High On Adventure - Featuring Photojournalist Larry Turner

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Bella - A Jacksonville Staple


The Bella

A Jacksonville staple

Story by Paula Bandy

Photography be Ezra Marcos


"In my view, when people are looking to go out and have fun they're like 'Hey, we got to go to the Bella,'" says Jerry Hayes, founder of Bella Union in Jacksonville. This year celebrates 30 years of people having fun at the Bella, as the bar/restaurant is fondly known by locals. Christian Hamilton, co-owner, emphasizes, "People bring their out-of-town guests, we've had multiple people get down on one knee, and then come back year after year." But it's not just customers who return. Christian says, "We've employed thousands of people over the past 30 years and given hundreds of people their first job. They still come back and thank us and say it was a life changer and remains their favorite job."

Hamilton and co-owner, Chef Tom Bates, original employees, purchased the Bella from Hayes in 2016. The plan was to keep the Bella just as it had been for the past 30 years. Hamilton, a Jacksonville native who lives in his childhood home says, “I can't imagine someone going in and changing the Bella. That would be heart wrenching." This would appear to be a good thing, as Bella Union consistently ranks high in local's favorites, and in January of this year was listed #89 in the 150 Best Bars in America. (www.thedailymeal.com)

If only those walls could talk...well, in a way, they do. Displayed on the Bella's walls is the story of much of the past 30 years through art created especially for and about the life and spirit of the Bella. Much of the fun shows through the art work gracing the walls. Hayes recollects, "When we opened in 1988 we wanted a little more pop behind the bar, so we went to Portland and bought neons and filled the bar wall." The late Leo Meiersdorff, Bella customer, acclaimed jazz musician, painter known for his jazz-themed art work, and seasoned fan of LaBatt beer, created a series of watercolors to correspond with the neons. "These are originals that are in the bar. Leo's caricature art work is based on each one of them," Hayes says. Meiersdorff also designed the art in the back room from large pieces of plywood painted to look like plates.

In 1992, then Bella bartender Brian Porter and now owner of Porters Restaurant in downtown Medford, created a Happy Birthday Bella painting for Hayes. Porter's whimsy captured watercolor caricatures of all the Bella employees, "each with a quirky thing about them," says Hayes. "After we hung it, lots of the regular customers wanted to be in one," he continues, "So we're paying this guy to be a bartender and somehow within a period of about a year, he found time to come up with all these. There are hundreds of people in these pictures, each with their quirky thing. Then he comes up with the idea that he's going to do this, and unbeknownst to us he's already done them. So we plan a big party to unveil them."

The party, which was by invitation and required formal attire, became known as the Black Tie Black Out. It was in winter, and around 4:30 in the afternoon there was a power outage. "The paintings were on easels upstairs so we lit candles on the staircase and upstairs, and it turned into 'Well, we might as well drink,'" Hayes adds, "I don't think we sold a single print that night but everyone had a great time." Every year Porter is still commissioned to do a sketch cartoon and poem about the Bella Union employee of the year. "Its fun," says Hamilton.

Also featured throughout the restaurant is part of their Britt poster collection, the oldest one from 1966. The 2018 poster will be presented up front.

Along with original art, for 30 years the Bella has offered live music three nights a week. Hamilton states, "We're really proud of providing our stage to showcase locals." Another local favorite is Oysters and Ales, running now for 20 years every Thursday evening in the months containing R’s.

And then there is the heart of the Bella—the food. "Most of the recipes are originals," Hayes points out. "The Caesar salad dressing, pizza sauce, pizza dough, desserts, Mud Pie have been on the menu from the start. Tom Bates was the chef understudy and took over when the first chef left." It appears there is much about Bella Union that is original, including many of the people. They have also always offered wine (featuring local vintages) by the glass, unusual at the time. Now they are honored to be on the Oregon Wine A-List.

Celebration continues through the summer with the launch of Bellabration XXX IPA, a collaboration with Walkabout Brewing sporting a special anniversary label. A large commemorative poster by Brian Porter and Larry Addington will be on display. Also planned is a special night with Teddy Abrams, Britt Music Director and Conductor, featuring a small band. Check Bella website for date and details. 

When asked what has kept them going, the answer was unanimous "Location and personality of space, and the servicing of people remains fun. 30 years on there's lots to be proud of and we're still going strong!" 

In one of the sunny front rooms at the Bella, a rotating display of vibrant watercolors by local artist Anne Brooke are featured on the walls. They're a different style from the rest of the Bella art but complement the open cafe feel. Brooke is also the creator of the popular Jacksonville Coloring Book, which features line drawings of Jacksonville to color in. The Bella has a coloring contest every week where two kids each win a free pizza. They use some of the coloring book drawings for the contest and as Hamilton says, "It's cool because they're all familiar places, kids love it!"

Brooke is a founding member of Art Presence Art Center, an art gallery/member cooperative housed in Jacksonville's historic courthouse offering a variety of exhibits, events and workshops year round. You can find a copy of the coloring book here along with other books by local authors. Hamilton says there's been talk of Art Presence possibly extending their gallery with art upstairs at the Bella. "It hasn't happened yet but hopefully will."



Art Presence Art Center

206 N. 5th St., Jacksonville



Bella Union

170 W. California St., Jacksonville



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