GRAND RAPIDS, MI – Twinkly lights, crackling fires and warm drinks are beckoning guests to step into the ‘hygge’ lifestyle at The Sovengard. This popular spot on the West Side of Grand Rapids has reopened its Wintergarten on the outside patio, creating a cozy place to embrace the season.
“The Wintergarten is certainly feeding into the idea of hygge,” said Sovengard owner Rick Muschiana. “We tried to make it cozy and comfortable. A place to have a drink, fun with friends, as much as you can during this crazy time. It brings a sense of contentment. We want to deliver that as much as we can. Restaurants are in the business of selling enjoyment and pleasure to people, and we don’t have to stop that even though we are in the middle of a pandemic.”
Hygge, pronounced “hoo-gah” is a Danish and Norwegian word for a feeling of coziness and conviviality, for creating a sense of connection with others, and contentment. It isn’t one specific thing, but something that you can experience in a variety of ways. One of those ways is gathering with friends in a cozy outdoors environment. In order to achieve exactly the right feel, The Sovengard hired a “coziness consultant” to help them achieve maximum hygge outside.
Since opening in 2016, The Sovengard, 443 Bridge St. NW, has been a popular spot on the busy corridor. The restaurant serves Scandinavian-inspired food featuring Michigan ingredients. Their patio is located behind the restaurant, and has always been a big draw.
“It’s been part of our concept since the beginning,” Muschiana said.
During the summer months, you can enjoy plenty of seating, grab drinks from the outdoor bar, and even play bocce ball on the adjoining court they have. Over the last few years, the business considered doing things so that the patio would be winter-friendly, but weren’t sure if people would embrace it. Last year they finally committed and purchased three tents to put up outside. This was prior to the restaurant shutdown that happened in March, and guests would typically hang out either while they waited for a table, or after dinner to prolong the experience. Now, the tents are where it’s at. “We are really lucky to have made the effort given what ended up happening this year,” Muschiana said.
“We wanted something a little different,” he explained when asked why they didn’t go the igloo route. “We wanted something that was more in tune with our style, and our brand. We also wanted something that was more durable. We wanted to make an intentional effort to really deck them out.”
This is where the :coziness consultant: came into play. The restaurant hired Grand Rapids-based Amber Brandt to design the interiors of each of the three tents. Brandt has taken her passion and turned it into a second job for herself. A copywriter by day, Brandt didn’t want to just do basic interior design. “I really know cozy,” she said. “I love when people can have spaces that help them create connection, and that they feel really at home at, and that are really welcoming.”
“I call myself the coziness consultant because while I do interior design and help with event planning, it is all surrounded by the idea of being cozy,” Brandt said. When Muschiana approached her last year to help design the tents, “no one was really doing this yet” Brandt said. “The idea felt really fresh, exciting and fun.”
Each of the three tents has a different theme that Brandt and Muschiana collaborated on. “Together we just filled in the pieces,” Brandt said of their initial brainstorm. All of the tents are designed with good conversation, warmth, comfort and creating meaningful connection in mind. All have their own heater.
One tent is decorated in classic Scandinavian style, and is known as the “Scandi” tent. “It’s the tent that is most ‘on brand’ for what Rick is doing with the restaurant,” Brandt said. It features clean lines and lots of textures. Think wood furniture, faux fur, heavy knit pillows, limited patterns and a minimalistic feel. Another tent is Boho style, with a lot of neutrals and creams, soft edges and an almost whimsical feel. The third tent is Camp style, and feels almost like you are at “a cottage Up North that your uncle owns,” she said. Lots of plaid, kitschy vintage pieces and rustic furniture.
Leading the kitchen at Sovengard is Chef Sara Bakale. The Scandinavian-inspired menu features Michigan-sourced ingredients from local farms and producers. It changes seasonally, so right now they are featuring a winter menu. Start off your visit with a cheese board, which changes frequently, offering fresh seasonal fruits, artisan cheeses, local honey and jam, served with freshly grilled bread. The chicken liver pate comes in your own small crock, topped with a rich schmalz and perfectly creamy when spread. The pickle plate is sure to get your taste buds going, with house-made briny pickled vegetables and eggs.
