Drinking a beer outside — a quintessential summer pastime — may be a gateway to a bit of R&R, but when you add in close friends and a delightful meal, you may find yourself some “hygge.” A Danish word with no English equivalent most often used to describe moments of conscious appreciation, it’s exactly what The Sovengard aims to create.
“We wanted to create something that embraced the seasons, was community-oriented and visible,” owner Rick Muschiana said. Located in a historic pre-1900s building in a neighborhood that’s seen its share of ups and downs, it’s become one of the top spots in Grand Rapids’ blossoming restaurant scene.
With an emphasis on sustainable practices that stretch from the kitchen and beyond, the restaurant has delighted diners with a distinctly Midwestern taste of Scandinavia while satisfying craft beer lovers with the perfect place to drink it: a biergarten.
Partly inspired by a family trip to Denmark, Muschinana wanted to employ the outdoor seating so frequently seen in European establishments. “People across the world enjoy biergartens,” he said. That was the spark of Sovengard — which means “land of the lake friends” — and two vacant and underutilized lots were transformed.
Muschiana said the lots were a “dark corner in this neighborhood,” where all manner of things was dumped behind, including once, a stolen vehicle. “We wanted to shine some light on it, literally and figuratively.
“Michigan can have a buzzworthy food culture, just like California, just like Texas. We just need to grab people’s attention and show that we have not only some of the best food in the country but in the world.”
— Rick Muschiana
“There were a lot of boarded-up buildings, vacant storefronts, weeded lots, but you could tell there was something here,” said Muschiana, who has lived in the restaurant’s neighborhood for five years. “People took pride in their businesses here, but that had been eroded away. We wanted to be part of bringing that back.”
Muschiana said he easily imagined the biergarten in that space, and in 2017, it became a reality. “We’re just off the river, it’s quiet. It feels like a secluded, secret oasis,” he said. A red shipping container was retrofitted to create a bar with 20 taps and a big, glowing “WEST SIDE” sign, a 65-foot living wall, and bocce ball courts.
“Placemaking is really important to us,” Muschiana said, and his team worked hard to create an oasis within the city that would bring people in to enjoy the neighborhood, each other and the moment.
This hyper-local philosophy not only impacted design decisions but impacted the back of the house, as well. “At our core, we are a Midwest restaurant,” said Muschiana, who brought on chef de cuisine Patrick Conrade a year prior to opening to shepherd the direction of the restaurant’s menu.
Conrade, who has lived in the West Side neighborhood for 13 years, said he draws inspiration from the traditions held in the community while employing methods made popular by the New Nordic movement, a culinary practice made popular by chefs wanting to represent a better form of regional food cuisine.
“The focus is not so much what their cuisine is, but how it’s prepared, grown and taken care of,” Conrade said. “With that in mind, we source our products from organic, local purveyors with sustainable practices in livestock and produce. That’s very important to us.”
From innovative-shared plates to accessible entrées, Conrade said the menu is product-driven and changes frequently. “It comes down to what our farmers have available, we let that dictate where the menu is steered,” he said.
Including its Smorrebrod, which means “bread and butter” in Scandinavian, open-faced sandwiches filled with a rotating cast of Michigan meats, vegetables and cheeses. “We’re taking that same idea and using what’s available here — things people will recognize,” Conrade said.
Employing the practices of Nordic chefs may seem a bit odd in the Midwest, but Muschiana explained how it’s a natural fit: “We experience the same seasons, we have a lot of shared ancestry, and there’s a sort of gritty, hard work ethic here.
“We’re a Midwest restaurant that’s using our moral compass,” he added. “Michigan can have a buzzworthy food culture, just like California, just like Texas. We just need to grab people’s attention and show that we have not only some of the best food in the country but in the world.”
Alexandra Fluegel is a freelance writer living in Detroit. She enjoys writing about food, arts and culture.