Bloody Sunday

On Sunday, in the middle of the afternoon, O’Toole’s Public House on Bridge Street in Grand Rapids was abuzz with the sounds of football, music, and banter. Busy Sundays are nothing new to server Caitlyn O’Haire, who is on the schedule at O’Toole’s each and every Sunday. Week after week, she says, a crowd made up mostly of pub regulars flock there for the company, the sports, the $4 burger and fries (a deal that normally runs about $7), and of course, the Bloody Mary bar, where patrons can create the drink to their liking at about half the cost they typically charge for one.

A couple miles up the road, a large crowd has gathered at Birch Lodge. It’s a familiar scene: several screens with various football games, a free taco bar, and again, the make-your-own Bloody Mary station at lower-than-normal prices.

So what is it about a Sunday Bloody Mary? Named for its sanguine appearance, the savory mix of vodka and tomato juice dates back to the early part of the 20th century. By some accounts, it came into being in 1920 in a Paris bar frequented by Ernest Hemingway and other American expatriates. By others, actor, singer, songwriter, and Vaudevillian George Jessel created it as a pick-me-up in 1939.

By all accounts, Grand Rapids has no shortage of places to sip one of these savory concoctions after (or instead of) the Sunday morning service, with special deals making the Bloody Mary Sunday a staple of the local bar scene.

The allure
While the idea of tomato juice and vodka can bring a shudder to a taster with an untrained palette, it is highly popular with many crowds and, according to O’Haire, brings the customers back each week.

“Sunday is our biggest day,” she says. “Ninety-nine percent of our sales are Bloody Marys and Bud Light drafts.”

Bloody Mary aficionado Laura Houston is a Grand Rapids Westsider who has tasted the area’s Bloody offerings at a variety of local watering holes. Once she acquired the taste, she was hooked.

“What’s not to like?” says Houston. “It’s a salad in a glass!”

Sunday, for many, is a day to regroup before the work week. Houston says a mid-afternoon Bloody Mary is a pleasant and low-key way to honor the nature of the day. She likes that the drink is a little lighter than a carb-filled beer, and the celery, pickles, and olives that typically come with the drink make it more about the taste and interest than about consuming an alcoholic beverage.

“It’s just a nice way to finish up pretty much any weekend,” says Houston. “On top of it all, to relax and sip on a Bloody Mary just seems a little more guilt free, since it’s made with vegetable juice.”

How do you like your Bloody?
The official recipe from the International Bartenders Association calls for three parts vodka, six parts tomato juice and one part lemon juice, served over ice in a highball glass, with a celery stalk. The recipe also calls for added dashes of Worcestershire Sauce, Tabasco, salt and pepper, celery salt and a lemon wedge. Local make-your-own bars don’t let that recipe stop them from offering added condiments such as horseradish, A1 steak sauce, habanero sauce, and more.

Garnishes typically include olives, pickles, celery, and lime wedges, but sometimes, bars will get even fancier and add high-end fixings such as cheese, shrimp, and salami.

Houston makes her concoctions “super spicy with lots of veggies. On the thicker side – but not too thick.” In contrast to purists who start from scratch with tomato juice and add all their own spices, Houston is a big fan of Major Peter’s Spicy Bloody Mary Mix.

At Sazerac Lounge on Plainfield Avenue, the staff has created a special Sunday Bloody Mary menu. Bartender and manager Chris Mullins said they use the highest-quality ingredients and Absolut Peppar vodka for one of two standard drinks – spicy and not-so-spicy – as well as one of four specialty variations available on Sunday only. An example is the Bloody Maria, which replaces the vodka with Jose Cuervo and includes jalapeno olives and dashes of chipotle adobo Tabasco.

Mullins says that when it comes to a specialty beverage like the Bloody Mary, having tried-and-true recipes that offer optimum taste is more important than delivering a cheap drink.

Where to go
Houston has tried out a few of the local Sunday Bloody Mary bars, including the one at Juke’s on the West Side, O’Toole’s, and Birch Lodge. She recommends all three, but likes O’Toole’s for the mix-ins and garnishes, which include a variety of fresh chives, dill, and cilantro. She finds the atmosphere and free taco bar at Birch Lodge compelling as well.

Granted, there are several places offering a special deal or DIY bar on Sunday. Whether you prefer your Bloody Mary to taste like tomato soup or like Tabasco sauce, check out this list of popular hang outs that can satiate your Sunday thirst. Bottoms up!

  • Bar Louie: $3 Bloody Marys
  • Birch Lodge: Free taco bar, self-serve Bloody Mary bar and specials
  • The Break Room: $2 Bloody Marys
  • Cambridge House: $4 Bloody Marys from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Jukes: Bloody Mary bar, $3 Bloody Marys
  • The Melting Pot: Brunch from noon to 4 p.m. featuring Bloody Mary bar
  • O’Toole’s: $3 Bloody Mary bar
  • Sazerac: Bloody Mary spectacular, featuring unique recipes
  • Taps: $4 Bloody Marys all day
  • Teazers: $2.75 Bloody Marys
  • Throwbacks Bar & Grill: Bloody Marys and free taco bar
  • Vitale’s Sports Bar: $3.50 house Bloody Marys

If you have any to add. Give us a shout at [email protected]

Bridie Kent, a freelance writer, has lived in Grand Rapids since graduating from Aquinas College in ‘03. She also works for the Kent County Health Department. She last wrote for Rapid Growth about high rise window washing.


O'Toole's server Natalie Beachum and manager April Essington work the busiest day of the week

The DIY Bloody Mary Bar at O'Toole's

The full garnished Bloody Mary at O'Toole's

If it's packed at 1 must be O'Toole's

Photographs by Brian Kelly - All Rights Reserved

Brian Kelly is a Grand Rapids based commercial photographer and Rapid Growth's managing photographer. You can follow his photography adventures here on his blog.
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