(Grand Rapids, MI) Once upon a time, a restaurant opened up downtown called The Black Rose. As its name implied, it was a traditional Irish pub with interesting beers like John Courage (no other tavern in the area boasted this import) and fun food like Asiago Coins. We would meet friends there—especially for Saint Patrick's Day—and enjoy this interesting little place. Then one day the quality started to slip. There were no more Asiago Coins. They couldn't import any more John Courage. The menu simplified. They had karaoake night. All sure signs that something wasn't going for very well for The Black Rose. Over time, we forgot about them...until one day we heard they had closed. Too bad, we thought. It was nice while it lasted. Then a couple months ago, while driving past the derelict building, I noticed lights on inside. There were people! They were eating and drinking! What sort of wizardry was this? The sign outside proclaimed Tavern on the Square. It appeared to be a bit more upscale than The Black Rose and they had performed some interior upgrades (the outside looked much the same, though they converted the bar area into an outdoor patio). Would this resurrection fare any better than the last incarnation? We set out to find out during an impromptu adventure...
When you get a nice day in Southwestern Michigan, it's tough to sit indoors all day. So I cash in some vacation time and spend the afternoon wandering the streets of Grand Rapids, grabbing a quick lunch on the patio at HopCat, then perusing the aisles at Schuler's Bookstore, before enjoying a libation in the warm sunshine. As luck would have it, Juliet also manages to free up the afternoon and she joins me for some Friday refreshment. As it nears dinnertime, we begin to contemplate heading back home when it stikes us: why? We have so many fine eateries within a walk away. Why not seek out adventure instead of leftovers? So we find ourselves strolling hand-in-hand to the new Tavern on the Square.
(I had popped into Tavern with a buddy not long ago, and was pretty impressed with the menu. As a matter of fact, it was one of the few times I purposely ordered seafood and enjoyed it immensely. Juliet was not amused when I told her this, of course. She wants to be front and center when I try seafood.)
As we near the entrance, our hearts sink a bit because there are at least two other parties waiting at the hostess stand ahead of us. Is it so popular? Evidently, as other diners talk, drink and eat on the heated patio. Inside, a mild roar emanates from other patrons. We are greeted warmly by the hostess who says, "It'll be about 15 minutes." Fair enough. After giving our name, she tells us she'll find us and we are left to wander inside. We make the mistake of peeking out at the side patio, which is playing loud country music and only offering Bud or Bud Light from two tapped coolers. What the heck is going on here? We shrink back inside and find two bar stools to await our fate.
Sure enough, the hostess finds us only minutes later. "Your table is ready," she say and leads us back out to the front patio. I am worried the twilight air will be too cool but the overhead heaters fend off the spring chill with no problem. Country music is playing here as well, and we find out (much to our horror) that Carrie Underwood is performing downtown tonight. Savvy, the restaurant is catering to the pre-concert attendees. Even better, as soon as the concert time approaches, the country music goes bye-bye.
Even before we know what we'd like to drink, we ask our waitress for an appetizer called Pan Fried Deviled Eggs. Three halves (only three!?!) arrive on a lettuce leaf, looking like normal deviled eggs but with a spackling of some sort of crust and a crown of olive tepenade atop each. I take a bite. The crust is crispy, sweet and complements the salty olives perfectly. I am reminded of the Scottish Eggs I love so much at Graydon's Crossing, but these are lighter (no sausage, of course) and playfully contrast the savory with the sweet. Too soon, our app is gone.
It goes without saying (to our regular readers, anyway) that I enjoy trying new things especially if those things are a bit unusual. On the menu, there is one unusual dish that jumps out at me: Seared PBJ Tuna. I know, I know...I don't eat seafood, right? True, but there are two factors working against this theory: (1) the fish tacos I had on my previous visit were amazing, and (2) tuna that might taste like peanut butter and jelly sounds right up my alley. So I have little choice but to order it, despite my nearly lifelong aversion to fellow fish (I am Pisces).
It's enough to turn me cannibal.
So pink it might be called almost raw, the tuna steak wobbles unsteadily amid sweet potato chips. Gritty lumps of cashew butter and mango jam sit to the side. I immediately carve into the fish before my courage departs, mix the butter and the jam, and fork it into my mouth. Shazam! No fishy taste at all, and the tuna practically melts onto my tongue, swimming with cashew and mango... Holy cow, it tastes just like peanut butter and jelly! Joyously, I continue devouring my once-gilled brethren, munching on the sweet potato crisps for added texture. Only towards the end, when the steak has cooled somewhat does the squishy raw tuna bother me slightly. No matter; I would order it again and maybe just eat more quickly.