The restaurant makes sure to offer plenty of vegetarian dishes that aren’t just an afterthought, but excellent in their own right. A Delicata squash sandwich features beer battered rings of sweet squash, a smoked soy cream, seasoned with everything bagel spice and sumac. The beet reuben is a new twist on an old favorite, with smoked beets taking the place of the usual pastrami. Carbonara pasta subs out pancetta with a unique mushroom ‘bacon’, and adds a roasted squash and cider puree to what is normally a heavy dish. Hand-made pierogi come stuffed with garlic and sweet potato, and served with a zippy beet and ginger sauerkraut and an inspired Michigan cherry emulsion.
Don’t worry, there is plenty here for meat lovers as well. The pork belly is a dream, rich and unctuous, and brightened with the addition of pickled apples and a garlic gastrique. The pan-seared chicken breast comes out buttery, with crispy little Butterball potatoes scattered around, and topped with a hit of an onion jam. Pro tip: be sure to get an order of the sour beer french fries. They are hand-cut and absolutely delicious.
The three tents are reservable, while the rest of the patio seating is first come, first served. There is no extra charge for the tents. They are offering a hybrid of service right now. Head up to the shipping container bar to place drinks and food orders, then grab your cocktails to take back to your seat. Food will be delivered directly to your table.
Currently on the drinks menu are a variety of special cocktails to enjoy, continuing on the hygge theme of warmth and comfort. “We’ve been rotating through some seasonal favorites, to keep people warm and cozy,” Muschiana said. You can get a straight up hot chocolate, or an extra warming one that features chocolate whiskey, Eastern Kille coffee liquor, spicy ancho reyes and comes topped with whipped cream and candy cane dust. A traditional Scandinavian drink called “karsk” is a bracing concoction of moonshine, hot coffee and Amaro Pazzo liqueur from Long Road Distillers. I can personally attest to the quality of the classic glogg they serve. This sweetened mulled wine benefits greatly from the addition of a shot of aquavit, and you will as well.
“It was a really fun project for me,” Brandt said of her work with Sovengard. “No one was really doing the winter dining last year, and this was exciting to be a part of, and imagine what could be. We had no idea then that Rick was on the cusp of something revolutionary. He did it well first.”
“The original Danish concept of hygge was really one of ‘we time over me time’” Brandt explained, as we discussed how Americans have kind of twisted the concept. It’s about way more than self care in her opinion. “It’s designed to create connection between people, and there is a lot of meaning making that is part of hygge. Making the best out of whatever weather we have, but in the context of being together.”
Like all Michigan restaurants, The Sovengard has had to pivot multiple times over the last year, but Muschiana has embraced the challenge. “We can change what we do, obey the rules, but still make it fun and interesting,” he said.
Supporting Michigan restaurants right now is more important than ever, according to Muschiana. “It’s been proven just how big an employer the restaurant industry is,” he said. “You’re not just supporting your favorite place, you are supporting all the employees that work there, all the purveyors, all of the farms, vendors, the local breweries, distilleries. There is a huge sphere of things that happen and positively impact our economy when you support a local restaurant.”
So if you are seeking to connect with friends outside in our Michigan winter, one of the coziest spots around might be the Wintergarten at Sovengard. Cuddle up with loved ones inside one of their tents, sip on a warm drink, share a plate of delicious food, and embrace the hygge lifestyle in a whole new way.
If you go:
443 Bridge St.NW #1
Grand Rapids, MI 49504
Currently closed to indoor dining, The Sovengard is open for takeout, delivery, and outdoor dining in the tents with reservations.
Wednesday -Thursday 5-8pm
Need a coziness consultant in your life? You can connect with Amber Brandt here.
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