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Stability marks The Cottage Bar’s 90th year

Originally a sandwich shop founded during Prohibition, restaurant has been a staple in Grand Rapids community.

January 20, 2017
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The Cottage Bar
Lisa and Dan Verhil opened the first outdoor patio in Grand Rapids to patrons in the alleyway between The Cottage Bar and One Trick Pony. Photo by Johnny Quirin

While much has changed around The Cottage Bar in 90 years, very little has changed inside the restaurant. In fact, a picture hung on the restaurant’s east wall shows just how similar the interior is today to the past.

Originally named The Cottage Sandwich Shop, the restaurant was founded in 1927 during Prohibition by Earl and Marie Coon.

Upon repeal of Prohibition in 1933, the Coons received the first liquor license in Grand Rapids and renamed their restaurant The Cottage Bar and Restaurant.

Dan Verhil, current owner of The Cottage Bar, said at the time the surrounding area was home to several factories, which helped keep the restaurant in business with large lunchtime orders.

“Back in the 1920s and 1930s, there used to be a lot of factories. It was very industrial over here,” he said. “These factories would order burgers by the hundreds, so The Cottage made a living taking these orders and supplying all these workers.”

Peter Varano purchased The Cottage Bar in the 1950s and, in 1967, sold it to Verhil’s father, John Verhil. (The restaurant also is celebrating 50 years of ownership by the Verhil family this year.)

“He left his previous job and took a pension and got the idea that he wanted to buy a bar, and this one came up and it worked out,” Verhil said of his father. He added, “I thought he was nuts.”

During the decade and a half John Verhil owned The Cottage Bar, it was one of only a handful of restaurants downtown.

“It was very quiet back in the ’60s, with just a handful of restaurants, and most of them focused around the Pantlind Hotel,” Verhil said.

During that time, The Cottage Bar continued to attract a steady stream of regulars who came for the burgers.

Though he hadn’t intended to become the bar’s owner, Verhil said in 1980 he began buying his father out and took over ownership of The Cottage Bar.

Verhil said he didn’t change much, but he did convert the front portion of the restaurant, which served as a game room under his father’s ownership, into another section of seating, and he opened the first outdoor patio in Grand Rapids to patrons in the alleyway between The Cottage Bar and his second restaurant, One Trick Pony.

The menu mostly has stayed the same, but over time, Verhil added some items to fit with the changing trends of diners, including a few Mexican food options and the first vegetarian burger in Grand Rapids.

“Burgers are still 60 to 70 percent of our sales,” he said.

Verhil said the 1980s and 1990s both saw big shifts in the restaurant scene in Grand Rapids.

“In the ’80s, the city started to grow as Amway converted the hotel and set things in motion,” he said.

He also said more ethnic restaurants were founded downtown, attracting diners.

“In the ’90s, that’s when the chefs started to get noticed, finally, and that changed everything,” he said.

Verhil said besides offering great food and service, The Cottage Bar has been able to survive in a growing and rapidly changing restaurant scene where diners often are enticed by the next new thing, by staying the same and focusing on being a staple in the community.

“If you stand by the door, invariably someone says ‘Good, nothing has changed,’” said Lisa Verhil, Dan Verhil’s wife. “It’s a constant. A lot of relationships were started here. I posted on Facebook (about the 90th anniversary), and people have been sharing their memories.”

She said The Cottage Bar has born witness to engagements, wakes and business deals, and it’s been witness to history in the making.

President Gerald R. Ford was known to visit The Cottage Bar, and Mike Wallace was said to have called in his reports to WOOD Radio from the restaurant’s pay phone at the beginning of his career. Several famous faces passing through town also have grabbed a burger and drinks in the iconic restaurant. Even Batman has eaten at The Cottage Bar — actor Michael Keaton is one of the famous faces to have stopped in during a visit to Grand Rapids.

“Two major papers, they would come in at shift change,” Dan Verhil said, referring to the days of the Herald and the Press.

“Over the decades many prominent individuals have been guests at the bar,” Lisa Verhil added.

The Verhils said The Cottage Bar is a place where people come to engage with each other. They said it’s rare to see patrons with phones pulled out, staring at a screen.

“This is a place where people go to get away from technology,” Lisa Verhil said.

That’s not to say the restaurant hasn’t changed with the times. It has public Wi-Fi available for diners and a few years ago relaxed its no cell phones policy.

But Dan Verhil said he doesn’t feel pressure to become a technological haven like some of the restaurants opening today.

“We just keep it clean and in good repair and let it be what it is,” he said.

Verhil said The Cottage Bar remains successful and busy, and he expects that to continue.

“We are in a great location,” he said. “A 114-unit apartment complex is opening on the next block this summer, and St. Cecilia’s, Dog Story Theater and the Children’s Museum are all nearby, and we get a lot of activity (from them).

The Cottage Bar is planning a handful of special events throughout the year to help celebrate its 90th birthday.

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