I had one near-miss with Monte’s, the former Bridge Street booty club on Grand Rapids’ west side. Several years ago, a friend was fresh off a breakup and eager to spend a weekend night out among “the ladies,” but needed a “wing man.” (Real words that were spoken.)
There were plenty of more reputable places to accomplish this, but he’d set his broken heart on Monte’s, so I agreed to go along on the condition that he pay for 1) my cover, 2) our transportation and 3) every drop of alcohol I consumed, which was going to be a lot.
So we got there, stood in line like idiots and made it to the velvet rope, where the bouncer turned me away because my clubbing footwear — a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors — was insufficiently douchey. My friend disappeared into this debauched singles’ paradise and I wandered down the street to Kale’s Korner Bar, where I happily spent the next few hours drinking whiskey by myself, like an adult.
Monte’s is long gone, but the building is still just as challenging to get into on a weekend night. That’s because Butcher’s Union, the restaurant now occupying that space, is the new rage. You may already know this if you use Facebook or Instagram, which lately seem to exist for the sole purpose of enabling Grand Rapids diners to inform their friends they’ve secured seating there. At peak time, this can take 90 minutes to two hours.
I found this out when I tried to get a table on a recent Saturday. After learning the restaurant does not accept reservations by phone, my companion Jen and I ventured to the now increasingly trendy Bridge Street, put in our names and killed time — rather poetically, I thought — at Kale’s, where the whiskey is still good.
It is also quite good, and plentiful, at the Butcher’s Union, which offers about 200 bourbons, ryes, Scotches and malts, along with an extensive and smartly curated menu of craft cocktails, including multiple Manhattans, Old Fashioneds, Mules and several house concoctions.
Already warmed by less swanky beverages down the street, we kept the pre-meal cocktails simple. Jen opted for a Moscow Mule — Old Tito’s vodka, fresh lime, ginger beer and syrup in the standard copper mug ($7). I enjoyed a Butcher’s Manhattan — Four Roses bourbon mixed with Dubonnet Rouge wine and two kinds of bitters and garnished with an orange peel ($8).
Continuing to err on the side of simplicity, we split an appetizer of hand-cut fries served with a creamy French mornay sauce and a garlic aioli, then topped with a fried egg. ($8.50) If there’s a more baller culinary move than adding a bonus fried egg to any dish, I don’t want to know about it.
Jen ordered a charred flank steak entree ($18.50). The juicy meat was prepared medium-rare in a red-wine reduction and accompanied by sauteed shallots, sugar snap peas and onion flakes, paired heavily and heartily with a side of au gratin potatoes.
My entree was the butter roasted salmon ($18.75), a savory filet served atop a bed of broccolini and delicately coated in tomato butter sauce, capers (truly one of the world’s greatest and most underrated garnishments) and baby shrimp. Actually, forget what I said about the fried egg; topping fish with other, smaller fish is truly the most baller kitchen maneuver.
The service and ambience at Butcher’s Union were impeccable. The building was full to its gills, but we never felt crowded by adjacent tables or smothered in conversation by the effects of ill-considered acoustics. Our server, Valerie, was efficient and attentive even when navigating a packed section during the dinner rush, offering advice about the menu that was both candid and well-informed.
There is a balance of casual accessibility and upscale swagger at Butcher’s Union that surely is a lot harder to execute than it looks. (The restaurateur, David Reinert, also owns O’Toole’s Public House and formerly owned Rockwell/Republic.) The menu prices will put Butcher’s Union in the special-occasion category for most visitors, but nothing is unreasonable. You’ll pay the same or more for less impressive food and less thoughtfully rendered cocktails at several of Grand Rapids’ new dining destinations.
Most of my trips to Bridge Street still involve dark bars whose idea of a fancy cocktail is a McNulty — a PBR with a Jameson shot for sipping. But a pleasurable visit to the Butcher’s Union, if you can swing it, justifies the hype.
Butcher’s Union, 438 Bridge St. NW, Grand Rapids; (616) 551-1323, butchersuniongr.com.
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs.: 11:30 a.m.-12 a.m., Fri.: 3-midnight, Sat.: 11:30 a.m.–2 a.m.-midnight, Sun.: 10 a.m.-9 p.m.