Let the debate begin — maybe.
In the 2021 Best Restaurants issue, Grand Rapids Magazine did not name a top restaurant, nor did we adhere to the normal practice of really naming the best restaurants in the city.
With the situation that was the COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions put on restaurants throughout 2020, the decision was more than understandable. That is not to say there were not incredibly well-deserving establishments on the list.
Places like Quarantino’s opened and impressed with a familiar style of pizza. The Mitten Brewing Co. helped lead a charge in worker welfare while firing out its delectable pizzas and beer, both among the favorites of Grand Rapids Magazine readers.
Others, like Mertens Prime, Luna and Amore Trattoria Italiana, were able to maintain the quality they established before the pandemic but kept things new and exciting while adapting to the constantly changing times.
People’s dining habits shifted during the height of the pandemic when more often than not the kitchen table did double duty as an office and takeout became the new norm.
Thankfully, lifted restrictions in early 2021 once again transformed the dining experience and more people became comfortable with venturing out.
So, the abbreviated list was the right thing to do last year. Unfortunately, the pandemic didn’t altogether disappear in 2021 and continued to claim much-loved establishments like Osteria Rossa and favorite taco spot Taqueria San Jose.
For 2022, Grand Rapids Magazine’s Best Restaurants will follow a similar approach, while returning a bit to the roots of what the issue did pre-pandemic: set the standard for fine dining in the city. We’ll also center on dining within the Grand Rapids borders.
This list does not have a Restaurant of the Year. A big part of that is the industry still struggles day-to-day with the intense pressures of a pandemic, including a mind-boggling labor shortage. That easily can impact food quality on a plate and, certainly, service.
On any given night, a restaurant can excel, while the next night it struggles. It’s hard to claim this is a definitive list because life for everyone the past two years has been a rollercoaster.
What we can say is you won’t be disappointed when visiting these eateries.
It’s quite possible the Best Restaurants list will look a lot different in 2023, just as this year’s looks different from 2021. But that’s an exercise for next year.
For now, here are five restaurants that are pushing the standard of Grand Rapids dining to new heights.
Following that is a list of five restaurants that create incredible food with regularity but, for whatever reason, might be a bit overlooked.
Food scenes evolve quickly, and some restaurants in the next pages have been able to stick around and pass the test of time. Others are new and are helping push the limits with Grand Rapids diners. Together, they make a vibrant dining experience worthy of a growing city.
Anyway, on to the tasty food.
*Considerations did not include national chains and brands, like Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Kitchen by Wolfgang Puck, many of which are wonderful restaurants.
In March 2020, Grand Rapids Magazine named The Sovengard its Restaurant of the Year. Essentially two weeks later, the world shut down and the restaurant lost whatever benefits topping a list like this brings.
Well, The Sovengard did manage to keep its doors open through twists and turns of lockdowns. With its Scandinavian influence, the menu can hold some surprises for diners and introduce them to new concepts. But admittedly, that has waned some since the restaurant first opened in 2016. The menu is a bit less esoteric, allowing an easier entry for most Midwestern diners.
From an impeccably cooked duck breast to a flaky soft walleye and a creamy winter squash pasta, the main courses can compete with top restaurants in much bigger food scenes.
Likewise, the beverage program at The Sovengard is among the very best in West Michigan. From the cocktails to the beer and wine lists, nearly everything on the beverage menu is thoughtfully curated to help accentuate a wonderful dinner or simply a conversation over drinks.
One thing to watch in the next year will be how the atmosphere changes. The Sovengard is currently in the midst of moving to a new location, much further west down Bridge Street than its current location.
Its original basement location helped set the mood for what The Sovengard is. The raw brick walls and modern design accents encouraged diners to enjoy whatever season was outside, which makes sense with the ever-changing menu. The giant beer garden also was a staple on the West Side and helped make that location so special.
The outstanding food will continue at the new location, but we hope the calming atmosphere will follow as well.
