Something to celebrate at Beltline Bar

Owner, Jeff Lobdell becomes Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Restaurant Association
Beltline Bar owner Jeff Lobdell, right, shares a booth with previous owner Jerry Rutkowski in October 2022. Courtesy photo.

Heading up 28th Street and whipping a right turn onto Division St., today’s lunch beat brings me to a place that feels like an old friend. You know it, you love it… The Beltline Bar!

The Beltline Bar opened in 1953, bringing the then-exotic flavors of Tex-Mex food to West Michigan. One of Beltline’s national claims to fame is that it is touted as the birthplace of the wet burrito.

‘The Famous’ wet burrito. Photo by Amanda Kampinnen.

I spoke with owner Jeff Lobdell, who says that while there is some debate to whether Beltline’s kitchen was first to introduce the wet burrito, what can’t be debated is which Grand Rapids restaurant has sold the most of them! Beltline’s original wet burrito “The Famous” was introduced in 1966, and their delicious recipe remains the same today.

Lobdell emphasized the Beltline’s dedication to quality and freshness of their food. Their meat is locally sourced from Tolman’s Meats, sauces are made from scratch, and the 90-day aged Colby cheese from Wisconsin is shredded on-site every day. Lobdell mentioned that he still makes a point to hand-blend the secret spice blend himself! Pretty impressive for a guy who owns somewhere in the neighborhood of 19 restaurants and employs over 900 people. Spices aren’t the only things he has his hands on. He is a force to be reckoned with in the hospitality industry. Today, January 31, 2024, he will assume the position of Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Restaurant Association, the largest foodservice trade association in the world.

Don’t forget the dessert: fried ice cream. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

As I entered the Beltline Bar, I realized that the pleasant low-light Tex-Mex ambiance has not changed a bit in my entire four-decade-plus lifetime. It’s always a comfortably familiar place to grab a drink and chow down. My lunch meal opened with the customary pile of homemade seasoned tortilla chips, accompanied by a variety of salsas ranging from mild to PDH: Pretty Darn Hot!

While their menu contains a great variety of Tex-Mex goodness (and several $10 lunch specials!), it’s difficult for me to not just get “The Famous” whenever I’m here. But today, I opted for my other go-to, the Luncheon

Fajitas. In the meantime, a drink was in order. Today’s drink: The Cockatoo. A secret mix of liquors and sweet fruit juices, The Cockatoo ensured that the wait for my entree passed quickly.

A loud sizzle heralded the arrival of my Luncheon Fajita order.

Steak fajitas served with a “Cockatoo” at Beltline Bar. Photo by Amanda Kamppinen.

It comes with either grilled chicken breast or steak (steak for me!), served with sauteed onions and peppers in a sizzling skillet, along with corn or flour tortillas, pico de gallo, Colby cheese, sour cream, and refried beans. A heavy lunch, but it’s tough to resist this glorious smorgasbord of food!

For the more health-conscious out there, I have to give a stamp of endorsement to their Garden Veggie burrito, a flavorful vegetarian variant which is hearty and satisfying to even me, a lifelong carnivore. A gluten-free version of “The Famous” has been added to the menu as well.

Many long-running Grand Rapids eateries like Mr. Gyro, Tillman’s and the Choo Choo Grill have either permanently closed or are on their way out, but the Beltline Bar remains as busy as ever. (Be sure to sign onto the online waiting list to avoid a long line at the door.) If you haven’t been in a while, it’s the perfect time to return to the Beltline Bar, a 70-year Grand Rapids institution!

Editor’s note: The closure of Choo Choo Grill mentioned above was temporary. It’s now open weekdays, 7 a.m. – 3 p.m.; Saturdays, 7 a.m. – 2 p.m.; closed Sundays.

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