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Photos by Chris Casella

Secret Supper, Simply Served

Hidden in plain sight on the south side of Clintonville is an intimate eatery—intermittently open but always inviting. Haven’t heard about it yet? You’re not alone.

Café Bella is less of a restaurant and more of a secret supper club—especially considering the menu is a mystery to even the owner.

With an emphasis on original recipes and local ingredients, Vince Withers delivers something unexpected every meal. That’s because Café Bella presents itself as a quaint and quirky dive—so quaint that it doesnt even have a menu.

For a price between $15 and $20, guests enjoy a three-course feast of Mediterranean fare with Italian inspiration and family-style service, and the man behind this novel non-restaurant is as complex as the cuisine he serves. Withers credits his Appalachian ancestry and upbringing with preparing him for the radical departure from engineer to restaurateur.

“I come from generations of farmers in Jackson, Ohio. At our house, when you were old enough to reach the counter, you had to learn to clean it or cook it,” he said. “I’d also worked in several restaurants while studying engineering at Ohio State.”

“I would always look at
restaurant menus, but they never told me what the chef enjoyed making.”

But nearly a decade after stumbling into defense contract work “building robots,” Withers’ disenchantment intersected with opportunity and he decided to trade the skunkworks for the skillet.

“I was a frequent customer of the previous owner, who was also looking for a change,” Withers said. “I did a head count of my close friends, and I figured between family meals and a few parties, I could cover my overhead.”

“I would always look at restaurant menus, but they never told me what the chef enjoyed making,” he said. Now Withers opens and closes as he likes, and makes the food he loves.

That love extends beyond the kitchen. Withers also worked with local food pantries to start their own container gardens, supplying tomato plants and fresh herbs to those in need. There are also side projects to develop even more diverse ingredients under the roof. A fish tank in the back is teeming with tilapia, spawned onsite, while Withers’ inner engineer still dons the lab coat downstairs in the climate-controlled “mushroom vault.” None of the emerging ingredients have made it to customers’ plates just yet, but, you can’t underestimate a guy who seems equal parts edibles innovator and culinary savant.
That ingenuity also shows in the sophisticated garden adjacent to the dining patio. If you like locally grown herbs and fresh produce, it’s tough to beat sourced from 15 feet away.

IMG_8914“Rain runoff fills the pond, the koi control the mosquitos, and introduce nutrients into the water to support the garden—no pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides,” Withers explained while making adjustments to the array of pipes and planters. Lending a hand is OSU intern Neil Mezache, who was likewise surprised by Café Bella’s simplicity and sustainability.

“I didn’t realize there would be an entire aquaponics system in addition to the garden,” he noted. Mezache also finds the internship a complement to his work at the university’s plant pathology lab. “You don’t experience mistakes and setbacks in the classroom like you do the garden. That’s where the real learning is.”

“Fresh tomatoes only come a few weeks out of the year. Oak leaf lettuce and red Russian kale. Thyme, oregano, you’ll see basil pesto too,” Withers predicted of the more seasonal garden ingredients you’ll find working their way into the kitchen. “You don’t have a lot of prep when you don’t have an extensive menu, so there’s hardly any food waste.”

That’s why it’s a good idea to call ahead, just to make sure they’re open—if it’s a slow night, they might close early. Despite the small scale, parties from 20 to 50 are welcome, with a menu tailored to guests’ requests.

Café Bella’s approach also makes dining surprisingly simple for those with food allergies or dietary preferences. As Withers puts it, “It’s less ‘tell me what you want’ and more ‘tell me what you don’t want’—and I’ll make you something new and delicious.”

Maybe you’ll start with a flatbread appetizer, followed by a sprout salad, eggplant parm, and a roasted, dark meat, quarter of chicken. That was this writer’s menu.

Simple and subtle—cheese and tomato on a crunchy crust. Spicy sprouts of clover and alfalfa with “living legumes” of adzuki, chickpeas and red lentils over arugula, all brought together with a perfectly pungent vinaigrette. Meaty medallions of fried eggplant, crispy and tender, on a bed of pasta with lightly sautéed zucchini, asparagus and kale. A leg and thigh of chicken with skin so seasoned and succulent, you abandon both pretense and utensils and just go for it. And, as if that wasn’t enough, a tiny sugar-dusted cookie offset by an earthy French-pressed cup of coffee.

You know you want it—but you can’t have it. You already missed it. This isn’t the Olive Garden.
Today will be something equally epic, yet decidedly different. You just won’t know what it is until you walk through the door.

Café Bella is located at 2593 N High St.
For more, visit cafebellacolumbus.com.