Bell's Eccentric Cafe is now a sit-down restaurant with full-blown menu

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By: Marshall V. King
mking@flavor574.com

Marshall V. King/Flavor 574

Bell’s Brewing keeps growing and growing up.

The Eccentric Cafe is now a sit-down restaurant with wait staff instead of counter service. For the first time in its nearly 30-year history, Bell’s has someone bring food to you at the table.

Bell’s started in a 15-gallon soup pot and has grown to be one of the top craft breweries in the United States.

In 1985, it brewed 135 barrels of beer, about 4,185 gallons, and is now producing more than 250,000 barrels a year. In 2014, Bell’s Brewing Inc. was the eighth-largest craft brewer in the United States, according to the Brewers Association.

The Eccentric Cafe
355 E. Kalamazoo Ave., Kalamazoo, Mich.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week
Menu: View as PDF

Bell’s employees won’t say how much it cost to convert former storage space in its downtown Kalamazoo, Mich., location into a big kitchen and dining room, but it wasn’t cheap.

The dining room, at 355 E. Kalamazoo Ave., seats more than 100 and has inlaid tile floor, exposed brick walls, large windows and tables made from local hardwood. The kitchen is large and has gleaming new equipment.

Once again, Bell’s did it right.

“In some cases, companies expand and they lose the special connection,” said Eric Strader, beer blogger for Flavor 574. “They have managed to keep that sense of coolness.”

Strader and I trekked north on Thursday for a soft opening event in the new dining room, which opens to the public Monday, July 13.

Gone are the days of not having any food or only being able to order nuts. Gone, too, are the days that came later of standing in line to order bison bratwurst or some other funky food from a window at the end of the bar. When your buzzer went off, you returned to the window to retrieve your food.

Strader started going to Bell’s in the early 1990s when he was a college student in Kalamazoo. There was no tap room, but there were free samples in plastic cups and six-packs that were cheaper at the brewery than other places in town.

Not all Bell’s beer was stellar in the early days. Larry Bell is a craft brewing rock star, but that doesn’t mean every batch was a winner from day one. But there was enough good beer to get by and then a lot of great beer that followed.

Along the way, Bell battled wholesalers, state officials and anyone who didn’t see things the way he did. He’s nuts, but in a genius sort of way.

Bell’s popularity has grown. Oberon is one of the most popular beers in Chicago. If you want to impress a beer geek on the East or West coasts, you get cred by saying you live an hour from Bell’s.

The new brewing facility outside Kalamazoo is gorgeous and has huge capacity, but the heart of Bell’s is the downtown location that’s gone from a brewery and little pub to a full-fledged destination. The original bar is now surrounded by a second room that can be used for private events, a beer garden outside, the general store and the new dining room.

Bell’s has always felt counter-cultural. Having wait staff could change the culture, said Jason Reicherts, director of retail.

He’s been working for nearly three years to pull off Larry Bell’s idea for the new dining room. Construction has been underway for the last year.

The food Chef Joe Ritter and his staff are putting out of the kitchen goes way beyond what there was before. Snacks under $5 include bacon lollipops – hunks of thick-sliced bacon on a skewer with barbecue sauce, orange and scallions – as well as deviled eggs, a soft pretzel and pickled vegetables. I thought the lollipops needed more pop, such as a rub or even brown sugar, but it’s a fun concept.

The Eccentric Day party at Bell’s each December has featured head-turning charcuterie and now there’s a section of it on the menu.

Small plates include brussels sprouts, poutine, mac and cheese and more. The sprouts ($6) were slightly charred and dressed simply with parmesan cheese, salt, pepper and lemon. They were lovely.

Salads, soups and a range of sandwiches are available, including vegetarian options. There’s a kids’ menu since it’s legal to take your kids into a bar in Michigan.

What’s altogether new at Bell’s are a selection of large plates, including fish and chips, roasted chicken and a plate of pork that includes shoulder, belly and sausage.

I had steak frites, a grass-fed ribeye from the Michigan State University farm cooperative with marrow butter and fries. The greens promised on the menu didn’t make it to the plate somehow and the steak was slightly undercooked, but the flavors were simply lovely.

Strader had the green curry, a mix of roasted vegetables and perfectly fried tofu in a spicy sauce ($17). It was also a great dish. The ingredients are local. The preparations and simple and funky. I look forward to more visits to try more of the food.

In the bar or dining room, someone will take your order. If you want food in the beer garden, Reicherts and his staff don’t have an answer for that yet, but give them time.

As for all those buzzers, they’re hanging on to them. Bell wants to put a Chicago-themed sports bar where the former general store was.

Bell’s keeps evolving, but it hasn’t lost its coolness and keeps finding ways to be even cooler.

I’m hungry. Let’s eat.
 

Marshall V. King is food columnist for Flavor 574 and community editor for The Elkhart Truth. You can reach him at 574-296-5805, mking@flavor574.com, and on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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