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Noto family buying Bil-Mar Restaurant

Marie Havenga • Sep 19, 2017 at 8:00 AM

After 46 years at the helm of the Bil-Mar, Howard Meyer is selling his waterfront fine-dining establishment to a restaurant family from Grand Rapids.

A condominium project proposed earlier this year for the site, 1223 S. Harbor Ave., is off the plate.

The Noto family, owners of Noto's Old World Italian Dining restaurant in Cascade, will complete the purchase in early October. The restaurant then will close for renovations and reopen in the spring as Noto's at the Bil-Mar.

The new owners say they plan to retain all employees, as well as lake perch and prime rib as menu offerings. They'll add some Italian flair and also feature steak, seafood and pasta items.

“We're not looking to scrape everything clean and start over,” said Tom Noto.

Meyer said he and his wife, Sharron, plan to retire.

Four months ago, while they were in Florida, the couple signed an agreement with developers to sell the property for a condominium development, but had second thoughts after strong public outcry.

“We told them we were going to hold off,” Meyer said.

Meyer said they always preferred that the business remain a restaurant.

He said the Bil-Mar will remain open until the closing on the sale.

“We'll have two weeks to thank our customers,” Meyer said.

Meyer, who served as mayor of Grand Haven from 1988-92, said it's bittersweet selling the long-time family business, but he and Sharron are looking forward to traveling and spending more time with their grandchildren. They plan to relocate to Florida full time in the next 3-4 years, he said.

Will they spend more time at the beach in retirement?

“No,” Meyer said. “We've seen it for too many years.”

Also present at the press conference announcing the deal Monday morning was Margo Quillen, whose father started the Bil-Mar in the 1940s. The “Mar” in Bil-Mar is named after her. The “Bil” represents her brother, Bill.

The structure was built in 1888 and served as a bath house where people could rent wool bathing suits. In the early 1900s, it was a grocery store for Highland Park residents. The upstairs once housed 12 rooms.

Quillen's dad, Russ Baltz, and grandfather, Bill Baltz, also operated the Highland Gardens next door, beginning in about 1947. They brought in big bands to what Quillen said was the largest dance hall in Michigan.

“I grew up here,” said Quillen, who worked as a waitress at the family business beginning at age 14.

The restaurant namesake said she's pleased to hear a restaurant family is taking over the business.

“I understand they have a lot of experience and they're a family, which pleases me to no end,” Quillen said.

Tony Noto said his family plans a large beach-side deck and that Robert Hesse, known for his appearances on FOX’s “Hell’s Kitchen,” will serve as executive chef.

“I've been everywhere from the Playboy mansion to Manhattan,” Hesse said. “I like to be the big fish in the small pond.”

Hesse said he'll be using some of Mama Noto's recipes and some of his own at the Grand Haven restaurant.

“The food will be a reflection of her heritage, a reflection of my heritage and a blend of great local ingredients,” he said. “Ninety-eight percent will be scratch-made.”

The facility will also be available for banquets and weddings.

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