Customers are family at Bella Café & Grille


Jim Monast, general manager at Bella Cafe & Grille, poses for a portrait on Tuesday, March 29, 2022, in Lexington, Kentucky.

Corrie McCroskey

Nestled on the side of E High St. in a bustling Lexington neighborhood is the cozy Bella Café & Grille, a restaurant which offers a “living room” dining atmosphere and cuisine that is simple but elevated.

The café is an offshoot of the more well-known Bella Notte and Smashing Tomato restaurants, which were founded by Kuni Toyoda.

Having only been open for a little over a year, Bella Café & Grille has spent the past couple of months figuring out its place in the community.

General manager Jim Monast described the feel of the restaurant and how he helps to make day to day operations run smoothly.

“It feels very residential, it really feels like a living room … It’s like you’re coming to our home for us to entertain you and to have a good meal,” Monast said. “Being that we appeal to the neighborhood, it’s not unusual when you’re taking a party to their table and they stop at the bar to talk to their friends and then at this table and the next table. It’s like everyone knows everybody.”

Monast said that along with the warm nature of the dining area, working as a team and valuing employees is the most important aspect of ensuring customers’ happiness.

“If you want to have the best people, you have to pay for it. Paying someone $15 doesn’t give you a great worker,” Monast said. “It’s how you take care of them, and how you connect with them … You’ve got to come into work [and say] ‘How are you doing?’ ‘How’s your day?’ ‘How are things going?’ ‘What do you need?’ That’s what I do. I make sure they get what they need. I can’t do all the work in this business, no one person can.”

For Monast, his role involves not only making sure his customers and employees are taken care of, but also pitching in to run food and wash dishes.

“We don’t have dishwashers here. We don’t have that title,” he said. “We don’t have an employee here that has the job description of a dishwasher. Everybody washes dishes here. Part of it is a function of our limited capacity in this kitchen, and part of it is the culture of what we want here.”

The uncomplicated yet high quality dining options are another concept that the café feels is important to its brand and how they would like to be portrayed by customers.

“The food is simple … you don’t want to make it too esoteric where people don’t recognize what you’ve got,” Monast said. “You don’t want it to be a special occasion, you want people to feel comfortable to come here regularly. We have a pasta dish, halibut, steaks, burgers. What we’ve done when we look at a menu is try to do food that people are familiar with but elevate it a little bit.”

Though the food is why people may decide to come to the restaurant, the community and care for the customer is what will make them stay.

Monast says that his favorite part about working at a smaller store is the “connection to people” and being able to learn the names of the regulars, calling them the “bread and butter” of the shop. He said that they are the ones who will spread the word to others.

In the coming months, Monast hopes to increase the visibility of the restaurant and bring in new customers, adding they had a record last week in sales and the business has seen steady growth since its opening.

“It far exceeded the initial expectations for this business; it’s still growing … [But] I still don’t think we’ve reached the potential of what this particular restaurant does,” Monast said.

He said that the Lexington community has been in the center of the success.

“It’s very local, there’s a connection with the community … you can see right here we don’t have any parking to get into the place … but the local folks just walk over,” he said. “They’ve really supported us.”