It can be easy for a restaurant to open and to force its concept on customers. Sometimes, the original concept works and customers flock to the establishment and all is swell. Other times, the entire idea collapses and the restaurant goes out of business, which is why so many fail to make it beyond three years.
But more often than not, those restaurants that do survive happen to evolve with customers to determine where they fit into a community.
That last scenario is exactly how Linear, 1001 Monroe Ave. NW, has turned into one of the boundary-pushing eateries of Grand Rapids. Co-owner Todd Hoort said when the restaurant opened in 2018, the initial belief was that it would be a small plates restaurant, with the bar being the true draw of the place.
“We figured we’d be a place to come hangout, have a few drinks and food would be secondary and just there,” Hoort said. “That was our initial vision, but we’ve evolved into a more traditional restaurant. We quickly learned customers wanted us to be more full-service, more sit-down and we’ve transformed more into that than anyone considering us a bar.”
The concept of transitioning from a
bar to a full-fledged restaurant is not to
say Linear is a place where one can’t find
an excellent beverage. In fact, quite the contrary. The bar is center stage in the dining room, just set back after walking into the front door. The place is full of natural light from the big windows that line the walls, greenery and all with a view of the wonderful public space along the Grand River on North Monroe Ave.
It is a perfect setting to grab a beer or well-designed cocktail after work. Heck, order up a few of the appetizers and the initial vision certainly still works. If they’re on the menu, grab the ginger-miso pork meatballs; absolutely delightful.
But West Michigan is a place that is hard to change minds, and palates. Add in the complete unknown for the hospitality industry that was COVID-19 and Linear has pushed its focus to cater to guests, or as Hoort puts it, “We’ve become more focused on what guests are and less about what we think and less of what we want. But it’s in a good way.”
Restaurateurs and chefs can get in their own heads. Egos can grow easily as they look across a food scene and recognize the holes left or how they can bring innovative ideas from bigger markets to a small, Midwestern city.
“A lot of times, we look at Chicago, New York, Nashville, cities like those and we want to be them,” Hoort said. “Grand Rapids often is not ready right away for some of those trends. That’s not a bad thing, but if something is cool in Chicago, it will be cool in Grand Rapids in two years.”
It’s tough to be a trailblazer in a city, as many restaurateurs continue to learn in Grand Rapids. Many take a similar approach to Linear’s and then pull back to meet customers in the middle. Few get to actually stretch the wings the way they want, but
it takes a little bit of flexibility to get there when all is said and done. At Linear, Hoort said really, they just need to let people have a say in where it is going.
“Eventually, people have to show up and have fun,” he said. “They get to dictate what happens versus us steering them the ways we want them to go. That’s how eventually you get to a happy medium.”
The menu at Linear has always had some standouts, from the spinach coconut salad to the duck breast and the wagyu flank steak, as well as any fish on the menu.
But the restaurant rolled out a new menu this spring.
“We finally feel like we’ve hit our sweet spot where we can express ourselves but find the customers where they are and what they want,” Hoort said. “We’ll push the boundaries with some of the items, but we’ll also have some super easy, clean stuff. You can bring in your weird aunt and we have Cacio e Pepe, so we can say we have a simple pasta and cheese.
“We found our menu balance; it’s our most put together menu.”
Along with the new menu, Linear also in recent times has opened up its hours to include brunch on the weekends and lunch on weekdays.
Brunch has many delicious options to choose from, including a latin hash, croque madame, flat iron steak and eggs and a strawberry stuffed French toast. The brunch prices are incredibly reasonably priced (most are below $15 per dish). But perhaps the highlight is the brunch special which allows diners to choose two different entrees and a bottle of bubbles for $45.
More recently, Linear launched its lunch. That was personal for Hoort, who likes eating out for lunch more than dinner.
“Maybe that’s because I work for a restaurant, but it’s a cool time to get together with people and it’s not as big of a deal,” he said. “It’s also, we talk about wanting downtown vibrancy and being down to the river. Well, you have to be open all day, you can’t open at five and ask why no one is down here. We want to promote that Grand Rapids is walkable and we think lunch and brunch instills that thought.”
The lunch menu includes some entrees from the dinner menu, but its own as well, like a mojo pork tostada or fish ‘n’ chips. Sandwich offerings are excellent as well, including a braised beef, chicken salad and one featuring the ginger miso meatballs highlighted earlier. The salads are perhaps a can’t miss feature of the Linear menu, with refreshing takes on flavors and colors. Like brunch, the lunch offerings carry a wallet friendly price with most dishes priced under $16.
With the recent shift to a new dinner menu, Linear is ready to help Grand Rapids continue its evolution into its next phase as a city. With a hopeful future of a restored river and the entire riverfront activated, including the massive proposed amphitheater not too far away, Linear’s position on the far end of downtown positions itself for continued traffic growth.
“Grand Rapids is becoming more and more of a city and slowly, you get to attract a different crowd that is excited to spend money on exciting food and not excited about getting the most amount of food for the cheapest price,” Hoort said, adding the growth the North Monroe district continues to become a more vibrant neighborhood as factories turn to new developments, including a massive new office for Corewell Health (formerly Spectrum Health).
Beyond that, the summer provides diners the perfect time to fully experience Linear. There is a massive outdoor space the restaurant does not get to utilize during the winter. But with the river’s exciting potential, Hoort knows the asset Linear holds with its outdoor dining space.
“We love the outdoor seating we have and we try to improve it a little bit each year,” Hoort said. “I’ve been trying to work with downtown to throw some events outside, to try to help bring back life to the river.”