By Allison Law
It’s hard to miss The Colby Building in historic downtown Dothan. Built around 1937, the three-level former J.C. Penney department store dominates this part of North Foster Street; its large plate glass windows offer a peek into Bella’s Ballroom, a high-end event venue that can accommodate 300.
But continue around the corner and you’ll find the entrance to Bella’s Fine Dining, which has become the place to go in the Wiregrass for virtually every kind of celebration (“If you’ve been married, you’ve been on a date here,” says owner Robin Thagard). Each night, many of the patrons are celebrating a birthday, anniversary or other life event. “We get tons of proposals here,” Thagard says.
Inside the spacious restaurant are dining areas on different levels, plus two full bars and four private rooms available for rent. The look throughout is muted, with dark walls and candles on each table to set the romantic mood. Thagard describes the style as a bit of New Orleans, jazz style and very urban. The decor is eclectic; chandeliers, a favorite of Thagard’s, are everywhere, as are unique finds from her travels as well as Facebook Marketplace.
Of course, the food is the centerpiece of any dining experience, and Bella’s has won numerous local and regional awards as an Italian restaurant (though its menu features more than just Italian dishes). Chef Michael Horne hand cuts all the ribeyes and filets; Thagard says his steaks are the best in the state. Other favorites include shrimp scampi, chicken marsala, and the side dishes, including the gourmet mac ’n’ cheese and fresh roasted vegetables (those who don’t like Brussels sprouts will change their minds when they taste Horne’s, Thagard says).
“We don’t have an extravagant menu, but what we do, we do excellent,” Thagard says. “Consistency is probably the most important part of the business.”
Thagard has always been an entrepreneur but had long resisted getting into the restaurant business. Then, as often happens, life changed in a way she didn’t expect.
A new venture
Thagard’s dad was in the military, and she grew up in Ozark. She had been in business for herself for several years when an acquaintance called and said, “Buy my restaurant.” She initially said no but felt called to take it on.
She opened that Ozark restaurant on June 9, 2008, which was the birthday of her son, Colby, who died in an accident in 2004. She named the restaurant Colby’s in his memory.
Two years later, she was asked to open a restaurant in a leased space in the Dothan building she now owns. That restaurant opened on Colby’s birthday – June 9, 2010.
Then, the owner of the historic Dothan building passed away, and Thagard bought the whole building and started renovations in 2012. She bought it on June 9, and of course, she named it The Colby Building. (Bella is her daughter’s nickname.)
Colby’s presence, whether in name or spirit, is always around.
A meal at Bella’s is an experience, Thagard says. “Not just a food experience. It’s the food, service, ambiance. You’re going to know that you’ll be taken care of. When you leave, you’re going to want to come back.”
After 10 years, Thagard feels like Bella’s has kind of arrived, and for her, Horne and much of the staff, they’re like family, and Bella’s is home.
She has no plans to start opening for lunch and will continue to operate without a kids’ menu (splurge on a babysitter on a date night at Bella’s). After COVID, the restaurant went from six nights a week to four, and that, too, is likely a permanent change.
But that’s not to say that Thagard’s vision for her businesses won’t evolve. Next up is a rooftop bar, Thagard says, because she needed to put in a new roof anyway. “Why not spend the extra money and do it?” The bar, which will have a view of Foster Street, will likely happen this year. And the entry to the restaurant has been renovated to eventually offer to-go charcuterie items, including Horne’s steaks.
Neither she nor Horne are going anywhere, she says. “When you feel called to be somewhere and do something, you don’t want to be anywhere else. Michael says the same thing! I’m not ready to retire yet. I’ll hang out for a few more years, if the Lord allows me.”
Bella’s Fine Dining
111 West Troy St.
Dothan, AL 36303
Hours: 5 to 9 p.m.
Call for information about private events at other times. Weekend reservation recommended.