(Editor’s Note: At the time of writing, The Sovengard was still operating at its original 443 Bridge St. NW location. The restaurant is moving to a new location, 1213 Bridge St. NW, sometime this year.)
Similar to The Sovengard, Margaux at the JW Marriott garnered a hearty endorsement from Grand Rapids Magazine in March 2020, earning the title of Best New Restaurant. Opened in October 2019, the French-themed restaurant had just a few months to enjoy normal operating circumstances before the COVID-19 tumult.
Thankfully, Margaux has resumed its role as a replacement for Six.One.Six, the previous restaurant in the space at one of the premier hotels in Grand Rapids. In summer 2021, the restaurant also welcomed two important staff members: General Manager Caitlin Hoop and Chef de Cuisine Tyler VanAntwerpen. Hoop returned to Grand Rapids in summer 2020 after spending several years in New York City, working at Union Square Hospitality Group, the famed restaurant group of Danny Meyer. VanAntwerpen, meanwhile, spent time at restaurants in Chicago. Both bring an obvious big-city dining feel to a marquee establishment in the city.
After traversing the first six months of their time at Margaux, they now look forward to excelling further in 2022.
“We’re both very excited now that we both have our legs underneath us,” Hoop said. “Our goal for 2022, and where we hope to take it, is making it more of a Grand Rapids establishment. We are fortunate to be in a hotel and always have those guests, but we want to make it more of a community-driven restaurant.”
The community would do well to embrace the restaurant. French cuisine is one of the cornerstone styles of fine dining, and each time Grand Rapids Magazine visited the meals were on point.
Whether it’s the delicate rainbow trout filets in a puddle of brown butter served on neatly fried potatoes or the wild boar ragout that was perhaps the best pasta dish we experienced, VanAntwerpen and his staff hit the mark every time.
A key to French cooking, like most, is avoiding heavy-handedness. With that restraint, the dishes are light yet flavorful while addressing all levels of hunger.
The staff also is knowledgeable, efficient and quick to recommend a perfect pairing while easily explaining why it’s the right choice.
If Margaux has one of the marquee locations in town, then MDRD has the marquee location in Grand Rapids.
Both have little room for error in terms of operations because they are keystone restaurants at the two premier hotels in Grand Rapids. Visitors looking to dine in Grand Rapids while staying at those hotels will first look at those restaurants.
The good news for MDRD is that location gives it a magnificent boost from the get-go. On the 27th floor of the Amway Grand Plaza tower, the view and design provide bonus points for any diner. With an incredible view of West Michigan, the first part of dinner often leaves visitors in awe.
As the view becomes normalized, however, a relaxed and informed service style guides a diner through the menu without even glancing down. While visitors are seated several hundred feet above Grand Rapids, the pace of service certainly helps set the tone for a languid, traditional Spanish dinner, even if there is a snowstorm swirling outside.
The dishes themselves are upgraded simplicity. The Ensalada de Pepino, for example, offers spirals of cucumbers, topped with dollops of creamy coconut cheese on a bed of salsa verde surrounded by sweet peppers. Simple, yet delicious.
The tapas are small, shareable plates, as they should be, and are fantastic. Try combining the Gambas Al Ajillo and Patatas Bravas, which allow the slightly spicy shrimp to be balanced by the crispy potato cubes.
The main dishes can be tricky and will depend on the diner’s preferences. The pan-seared scallops were perfect, but the whole rainbow trout is stuffed with olive tapenade — great if you love olives, but not so great if you expect a true representation of a fragile, buttery trout.
On the drinks side, the cocktails are inventive and sizable, and the wine list is well curated with an appropriate slant to Spanish varieties.
Off the beaten path and essentially on the border of downtown Grand Rapids, Linear was a stellar addition to the Grand Rapids dining scene when it opened in 2018.
The sleek, modern dining room is a great way to set the tone, which owner Todd Hoort said is not trying to be pretentious but rather straddle the lines of fancy and comfort food. No dinner jackets required.
