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 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,” said 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 said.
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 a romantic mood. Thagard describes the style as a bit of New Orleans, jazz style and urban. The decor is eclectic; chandeliers, a favorite of Thagard’s, are everywhere, as are finds from her travels and Facebook Marketplace.
Of course, the food is the centerpiece of any dining experience, and Bella’s has won local and regional awards as an Italian restaurant (though its menu features more than Italian dishes). Chef Michael Horne hand-cuts all the ribeyes and filets; Thagard said the steaks are the best in the state. Other favorites include shrimp scampi, chicken marsala and side dishes, including gourmet mac’n’cheese and fresh-roasted vegetables (diners who don’t like Brussels sprouts may change their mind when they taste Horne’s, Thagard said).
“We don’t have an extravagant menu, but what we do, we do excellent,” Thagard said. “Consistency is probably the most important part of the business.”
Thagard has long been an entrepreneur but resisted getting into the restaurant business. Then, 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 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. June 9 is the birthday of Thagard’s son, Colby, who died in an accident in 2004, and she named the restaurant in his memory.
Two years later, she was asked to open a restaurant in a leased space in Dothan. That restaurant opened on Colby’s birthday in 2010.
Then, the owner of the historic Dothan Building died, and Thagard bought the 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 said. “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. Horne and much of the staff are like family and Bella’s is home.
She has no plans to start opening for lunch and will continue to operate without a kid’s menu (splurge on a babysitter on a date night at Bella’s). During the pandemic, the restaurant went from being open 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, she said, 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 open 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 is going anywhere, Thagard said. “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.”
This story originally appeared in Alabama Living magazine.
Bella’s Fine Dining
111 West Troy St.
Dothan, Alabama 36303
Hours: 5-9 p.m., Wednesday-Saturday; call for information about private events at other times. Weekend reservation recommended.