options from a service standpoint. You want great food, but less casual service; more we’ll take care of you, but we’re in the background when having the discussions.”

Having heard the Gardella’s building was for sale, Winks found himself with the property when he checked with a real estate broker to see if it was still available. Then he had to find an operating partner for the restaurant. That came by way of the husband-and-wife pair Taylor and Alivia Boeschenstein, with Taylor as the chef and Alivia as the general manager.

The 133-year-old building offered plenty of opportunity for the restaurant, consisting of 6,200 square feet across three floors. The age of the space plays along perfectly for the retro American dining experience the group settled on.

“We really embrace the classic American dishes, things like you might see in your great grandmother’s recipes,” Winks said. “Taylor puts a great twist on fine dining, early American cuisine, which is something you don’t see often.”

The team fully delivers on the presentation of the idea of early American dining, playing hard into the building’s charming history and assets. Paired with the creative menus, the concept is intriguing and hard to pass up a chance at trying.

The top takeaway from a visit to Scholar is the well-done, cohesive cozy aesthetic that aims to keep diners and drinks alike put together by renowned designer Josh Tremblay, a Chicago-based commercial interior designer.

Upon entry, guests are greeted by what is a centerpiece at any establishment that has the fortune of owning one: a 100-plus-year- old Brunswick bar. The vibe is inviting and certainly a place that will be a hot cocktail stop, though diners can also sit on the level. The cocktail destination is accentuated by the basement cocktail lounge, known as The Study.

The Study features a fireplace, and even more lounge-type feel complete with fluffy sofas and chairs.

The main dining room is the second floor and could use a bit of adjustment to reach the desired coziness factor to fully immerse one into the full building vibe. While the tables and booths, and even the newly constructed bar, suggest the streamline continues from the lower levels, the ceiling is a bit too tall to fully enclose into a quiet, secluded evening.

That could potentially be a consequence of the night the Magazine visited, when
the lights also contributed to a less-than-stellar mood on the upper floor. A slight adjustment down to darken the area could also close up the space — and that certainly could be the case most nights and our visit was an outlier. The Magazine visit, it should also be noted, came less than a month after they opened, so plenty of things were still likely being ironed out.

One other nitpick on the setting, for our visit anyway; we were sat at a two top between the windows overlooking Ionia Avenue at the front of the building. Rather than set the table against the wall, there

was an awkward amount of space — maybe two feet — between
us and the wall that left us feeling a little strange. Again, a nitpick that likely would not bother most, but at least for some leaves an uneasiness, but overall the vibe at Scholar is top notch and certainly worth a night to try, particularly for cocktails.

Looking at the cocktail menu, it strikes a chord for a history and beverage lover. The menu is largely made up of classic cocktails well-known the world over. Next to the name, Scholar highlights
a commonly accepted year for the invention of the cocktail, like 1895 for the Old Fashion or 1927 for the Boulevardier, a personal favorite and one sampled on the visit. Overall, the “Classics” list

at Scholar left me wanting to sample all of the drinks and will require revisits to try them out, like the Gothic Punch, Martinez and Atomic. If I had my druthers, I’d restart my visit with an Americano, the classic Italian aperitif that consists of Campari, sweet vermouth, and bitters.

The “House Creations” generally take a spin on another classic cocktail, like the Whiskey Russian. The Magazine sampled the Pistachio Wonder — barrel gin, amaro nonino, pistachio lemon zest syrup, pistachio oil and egg white — and it was delightful. There is also a nice four drink smattering of “Temperance” offerings, building on the wider trend of non-alcoholic drinks. Those also pay tribute to classic cocktails, like the Lime Rickey and Piña Colada.

The wine list is finely curated into a smattering of options, largely concentrated in popular varieties. While there are certainly better wine and beer lists in the city, one would be hard pressed to not find at least something to indulge in for the evening.

The food menu is fun! Albeit maybe a touch simple for the thematic experience and lacking when compared to the cocktail menu. Regardless, the idea of going back in time for culinary delight is a fantastic idea and the menu is full of excellent choices that can make one lick their chops.

We started with the Shrimp Cocktail and Clams Casino. The Bison Meatballs and Crab Cakes were also eye catching but did not make the cut this visit. It is hard to miss on a Shrimp Cocktail, though ever since venturing to St. Elmo’s Steak House in Indianapolis, every cocktail sauce I’ll ever meet will likely lack in horseradish. The Clams Casino was a delicious bundle of clams drenched in butter.

The entrees also showcased a wide array of dishes, many a standard fare in restaurants across the globe; so long as they’re cooked well, they should deliver. The Ora King Salmon was a near order, but we opted for the Ribeye Delmonico Steak, which was cooked to a perfect medium rare and succulent. The potato cake was also delightfully crispy. Also ordered at the table was the Bison Short Rib, which was tender and had solid flavor. Also appealing but didn’t make the tab this visit were the Seared Scallops and Lamb T-Bones.

The Magazine visited within the first month of opening, so view criticisms with leniency. The server was amazingly nice and accommodating, but had to wait on four tables seated in close succession, which made the service feel inattentive and slow rather than laid back. While the mission to be lounge-like to allow for discussions is amazing, some improvement is needed to make Scholar a staple on the Grand Rapids dining scene.

Editor’s note: A subsequent visit to Scholar was met with marked improvement. The Bison Meatballs (pictured) were exquisite; a must-try!

 

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