The menu is meant to be shared. The plates are not small by any means, but they’re not overflowing, either. It’s best to go into a dinner at Linear by ordering enough plates to adequately share with another diner or three.
The starters are inventive, including plates like “Beets Three Ways,” highlighting the versatility of an oft-overlooked root vegetable, while toasted raviolis hit a more familiar note.
The main dishes have a nice array of vegetarian options, like wild mushroom manicotti and the grilled cauliflower and couscous plate. There’s also plenty of options for fish lovers, including a grilled swordfish that delivers a mild but meaty punch.
Then there are the meat options, like the wagyu flank steak, which pairs incredibly with the pungent blue cheese sporadically parsed onto the plate — light enough for those who normally shy away from a stinky cheese.
Finish it off with a delightful S’mores Trifle.
Linear also has an incredible weekend brunch menu if a dinner date isn’t in the wheelhouse.
Bistro Bella Vita
A staple in the Grand Rapids dining scene since the 1990s, it would be easy for Bistro Bella Vita to rest on its laurels and let its name and history carry the menu.
Instead, the restaurant continues to kick out new menu items to help keep pushing the Grand Rapids dining scene forward.
Sure, there are staples that have been on the menu for years, like the creamy pesto Rotini con Pollo or the juicy rotisserie chicken and mashed potato and veggie Poulet de Provence. The pizzas, too, are generally can’t-miss options, particularly the Rustica.
House-made pasta helps set the stage for the pasta dishes, including the rigatoni bolognese, which quite possibly could be the best restaurant bolognese in the area.
On the beverage side, since opening with a massive martini menu — which it still carries the legacy of — Bistro has generally kept pace with cocktail trends, including a recent push on Negronis. More impressively though, General Manager Tristan Walczewski recently earned his level 3 sommelier, helping diners match their meals with wines from an extensive cellar list.
After the meal, while there’s plenty to choose from by way of after-dinner drinks, one would be hard-pressed to find a better capper than an espresso along with the butterscotch budino.
That’s why Bistro Bella Vita has been in Grand Rapids Magazine’s Best Restaurants issue each year for more than a decade. Of note: Essence Restaurant Group reopened Grove in February, resurrecting the restaurant that won Restaurant of the Year for five consecutive years after opening in 2011.
(Editor’s Note: The author’s sister is a partner of Essence Restaurant Group.)
Five more that soar
There are valid reasons to include these stops on your dining tour.
San Chez Bistro
It’s almost like stepping onto a set from the sitcom “Friends” and the charm that emanates from sitting in essentially the same dining room as when it opened in 1992 really helps elevate a meal.
As a tapas restaurant, it’s best to take a trip throughout the menu and order in excess for the table, then pass them around.
Another staple to the upscale dining scene in Grand Rapids, Leo’s was essentially alone in its extensive seafood menu in the downtown area.
That status finally is changing, thanks to the opening of places like Beacon Corner Bar and soon-to-be-open Real Seafood Company. Whether that changes how a place like Leo’s operates is yet to be seen, but for now it’s the cream of that crop and is a must-try experience on the seafood side.
The Chop House
Cooking a steak often is viewed as a simple task, but to do it well is a science. And The Chop House presents a pretty-darn-close-to-perfect steak. Those grill skills also translate well to other items like succulent pan-seared scallops and juicy rib lamb chops.
The atmosphere also might be the most traditionally “fancy date night” vibe of any GR restaurant.
A previous Restaurant of the Year award winner, Reserve helped set the stage for new wine expectations in Grand Rapids when it opened in 2010. Not a massive menu by any means, a great route here is leaning on the wine and exploring the extensive meat and cheese menu.
MeXo takes Mexican cuisine, both modern and more traditional, and pulls together a menu unique to Grand Rapids and certainly outside what most Grand Rapidians know about Mexican food. The dishes also offer gorgeous colors to stimulate more than just the tastebuds.
This story can be found in the March/April 2022 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.