Belpre, Ohio is home to Denise Belair. She may have learned to cook her trademark southern cuisine in the Queen City, but home? Home is in Belpre, Ohio. It’s also home to BelAir’s Bistro & Catering – a little restaurant with big flavor just off of Washington Blvd. BelAir’s is known for its revolving menu, Totally Tortellini Bar and as the winner of a slew of awards in the Best of the MOV.
Denise is known as the culinary mastermind behind it all as well as a community champion. “We needed something here; Belpre is growing a lot. Nobody was playing with food like I am. I knew that I wanted to be in Ohio,” Denise said.
Walking into BelAir’s, patrons can tell that it’s not an average counter-service restaurant. To begin with, Denise is a recognizable face among the staff. She’s in the trenches making sauces, cooking meats, and serving guests. Being a part of the team and knowing her customers is key to her management style.
“I try to be very responsive to my customers. They are the most important – that’s how you know you’re doing something right. Once the rush is over, you can always find me out visiting tables. That’s what I love most – the cooking and the people,” she said.
It makes sense considering that Denise’s culinary journey was very person-centric. Listening to her talk about her past, it’s easy to understand that all of her food was influenced by important people in her life. From that, she takes it and makes it her own.
You learn to cook from your mom, but then for me, it was Mrs. Chenoweth. She was my home economics teacher at Belpre High School.
“You learn to cook from your mom, but then for me, it was Mrs. Chenoweth. She was my home economics teacher at Belpre High School. She said that I had talent and that lit a fire under me,” Denise said. “From there, I went to Hocking College and had a baby. I landed in Charlotte.”
Denise worked at one of the most well known high-end restaurants in the area: La Bibliothèque. The uniqueness of the restaurant resided in the requirement that all members of staff had to have culinary experience. Waiters not only refilled drinks but also prepared salads, deboned fish and flambéed bananas tableside. Parts of the style are seen in the prep work at BelAir’s today.
“People love to have something made especially for them. They come for the show, for the atmosphere. It’s why Totally Tortellini is such a fun experience for customers,” she said.
Working through Charlotte, Denise worked at a couple chains before finishing her final 10 years in the area at a corporate food service company. Here, Denise perfected her talents in the realm of southern cuisine.
I went to make the potato salad once and she grabbed that bowl of potatoes and said, ‘I make the potato salad here.’
“I was managing ladies who were in their 70s who had been cooking longer than I had been walking the earth. They kicked me in the butt,” Denise said. “Miss Abby taught me how to make potato salad, but not until she retired. I went to make the potato salad once and she grabbed that bowl of potatoes and said, ‘I make the potato salad here.’ She’s gone now, but I still think her potato salad is just so good and I still make it her way.”
After returning to Parkersburg and working at Highmark, Denise took a contract at Davis and Elkins college. She wasn’t happy there, but worked out her contract and came home. Jokingly, she told a friend, “I’ll just have to buy a restaurant and make my own job.”
As fate would have it, he knew of one available. Denise signed for the building on Aug. 12, 2017. Her soft opening was Sept. 17 and she’s been creating her revolving menu ever since.
“I maintain a core menu with specials – sort of a food court style of options. I like it because I’m not cooking the same thing everyday; I don’t have to cook chicken marsala everyday for a year,” Denise said. “I get to buy what I want to buy and make what I want to make. I can do what I want, and I haven’t even gone through a majority of the recipes that I can produce.”
I had most of my major cooking disasters in my 20s.
Denise chooses her products through trial and error, but always serves the freshest products available to her customers. She attributes her many years of cooking – 35 plus – to the popularity of her dishes.
“I had most of my major cooking disasters in my 20s. When people say, ‘there’s nothing better than eating at Grandma’s’ that’s because grandma’s been cooking for a good 30 years,” she said.
Comfort food like grandma would serve is always on Denise’s menu, but so is something for vegetarians, something that is healthier and usually something a little funky. No matter what, it’s something she wants to cook and introduce to the community.
“I didn’t want to serve baked steak every day. I try to expand people’s pallets through samples. When I first offered a Kentucky Hot Brown, nobody had tasted one before. So I offered samples and twisted arms. Now I make them and about 50 local people show up for it every time. I want people to eat real food that is good and not full of preservatives,” Denise said.
Eventually, I’ll have a life, but I knew going in that this wouldn’t be easy.
Although 50 people at a time sounds like a lot for a specific dish, BelAir’s often seats a packed house. Today’s menu features a lasagna with a béchamel sauce between the layers. Denise credits the sauce to making the lasagna creamier. Sauces and soups are Denise’s favorite thing to make because they “make the meal,” but having a hand in everything takes most of her time.
“I work about 60 hours per week. Eventually, I’ll have a life, but I knew going in that this wouldn’t be easy. I don’t have an unlimited budget, but I can be very creative,” Denise said.
As the restaurant grows, Denise continues to exhibit her creativity through her cooking and the restaurant aesthetic. She plans for it to remain a fast casual style eatery, but with the addition of outdoor seating and more parking for her guests. Denise continues to focus on her role as a member of the larger community as well.
Along with many community events, she works with Love and Action Belpre Church of Christ Meal Program to feed veterans, elderly and sick through a pay-it-forward style program.
Mrs. Chenoweth lit that flame for me, and I want to do it for others.
“Community involvement is important and my ultimate goal is to get home economics back in Belpre High School. They have limited electives and if you’re not musical, you’re out two of them already. It helped me to find what I love to do and I developed a career out of it. Mrs. Chenoweth lit that flame for me, and I want to do it for others,” she said.
In 2018, Denise won the Entrepreneur/Small Business of the year for the Belpre Area Chamber of Commerce. Then, in 2019, she won the “Friend of Education” Award from the Belpre School Association along with being voted winner of Best Overall Restaurant, Best Lunch Spot, Best Burger and Best place for Dessert in Clutch MOV’s Best of the MOV.
“You can’t go anywhere else in Parkersburg, or anywhere else at all, and get as good as quality food,” a patron interjects. “Sometimes, we do lunch and dinner every day of the week.”