A vibrant pocket of city life stretches along the southern edge of Oakland Cemetery. Here, people hang out to drink beer and coffee, eat tacos and pastries, and sun themselves on rooftops decks, happy to be a part of life along Memorial Drive.
This area’s vital force seems to emanate from inside Ria’s Bluebird, a pioneering cafe that jumpstarted this pocket of urban revitalization. Through the welcoming permeability of Ria’s open plate windows, past the swoop of its counter and the tug of fragrant brewed coffee lies its dining room. There, a mosaic of a bluebird in an orange tree welcomes a sunny new day. That’s where this neighborhood was born.
Ria Pell – who died suddenly on Sunday at the age of 45 — will be remembered as many things: A familiar figure in the Little Five Points punk music demimonde, a skilled line cook who improved the many kitchens she worked in, an active member of Atlanta’s LGBT community, a grand prize winner on the television cooking competition “Chopped.” But her gift to the city and the community she gathered around her started with that bluebird.
Pell opened Ria’s Bluebird in late 2000 in the shell of a former liquor store on a derelict block where somehow, she saw potential. She endured burglaries during the year it took to build out the restaurant. It was a dichotomous place — friendly and wholesome with its famous caramelized banana pancakes and yet city-smart enough to ensconce itself behind a high wall topped with concertina wire.
It only reflected Ria herself — a large woman with tattoo-streaked forearms and hair shorn to a stubble, short enough to reveal the word “hate” tattooed on her nape. She looked tough, but her smile was beyond radiant, and she had a gift for making and keeping friends.
“She has a long history with a lot of people in this city,” says Lauren Janis, a friend who knew her from Atkins Park restaurant in Virginia Highland more than 20 years ago. “The smile. The hug. She made so many people happy.”
Before opening Ria’s, Pell worked in upscale restaurants, including Anne Quatrano’s Floataway Cafe. Quatrano remembers her as a “motivator who got people moving.” She joked around in the kitchen, sometimes putting carrots in the stretch marks left by her ear gages to make people laugh and gasp.
At Floataway, she began to develop her own style — a mixture of the grounded sensibility and pastry skills learned from her Danish grandmother and an interest in experimenting with regional flavors from the South and beyond.
Among the signature dishes Pell developed for Ria’s was a breakfast brisket in spicy tomato gravy with poached eggs that earned national attention.
“She was cooking with love and made sure she took care of everyone,” says Janis, who noted that Pell took particular care to provide wholesome specialties for her large vegetarian clientele. When she opened her second restaurant, Sauced, in Inman Park, she learned to make her own seitan from scratch. “It comes out with that spongy, awesome texture, ” she enthused afterwards to a food writer. “It’s just like a Swanson’s Salisbury steak!”
“Your energy goes in your fingers and it goes into the food that you make,” says Janis. “Ria, she cooked with love for the people.”
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog