Foodie Finds: Best Tapas in Grand Rapids, Michigan

by Julie Royce /
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Aug 13, 2009 / 1 comments


Foodie Finds

San Chez Tapas Restaurant
A Trip to Spain Minus the Airfare

By Julie Albrecht Royce

Luciano Pavarotti said, “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  

Approach your dining experience at San Chez with a sense of adventure. It is a place to be savored and enjoyed – indeed, a place to give your full attention. We gave it ours on a recent trip to Grand Rapids and came away happier for the opportunity.

It was nearly seventeen years ago that San Chez brought the food and fun of Spain to Grand Rapids and West Michigan. The owners had scouted Chicago’s most entertaining theme restaurants searching for something unique but with a big city feel. They decided Tapas cuisine was the perfect gastronomic enterprise to bring excitement to the area. It is not a place to duck in and grab a bite to silence a rumbling stomach. Nor is it for those with white bread tastes. But, to anyone looking for something a bit different, I say, “Welcome aboard. Enjoy the journey to Spain.” 



san chez tapas bistro - best tapas in Grand Rapids

Vibrant Art and a Warehouse Feel


There were six in our party and entering the bright dining room we immediately sensed the energy and joy with which our fellow diners approached their food. The communal atmosphere encouraged giving ourselves over to the art of feasting. The more the merrier seems to be the prevailing attitude and even on a Tuesday night the tables were filled and the air was heavy with a palpable vibrancy. The idea of tapas or small plates lends itself to enjoying conversation with your dinner partners – sort of like an extended cocktail party.  No one is burdened with rigid formalities and you get to try a bit of everything (there’s a whole lot of sharing going on). It is more like gourmet grazing than a five course fancy-schmancy dinner party. There is nothing stuffy about this laid-back eatery. 

For the uninitiated, tapas or “little plates” have their origins in Spain where the word means “lid" or "cover.” Exactly how this tradition of dining came about is subject to several stories. One pervasive thread among many of the versions is that slices of bread were once used to cover drinks (to keep out fruit flies or sand or whatever) and it became customary to embellish these coverings with olives, meat or cheese. Salty foods encouraged patrons to drink more – a bonus for bartenders.

Don’t like that explanation?  How about the one that suggests a tavern owner from Castilla-LaMancha discovered that cheese, strong and odiferous could “cover” cheap wine and so started offering customers free cheese to disguise his substandard wine?

Or, perhaps it started with poor field hands taking small bits of various foods with them into the fields to eat during the course of their working day. The idea of modest amounts of a variety of foods caught on with the upper classes.

However it came about, the practice has been refined and improved upon at San Chez where the charming tradition of small dishes provides a feast of flavors and fragrances set against a backdrop of animated conversation and the contemporary art of Jose Narazzo.

If the idea of poring over a menu that is nothing short of a small book seems daunting, rest assured the competent and helpful wait staff is eager to help you translate the broad range of items into something to suit your individual taste. The servers are educated in all aspects of the operation and its products and ably guide guests through their meal.


san chez tapas bistro - best tapas in Grand Rapids

Jenn Explains Menu Options

But, we decided to put first things first, and before making food choices we indulged ourselves with a pitcher of red sangria. We could have ordered white or a combination or even have gone non-alcoholic, but since we were walking back to the Amway Grand, we didn’t have to worry about driving. A glass of this fruity wine concoction with its hint of brandy brought our mouths into smiling position as we began perusing the menu, studying the ingredients of every dish to choose those that most tantalized our eager taste buds.

The more friends or family at your table, the more choices you will be able to order. The chef makes each dish a culinary work of art. The menu is broken down by section and you will find intriguing fare from the Entremes to the Postres.

We were armed with a tip that the Paella was fabulous and since it takes 45 minutes to prepare this masterpiece we decided to put in an order for the Gran Paella (alioli saffron rice casserole with Oman lobster tails, shrimp, calamares, mussels, crawfish, cod, chorizo, chicken tenderloin, tomato, pimientos, and peas to be enjoyed by up to six people). After all the talk about small plates, I must offer the caveat that there is nothing small about the paella, but since you will be sharing it, that won’t keep you from ordering several of the little plates as well. 


san chez tapas bistro - best tapas in Grand Rapids

Serving the Gran Paella

We ordered Feijoada, a spicy Brazilian Stew (sopa) of smoked pork sausage, black beans and habanero salsa. We tried the De Casa and a fabulous Ensalada Mixta with warm shaved pork loin, goat cheese, red onion, Marcona almonds, dried cherries, citrus goat cheese, red mojo and organic lettuces. I was heavy into enjoying myself and from the sounds of my friends, they were too. Someone ordered Pan a la Plancha (grilled baguette, tomato, garlic rub, and olive oil) and there was a small plate of Tostones (twice fried plantain tostones and maduros, and roma tomato-zucchini salsa). I simply could not resist the Fritos de Azul (blue cheese fritters and red pepper aioli) and was glad I couldn’t. They were beyond words. Somewhere about here I lost track of the names of the dishes and just relished the amazing combinations of flavor.

Children have a special menu and San Chez can accommodate nearly any dietary restriction (gluten, lactose, sea food, nuts, vegan, etc).  If you are dining alone, San Chez has even found a way to make your experience as varied as that of a larger group. It is the “one bite” menu where the single diner orders up to seven “mini” tapas. 


san chez tapas bistro - best tapas in Grand Rapids

Serious about Tasting

I left San Chez with but one regret. I should have eaten dessert first. I was unable to even consider the Flan al Caramelo con Cocoa (caramel flan, bread pudding, chocolate), the flourless chocolate torte with chocolate ganache, or even sorbet.  I guess that is one reason to return. Another is the fact that it would take months of eating every meal at San Chez before I sampled everything on the menu.

San Chez
38 West Fulton
Grand Rapids, MI, 49503





Julie Albrecht Royce, Michigan Editor, is the author of Traveling Michigan's Sunset Coast and Traveling Michigan's Thumb, both published by Thunder Bay Press. She writes a monthly column for, entitled Michigan's Small Town Treasures.


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