The Lakewood Phoenix reimagined as a west-side vegetarian destination

You can learn a lot about Lakewood's new Root Café from the bathrooms. Proprietors Bobby Breitenstein and Julie Hutchison hired artists to stencil boys' and girls' faces on their respective bathroom walls — but not any old faces. They're drawings of friends and regular customers — the people who gave them faith to keep working toward their vision of a west-side vegetarian café for nearly three years, even as the sour economy stacked the deck against them.

The shop is the next stage in the evolution of their business, which started as the Lakewood Phoenix Café. It began serving coffee drinks and pastry from local bakers just before Christmas, but the real evolution will come as the year progresses, and the local-foods-oriented vegetarian kitchen opens. They'll continue to serve locally roasted Phoenix coffee, even as the restaurant menu evolves. They are in the process of transferring a beer license and will eventually sell a selection of microbrews.

Hutchison bought the Lakewood Phoenix in 1999. With an acoustic jam night each Monday and open mic hosted by Xela each Tuesday, it became a hangout for musicians, artists and social activists. Half a dozen bicycles were routinely parked outside. But the old storefront was cramped. A single aisle between two rows of tables led back to the coffee bar and cash register; the same aisle led back out. Musicians performed in the small bay windows, but they were a tight fit even for two performers. In the evening, customers would spill out onto the sidewalk. The Root has double the space and triple the seating capacity.

Hutchison says the idea to reinvent the place as a vegetarian restaurant dates to 2005, when she and Breitenstein married and started their family. "Bobby was working other jobs, and we wanted to be able to focus our energy in one place," says Hutchison.

They began discussions with the landlord in 2007, signing a lease in spring of 2008 — just as the economy tanked and credit got scarce, even for established, stable businesses. But friends and family members pitched in to start construction in June 2009.

The resulting restaurant offers personality and craftsmanship everywhere you look. Ceramic artist Greg Aliberti, whose installations are also at the West 65th Street Rapid Transit stop and other RTA locations, used a combination of stock and handmade tile for backsplashes and other surfaces. In addition to the pipes, plumber Anthony Bocchicchio made ironwork tree sculptures that support a bar in the front window.

The interior woodwork is recycled wood, including baseboards and pews from a nearby church, and a bookshelf Breitenstein built of reclaimed studs from the interior renovation. Artist Nathan Melaragno worked with carpenter Joe Gallagher to make an art-display wall out of old slat board, its top edge cut in a wall-sized panorama of the Cleveland's downtown skyline.

Then there are the bathrooms. Melaragno collaborated with Haley Himiko Morris to collect photos of regulars at the old Phoenix, including some who have moved away. Projecting line art made from the photos, they hand-painted stencil-style portraits. Odds are on any given evening, some of the people depicted are sitting in the shop. The portraits don't quite fill the walls, and Hutchison says that adding faces will be an ongoing project.

But the biggest news is the expanding menu. Hutchison says that chef Nonni Casino inquired about the new project last summer, when she saw signs promising vegetarian food. "It was synchronicity that brought her to us," says Hutchison. "She just inherently brings so many of the values we want to represent." That includes "food that's whole, organic and easy to know."

Initially, that means salads, breads, pizza and sandwiches, eventually expanding to include vegetarian cuisine from Native American and Mediterranean cultures, using seasonal produce. Hutchison, Breitenstein and Casino are in the process of identifying sources for their ingredients, which will be locally and organically grown whenever possible. They plan to deal with City Fresh, among other suppliers.


More by Michael Gill

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