Juliet offers me a tasty bite of her fish tacos, and they are as good as I remember. Hey, look at me! I like fish! Finally, eschewing dessert, we order a big bowl of those sweet potato chips coated with cinnamon and sugar with a honey-almond yogurt dipping sauce. Who needs creme brulee?
Although our meal was unplanned, we both thoroughly enjoy the food and the atmosphere. Country music aside, Tavern on the Square, sits on a corner that is generally quiet without the usual rabble of drunken revellers you might find up the street at McFadden's. And while the menu is somewhat small, the variance of each dish more than makes up for it. We'll be coming here again.
I have a 2-3 pm meeting in another building on campus but when I walk outside to head back to the office and find the sun shining and the temps in the high 60's, I duck out early to head home. I feel a bit guilty, but it is fleeting when I remember I spent the weekend prior working 15+ hour days at a trade show.
Even after beverage #2, I have every intention of making dinner at home. We have all the ingredients to make Baja chicken tacos. I've even pre-prepped most of the ingredients so it will be just a minimal amount of work. There is no excuse to not go home for dinner. None.
But...it's so nice outside, even with a light wind it's absolutely gorgeous on the deck. There's a concert at the downtown stadium tonight which makes the people-watching a bit more fun. And I rarely get a free evening to just veg on a deck with Jeremy. Between my travel schedule and Michigan's unpredictable weather, we might not get this chance again for weeks. (Never mind that we're leaving for a Sonoma vacation in a few weeks.) I just cannot help myself and say, "Let's eat downtown tonight. It's gorgeous out."
Jeremy has been talking up Tavern on the Square quite a bit; he had his first fish taco there, in fact, and I'm a fish taco fanatic, so it was an easy choice. There is a very brief (considering it's Friday on a concert night and we have no reservations) wait for a table and we are seated outside on the deck. Excellent people-watching to ensue!
Our server gives us a beverage menu with wines and beers, a dinner menu with small plates and entrees, and the bar menu which lists cocktails and "bar plates". While I like a lot of choices at a restaurant, I am finding this trend of having to sort through numerous menus to be a pain. I guess maybe it's a trade off between thumbing through one of those gigantic "TGIF" style menus or juggling several smaller ones.
We decide on starting with the pan-fried deviled eggs topped with olive bruschetta. The eggs look and taste like regular deviled eggs, but have a light crispy coating. The crunchy coating, the briney olives, the sweetness of the deviled eggs and the bitterness of the lettuce leaves (I'm a garnish eater) all combine in each bite. It's so good that I finish my half all too quickly and realize we're going to have to split the third half. There's no way I'm giving up my share on this one!
The dinner menu has several interesting options and it's a struggle to shoose just one. I think about getting the PB&J tuna (which Jeremy ends up ordering), the pesto shrimp quesidillas, or the Baja Ahi tacos. I decide instead to go for the fish tacos.
Two lightly-fried corn tortillas arrive overstuffed with battered cod strips, coleslaw and guacamole. (I had them hold the raw tomatoes.) The tortillas are crispy, but don't shatter upon biting like so many crunchy taco shells do. Actually, these are probably the easiest tacos I've ever eaten because they don't break into a gazillion parts and pieces.
The coating on the cod is very light and slightly malt-flavored (I venture they're beer battered) while the cod is sweet, white and flaky. The slaw is not overdressed—is there anything worse than cabbage swimming in dressing?—and the guacamole is tomato and onion-free and super creamy. Probably avocado and sour cream blended together.
Like the pan-fried deviled eggs, the contrast in textures and tastes with the tacos is lovely. A bit of crunchy, sweet, creamy, salty and tart all at once. I remember JD Reardon's used to boast they had the best fish tacos in town...in fact, I believe they won some award for their fish tacos. I tried them once and I thought they were fine. Nothing spectacular and certainly not the best. And since then I've tried them in several restaurants, here in GR and across the country, looking for "the best", to no avail.
But I'm going to say it now: Tavern on the Square has the best fish tacos in Grand Rapids. Hands down. The best. I would highly encourage you to try them the next time you're downtown. Go now, in fact. Or plan a visit and let us know you'll be there. I will happily share an order with you.
I steal a sweet potato chip off Jeremy's plate to find they're dusted with cinnamon sugar. So I order an appetizer portion for our dessert. Heaven.
The decor is a bit changed (for the better) from when it was Black Rose and the bathrooms are much cleaner. Our server was at the top of her game; what a difference a great server makes. The menu is innovative as hell and the location is smack dab in the middle of all downtown has to offer. I want to go back with a group so we can share plates!