Restaurant Review: Cafe Bella

Staff Writer
Columbus Alive

A tiny neighborhood restaurant has spent the past year cultivating an unconventional garden and a unique music community. A charity event Saturday will bring both projects together.

Cafe Bella, a North Campus bistro where the only constant is the steady stream of regulars that have adopted the place as their own, is hosting a daylong concert called the Giving Garden Gala. The $10 cover charge will support Bella owner Vince Withers' efforts to feed and educate the patrons of a local food pantry.

Withers has been growing lettuce, radishes, parsley and more in incubators behind his restaurant. He intends to send most of the produce to the SDA CHOICE food pantry in Olde Towne East. Withers will also educate the families that use the pantry about how to prepare healthy meals and how to grow their own food.

The idea is to promote good health and sustainable agriculture - for instance, using fresh, locally grown produce instead of processed goods from thousands of miles away.

"People forget," Withers said. "They think a tomato comes from aisle four."

The partnership between Bella and the food pantry came about when pantry organizer Sabra Howell began frequenting the restaurant and was impressed by how energized she felt after eating Withers' meals. She thinks the venture could have far-reaching consequences for families mired in generational poverty.

"Eating better is a first step, because if you're eating better then your body functions better, your brain functions better, and it's going to open you up to more possibilities of what life can be about," Howell said.

The music scene at Bella began in a similarly informal fashion. Curtis Cole, a local folk singer-songwriter, began hanging out at the cafe and asked Withers about hosting unplugged music on the back patio on Wednesday nights.

"It started out for the first four weeks just me by myself until I gained momentum with it," Cole said.

As spring rolled into summer, a regular crowd began to gather on Wednesdays to enjoy the food and music. Cole rotated other performers into the mix - mostly "indie folk pop" acts like Couch Forts and Our Cat Philip that translated well into the unplugged setting.

"Music and food - it's like the best summer night you could have," said T.A. Maynard, a Bella regular who accompanies Cole's folk tunes on singing saw.

The Wednesday patio gigs have been discontinued until spring, but Saturday's event will be outside, cold or no cold. Bands will play in a heated tent without amplification, save for gothic folk-punks Church of the Red Museum, who are bringing a small P.A.

The Giving Garden Gala is a tangible manifestation of the community Withers hoped to foster when he took over Cafe Bella in 2007. For several years, the previous owner had been encouraging Withers, a former military engineer, to buy the restaurant. Withers balked for a while, but eventually he took up cooking and found himself hosting massive neighborhood dinner parties in his Clintonville home.

Withers hoped that neighborhood feel would carry over into his restaurant. That's why he doesn't keep a consistent menu; instead he buys ingredients daily and prepares whatever he feels like or whatever his customers call and request.

Bella's role on North Campus is similarly flexible. "It's definitely a food place," Withers said, but he's open to expanding the music programming if demand exists. The cafe also hosts a book club, and Withers is considering adding more special events.

"It's a good atmosphere," Maynard said. "It encourages creativity in music and cooking."