Grape Expectations in Plymouth

Small plates and a broad wine list add up to big things


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Restaurant dining has been heading toward a new normal, one in which smaller is better. Smaller plates, smaller servings, and — happily — sometimes smaller checks.

Fans of the new normal are mostly younger, professional, more affluent diners, and noticeably female — those my dining partner of many years refers to as “the generation of young women engineered without the gene for cellulite.”

Grape Expectations Wine Bar & Merchant in Plymouth fits right into the new normal post-cellulite world of dining. On a recent visit there, I couldn’t help but notice that I was one of only two men in the entire restaurant, which was populated by small groups of 30-somethings, a post Sex and the City crowd of women.

“I estimate that 80 percent of our customers are women,” says Grape Expectations owner Lisa O’Donnell. “And, frankly, I really want that younger, hipper market.”

Neither has it gone without notice to restaurants that there has been a move toward eating less of one thing, while trying a wider range of interesting and different foods. The overall volume eaten at a meal may not have diminished, but the range of choices demanded is much greater.

Grape Expectations is not about fine or high-end dining, but neither was that O’Donnell’s intent. It falls to the other end of dining: casual and almost occasional. As such, it’s a place for a pleasant and inexpensive midweek dinner for two, or as a casual stop with friends where the food is extremely good, with little-plate selections and a carefully chosen, interesting wine list. The emphasis here being clearly on wine.

Grape Expectations is very sweet, attractive, and warm. Inside the vintage two-story brick storefront just off Plymouth’s grassy town square, exposed-brick walls rise toward a 2-story high ceiling. A long, classic Michigan bar fronted with a dozen large stools occupies one side of the restaurant. To the back, a wide steel staircase leads to a second, loft-like level and another dining area.

A long banquette with granite tables and leather-seat chairs lines one wall. The opposite brick wall features a massive wine rack made of dark wood that’s about 8-feet high with holes for each bottle. A rolling library-style ladder travels its length so that servers can reach hard-to-get bottles.

Grape Expectations, and many restaurants trending like it, have menus that feature a longer list of first-course offerings of small plates and salads with just a few — three or four — large-plate main courses. Others have menus so brief that they read almost like snack lists. This growing trend can be confusing to those who expect the traditional ritual of soup, appetizer, main course, and dessert.

In large part, this shift can be linked to the popularity of the Food Network, Iron Chef, and a raft of successful shows that have opened viewers’ eyes to different ethnic foods, exotic fruits and vegetables, new ways of preparation, and flavors that promise a new experience.
Just look at how our coffee drinking alone has changed in one generation. The normal there has evolved from a can of Folgers to Starbucks lattes, doppios, and gooey-milked caffeine drinks. The breads we now routinely take for granted also have changed across a decade, from Pepperidge Farm to Panera, Avalon, or Zingerman’s baguettes and boules.

All of this came to play in O’Donnell’s decisions about Grape Expectations.

“When I opened four years ago,” O’Donnell says, “I really struggled with whether to do just wine. But I decided to do tapas as some light food to go with it. Since then, the food part has just been growing and growing. It’s to the point that we’re genuinely almost a full-service restaurant.”

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