Cottage Bar

(Grand Rapids, MI) Every so often, the desire for delicately prepared international cuisine subsides and we get the urge to grunge it up, class it down, and dig into a meal affectionately coined "bar food". There is no shortage of such eateries around these parts (and we're well acquainted with most of them), so we whittle down the short list to The Cottage Bar and Restaurant. Overcast skies loom above as we drive downtown, wondering if we will experience what has been called "the best burger in Grand Rapids"...

He Fed:
I've only been to the Cottage Bar a few times in the past, and it has been a while since I've been back. To my recollection, it is like most other bars, filled with smoke and grease and regret from years gone by. Has it changed, I wonder? Now that smokers are no longer allowed to light up inside, will the environment be more suitable for non-smoking patrons? We open the door and enter a somewhat gloomy and narrow bar area, with booths to one side and tall chairs bellied up on the other. There is an outside patio built into the alley between Cottage Bar and One Trick Pony, but it is too cloudy with the threat of imminent rain. Towards the front of the building is a separate dining room, but the entry is clogged with employees deep in conversation. We choose a booth in the far back, where most other lunchtime diners are seated.

The lack of smoke makes it immediately seem different, though there are undercurrents of cigarettes reeking from the ceiling and walls, like poltergeists hiding in the ether. I still detect the tang of fry grease, but that's why we're here, right? Our waitress brings us two menus, takes our drink order, and departs before we can order our appetizer. She is efficient, perhaps too much so!

When she returns, we put in an order of the Fried Green Beans. Not five minutes go by and they arrive, piping hot. Wow, that was fast! I am beginning to understand that the kitchen and staff are quick. It's not as though they are trying to get rid of us, but their efficiency seems counter-intuitive for a bar. Wouldn't they want you to linger a bit longer, maybe order another beer? The green beans are pretty good, especially when dipped in the Wasabi Ranch dressing, but I'm undecided whether these have been prepared on-premises or if they're bulk food simply dropped into the fryer. The onion batter is almost too consistent, too homogenous. Although they are decent enough, I can't help but feel like I've seen dishes like this at TGI Friday's. However, they do go nicely with my Bell's Oberon.

I am torn between the famous Cottage Burger or the Back Alley Burger, so we decide to order both and split them. Again, they are out in no time, open-faced and perfectly cooked (medium-rare). We divvy up the halves, then dig in. I try the Cottage Burger first, served on a dark rye bun, slathered with green olives, bacon, hickory mayonnaise, Swiss and American cheese, lettuce and tomato. The best thing about this burger is the bun, by far. I am a sucker for rye and this is dark, sweet, and fresh. The consistency of the meat and the toppings are decent. Good, but not great. I add some barbecue sauce, which gives it some much-needed zing.

As for the Back Alley Burger, it is practically tasteless. On a whole grain bun with ham, cheddar, green olives, mayo, sour cream, green onions, lettuce, and tomato, I expected the burger to jump off the plate. I chew into it, expecting something to happen with each bite, but coming back empty. The sour cream is a nice touch, giving it the illusion of being light and fluffy, but it isn't enough to save the burger.

There is only one mainstay dessert on the menu: carrot cake. Thanks to the 1/3 pound burger, I have just enough room. In seconds flat, the waitress brings the plate over with clean forks and extra napkins. She's good. The cake is clearly from a nearby bakery or perhaps even from a grocery store; I would be shocked if it had actually been prepared in the kitchen. There's even a little frosting carrot on top of the slice! Nevertheless, it's tough to screw up carrot cake and this is no exception. We share the dessert; it is moist, sweet, and almost feels like health food after the deep-fried app and beef.

Does Cottage Bar have the best burger in Grand Rapids? Not in my book. Given a choice, I would say O'Toole's holds that distinction, with Ottawa Tavern not far behind. Still, Cottage Bar is a comfortable, smoke-free establishment with decent service and good (but not great) food. It fits the bill if you're in the neighborhood or feel like a blast from the past.

She Fed:
We easily find parking just around the corner only to discover three open parking spots right in front of the restaurant. For a split second I wonder if the restaurant is open; the website said they opened at 11 am on Saturdays, but the lack of cars and the unoccupied patio worry me. We grab the giant meat cleaver door handle and walk nearly pitch black darkness. The Cottage Bar is very dimly lit. I can barely make out the sign across the room that reads "Please Seat Yourself" and we debate between sitting in the bar, near the back, out on the patio, or off to the side of the bar. We agree to grab a booth in the back, but realize there are no windows and it's is even darker than the bar.

Our waitress is extremely efficient, not overly-friendly, but not rude. She drops off menus and takes our drink orders. I can't read the whiteboard two feet from my face, so I order a Diet Coke with lime wedges. Once my eyes adjust, I begin reading the menu and see they have several summer specials in addition to the regular menu. The brat burger grabs my attention, as does the cherry burger—which is 89% beef and 11% Michigan cherries—tuna burger, and salmon burger. Each comes with a unique sauce and/or fixing and a unique bun (rye, whole wheat, sourdough, etc). I decide to get the Back Alley Burger. Jeremy orders the original Cottage Burger so we decide to go halfsies. We also put in an order of the fried green beans with wasabi ranch dressing.

The green beans arrive at lightning speed (less than three minutes I would venture) but are ho-hum at best. They look like they came out of a large bag from the deep freeze and the dressing is a bit too mild for my taste. I want my nose to taste the wasabi!

The burgers are beautiful, with blood trickling onto the buns to let you know the cook damn well knows what medium-rare is. We cut 'em in half for sharing. I start with Jeremy's Cottage Burger. The rye bun holds tomato (which I remove...yucko), lettuce, green olives, swiss and cheddar cheeses, bacon, hickory mayo, and a perfectly cooked patty. I love everything about this burger except the cheddar cheese, which keeps sticking to my teeth. This usually happens with processed cheese "food" so the cheddar is suspect, at least to me.

I move on to my Back Alley burger, which is very disappointing after the Cottage Burger. It's also cooked perfectly and has all the right ingredients: lettuce, green olives, ham slices, cheddar cheese, sour cream, and green onions. But the whole wheat bun is dry, flavorless, and actually masks the flavor of the burger and the fixings. I cannot taste the olives, ham, sour cream, or green onions, and there is no cheese on this burger though it's listed on the menu. Once I remove the bun, I can taste everything, but with the bun it's all lost. I've had more exciting flavors on a sandwich from Subway.

We decide to share a slice of the carrot cake, which boasts crushed pineapple and walnuts in its ingredients. The cake is very uniform; you cannot discern pineapple, walnuts, or even carrots in the cake. The frosting is fine, but is decorated with those little bright orange and green frosting carrots. I always think back to my mother's carrot cake with tidbits of carrots, nuts, and pineapple in the batter, and a fluffy cream cheese frosting that was rich yet light and ethereal. She didn't need to provide a visual cue of horrid little fake carrots to tell you what the cake was. I just hate those little frosting carrots and they taint my opinion of all carrot cakes, including this one.

I hate to say this about a beloved Grand Rapids institution, but The Cottage Bar was a let down. I've had better burgers at Graydon's Crossing, O'Tooles, and the now-defunct Stockbridge Pub. I'm still wondering how this place wins the title of "Best Burger in GR" year after year. The service and atmosphere are nothing special. The tables and menus are greasy, which I'm willing to overlook when the food is oustanding. You expect the best burger joint in town to be a little "dive-like" right? But for me, the experience was very ho-hum and not worth a repeat visit.

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