Zocalo Café a real bustling, happening little place

You wouldn’t know January is a slow month in the restaurant business if you happen by the Zocalo Café & Gallery on a Saturday night.

Owner Catherine Bell (tending to a customer) knows the Zocalo Café formula for success includes music (like the Doug Anderson Jazz Syndicate)

Owner Catherine Bell (tending to a customer) knows the Zocalo Café formula for success includes music (like the Doug Anderson Jazz Syndicate)

You wouldn’t know January is a slow month in the restaurant business if you happen by the Zocalo Café & Gallery on a Saturday night.

The Courtenay eatery is an all-ages hubbub of activity where patrons can choose to enjoy a meal or just sip a beverage while enjoying live music. The Doug Anderson Jazz Syndicate, a monthly guest, is the featured performer on this particular Saturday.

Former area MP Catherine Bell purchased Zocalo last summer. At first, she operated the establishment as did the previous owner before changing the routine in September. From then on, sandwiches were no longer prepared ahead of time.

“They’re all made fresh,” said Bell, who is a trained cook. “The taste is much better.”

Along with sandwiches, the lunch and dinner menu features fresh soups, salads, pizzas and tapas dishes. Vegetarian and gluten-free options are available.

“All our food is made fresh,” Bell said, noting there is no deep fryer on site. “We try to be a little more on the healthy side.”

I opted to start my Zocalo dining experience with a tasty tomato/orange/cinnamon soup, followed by the vege nut casserole. The latter incorporates a scrumptious combination of seeds, nuts and leeks, served with tzatziki sauce on a bed of spinach.

Dessert was to-die-for tiramisu and coffee with Kahlua.

My dinner guest feasted on the aforementioned soup, spanakopita and a Zo Greens salad with focaccia bread, washed down by a Berry Berry smoothie and capped by coffee with Grand Marnier.

The drinks menu also features a variety of teas, hot and cold coffees, the Zo-Classic and other smoothies, beer, wine and cider.

Early risers can choose from cereal, bagels, granola, French toast or the popular Zo Scramble.

The coffee is organic, the eggs are free range and the bacon and sausages are nitrate-free, said Bell, who is working on a new menu with her staff.

“We’re going to keep some of the old favourites and add some new things. There will be dinner specialties. This menu is a breakfast and all-day sandwich and pizza kind of menu. Because we’re open until 10 several nights, we want to put some more substantial meals on it.”

The premises at Zocalo are spacious and welcoming, conducive to a sit-down meal or coffee with a friend or co-workers.

The hardwood floor and couches in the centre provide a homey feel. Paintings by up-and-coming artists and North Island College students adorn the walls near the kitchen. At the other end of the cafe, the meaning of Zocalo is spelled out in large letters: ‘a central town square or plaza; a gathering place.’

While a pair of giant-sized menus add to the casual environment, Bell does accept dinner reservations and special orders.

“I can make anything you want,” said Bell, whose sister Cindy is part of her staff.

“It’s a lot of hard work, but it’s fun. I have great staff. They’re willing to bend over backwards to meet our needs.”

She also speaks highly of her patrons, some of whom are regulars.

Aside from serving food and drink, the café also hosts fundraisers, art contests and other events.

“We’re really trying to be involved in the community as much as possible,” Bell said.

Zocalo is at the corner of Fifth and Cliffe in Courtenay. It is open from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday to Wednesday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday breakfast specials are served until 2 p.m.

The Zocalo website is www.zocalocafe.ca.

reporter@comoxvalleyrecord.com