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An appreciation of Ria Pell

Morning in Grant Park. Ria Pell flashes her sunshine smile in 2007 (Bita Honarvar)

Morning in Grant Park. Ria Pell flashes her sunshine smile in 2007 (Bita Honarvar)

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.”

Check out images of Ria and the makeshift memorial left to her at the restaurant here.

- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog

16 comments Add your comment

Shayne Adams

November 25th, 2013
3:19 pm

Loved her and her food. I met her on a couple of occasions and although I didn’t get to know her personally, she would always make you feel like she knew you and wanted to know what you had to say. I live a few miles from Ria’s and have bicycled there on occasions for a warm beautiful brunch on a Sunday morning. Her places were always packed and her food never let you down. Seeing her out at festivals and noticing the way she treated people really made you know how much she loved Atlanta and how much of a cooler place it was having her there. RIP, Ria.

Shayne Adams

November 25th, 2013
3:21 pm

OH….. and man.. could she give a hug!

[...] [Please read our appreciation of Ria Pell here.] [...]

Ned Ludd

November 25th, 2013
4:27 pm

Thanks Ria—-True pioneer in the area and it was always obvious you loved your life and enjoyed being with the people who visited you. Wonder what you would think if you found out only subscribers could read your obituary? Pretty sad. Wonder who made that call. Sincere condolences to all friends and family.

PapaDoc

November 25th, 2013
4:43 pm

I was taught, many years in seminary, that a priest was someone who gathered the community and enhanced the common life. With that operative definition, you could say that Ria was a priestess that functioned in a transforming way for the city of Atlanta. A good cook and great chef, she transcended that role providing the grease to drive the change that has occurred in that part of the city. She was the heart of the city and we will be less for her passing, but thankful for her contributions. RIP Ria.

bradley pear

November 25th, 2013
4:54 pm

BY JOHN KESSLER – THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

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 rooftop 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 jump-started 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 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.

FIVE QUESTIONS… … with Ria Pell, co-owner of Ria’s Bluebird in Grant Park
A retro vibe fits in at Sauced
“She has a long history with a lot of people in this city,” said Lauren Janis, a friend who knew her from the 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 gauges to make people laugh and gasp.

There, Pell 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 she developed for Ria’s was a breakfast brisket in spicy tomato gravy with poached eggs that earned national attention.

Related Gallery
Ria Pell, her restaurants and her food gallery
Ria Pell, her restaurants and her food
“She was cooking with love and made sure she took care of everyone,” said 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 enthusiastically told 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,” Janis said. “Ria, she cooked with love for the people.”

David Lee Simmons

November 25th, 2013
4:54 pm

Thanks for posting this, John. In a city that sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for having a funky soul, Ria brought her own punk-rock version of funky soul to that awesome, greater east/southeast area of Atlanta and was the new urbanism before it was cool. You think of all the restaurants along Memorial Drive, and yeah, it felt like Ria started it all. Her place felt like a community.

Chef Theron

November 25th, 2013
5:12 pm

She will be dearly missed and inspired numerous people to just act right. It’s truly a tragedy for this city. She helped create, inspire, and support community spirit in this area of the city!

Ria was a pioneer , from being "out" in high school To searving up vegiterian food options not named after meat in qutotation marks. to being one of the first punks to buyy a house in Cabbage town to have the fore sight to open a business on memorial Dr

November 25th, 2013
6:20 pm

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Jerrld

November 25th, 2013
6:36 pm

I met Miss Ria while working on her house with some engineering buddies. She didn’t know us but still accepted our group as part of the gala she was having there. I still talk about the barbeque ribs she made that day. I’ve still haven’t met a match or even anything coming close to those ribs she cooked that day. I frequent the bluebird during the moorings I get off work. She was very nice to our crew and I speak of that day often…….Thanks Miss Ria……From all the flowers in front of your door and the good words from everyone. You, your smile, and your energy will truly be missed……My prayers goes out to your friends and family.

Jerrold

Healthcare worker

November 25th, 2013
8:41 pm

I had the pleasure of caring for Ria in the past. She was a delightful woman. She taught me not to pre-judge someone because of tattoos and hairstyles. Thanks for the privilege of caring for you, you gave me more than you received.

Nice Photograph

November 25th, 2013
10:43 pm

Great tribute to Ria – oil stains in the parking lot.

Nice Photograph

November 25th, 2013
10:43 pm

Great tribute to Ria – oil stains in the parking lot. you could have at least edited the work.

[...] more at the Atlanta Journal and Constitution. Share [...]

[...] Death of Ria Pell is felt by many, sadness for days (CL, AJC) [...]

Dear ___, | Queerfit queerfit

November 29th, 2013
4:10 pm

[...] by and made us forgot what we were talking about. I’ve been thinking about that convo a lot since Ria Pell died last week at the age of 45. There are lots of people calling her “larger than life,” which is how I think [...]