Carmel Belle Expands its Local Organic Love to the Dinner Hour
by Camilla M. Mann
In most towns, a restaurant offering counter service would not be big news. But Carmel-by-the-Sea is slightly unusual. This former artists’ enclave has special rules, such as no street numbers allowed on its houses, giving trees the right of way even when they grow in the middle of busy streets and, infamously, requiring a permit to wear high heels. (Although, no permit is required to sell heels.) Clint Eastwood, a past mayor of Carmel, made it a focus of his campaign for office to end the “ice cream cone law”—a ban on selling or eating ice cream in public, which was part of a larger ordinance against chain restaurants of any kind. Thankfully, fast food chains are still forbidden, and ice cream is now fully legal. But fine dining has also largely remained the norm, and counter service is still somewhat contentious.
So when Carmel Belle opened in the Doud Craft Studios off San Carlos Street in 2009, it presented a combination that was then relatively rare in the city: doing away with the white tablecloths and waiters, while providing delicious meals made with ingredients of the highest quality—and sustainability, too. Soon, the food and the restaurant’s distinctively hip and casual atmosphere cemented it as a locals’ favorite for breakfast and lunch. And when Belle began offering occasional pop-up dinners featuring local farms and guest chefs, the events sold out immediately.
“Carmel Belle completely altered Carmel’s view of counter service,” says Gabe Georis, a long-time friend of Belle owners Jay and Chloe Dolata and owner of the nearby tapas restaurant, Mundaka.
“Before they opened, the city had an aversion to it, as if it would be the gateway to allowing fast food into Carmel. But Belle changed that, proving that you can have high-caliber food in an informal atmosphere.”
In fact, the Dolatas—as well as Georis—are part of a growing number of young restaurateurs in Carmel who are in some ways doing the exact opposite of bringing fast food ills to the city.
“We’re a new generation of restaurateurs. We see others as peers, not competition. We’ve banded together with a common goal of creating food based on the quality of ingredients. We’re more aware. We look at real costs—which include the environmental impact of the way food is produced,” says Georis.
And luckily for Carmel, the new restaurateurs’ success is allowing them to expand their offerings—and their influence.
Following Georis, whose business earlier this year expanded on two sides, in the form of Barmel, a bar/restaurant with live music, and the Mundaka Café, which is incubating a from-scratch bagel operation, Monterey Bagel Co. (see “Last Word”), the Dolatas this spring were able to annex two spaces adjacent to the original Belle.
The result, after breaking down the walls between the new and old spaces, is a welcoming dining room, stylishly decorated by Erik Seniska with design elements that play off Belle’s farm hen logo. Couches and padded banquets have been added to the steel chairs, and the Dolatas have rounded out the menu of food and drink that they can offer their health-conscious, flavor-seeking customer base by introducing a juice bar and, for the first time, dinner.
Dreaming up the dinner menus is new Belle chef, Kyle Odell. A Monterey native, he shares the Dolatas’ commitment to local, seasonal and organic, and he brings a pedigree in fine dining—his previous posts were at Parallel 37 in San Francisco’s Ritz-Carlton and Michelin-rated Commis in Oakland. But he aims to show that “joy can be found in honest, simple food,” he says.
The restaurant has always emphasized organic ingredients and humanely raised eggs and meat, and Odell considers the season and weather when creating dishes, gleaning inspiration from weekly farmers’ markets, local grocery stores and the land around him.
“It’s kind of like the most ideal situation I’ve been in as a chef,” says Odell. “Instead of sometimes we’ll order organic, or sometimes we’ll order local—it’s exclusively what [Jay and Chloe] want to do. I mean I worked some pretty nice 5-star hotels in San Francisco and they don’t even order as well as we do. So it’s honestly a dream. So, yes, I’m going to markets, I’m buying the best product and they don’t have any qualms. Not only do they not have any qualms, but they are encouraging it and expecting it.”
After a soft opening of the Dinner Belle, which had a fairly similar format to the wildly successful breakfast and lunch service, the Dolatas took a brief hiatus to re-envision its look, feel and flow. With the help of consultant Lauren Devine and customer feedback, they looked carefully at how to make the space better serve the food experience—and foster their goal of being a community hub where people could feel comfortable going after the gym or beach. The big change is the addition of table service and curtains that soften the space and also separate it from the counter service area. There are candles, table runners and lower prices, and customers can feel more of an invitation to linger over food and good conversation, while the vibe remains decidedly informal.
These changes were just being made as this issue was going to press. Also in the works were plans to have some fun with the dinner service, including themed nights like dinner-and-a-movie, a ramen night, a bingo night and special tasting menus, all with an intention of being community oriented and interactive.
During most nights, Odell offers a regular menu featuring what he calls the “heavy hitters”—those items that are most popular—plus one item that he’ll “get to play around with,” with a special eye to the freshest, most exciting ingredients found at the farmers’ markets.
Jay adds: “We like to keep it simple, letting the flavors of the food shine. It’s not about complicated recipes or special techniques—there are plenty of other restaurants and talented chefs creating amazing, mind-blowing dishes. The food at Carmel Belle is approachable, casual and accessible. You can count on getting good, honest food. And you can come in your flip-flops and sweats or come dressed up in heels.” (If you have a permit from City Hall.)
Carmel Belle • Doud Craft Studios, Ocean and San Carlos, Carmel- by-the-Sea • 831.624.1600 • www.carmelbelle.com