Sounds of Broadway

Jeffrey Steen |
Food And Dining

It's a quiet Wednesday night in Vinings. Inside a small, 13-table restaurant, the sparkling lights gently fade. Voices hush. The grandiose wave of lush red curtains fly open—and there, standing in a luscious evening gown, is the incomparable Lisa Manuli.

From her rich vibrato ushers a series of memorable paeans to the days of cabaret, and as she fills the room with song, smiles gently lift on thoughtful faces. Slowly, wines are sipped. Plates of Rosemary-Cheddar Biscuits are enjoyed, smothered in tomato jam. And in the back—set against the bright cardinal reds and elaborately crafted flower decorations—stands the owner, the host, the dreamer, Bruce Speer.

Café Vena—the unassuming name of this Southern gem of a restaurant-cum-cabaret—is Speer's baby. In his early days, the bubbly 40-something acteur would have done anything to land on a stage in New York. But as fate dictated, his life led him somewhere quite different—and merged the love of cooking with an inexhaustible love of entertaining.

“I played for many years,” he laughs, teasing me with a wry smile. “I just decided to build the dream last year. When I turned 44, I told myself I had to do something.” Café Vena was that something.

Speer worked for years in restaurants—a way to make a living while still laboring toward the glamour of sound and stage. When the Broadway dream failed to materialize, he didn't give up. He just changed the dream.

“The restaurant is named after my mother, because she always told me to dream big and go with my passion. This is my dream—a place made for great entertaining and great food.”

Speer gushes over the dramatic red curtains that center the room, and I have to ask: “Do people come here just for the entertainment?”

“You know, it's mostly both—the food and the shows. On Wednesday nights, we do Lisa Manuli's Cabaret—Broadway and ballads. She's doing the Dueling Divas now. Thursdays, we do a Frank Sinatra act called New York, New York featuring Charlie Fellingham. Then we have Jai Luci's Cabaret Friday with MoTown in Motion. Saturday is all about Atlanta legend Gary Narramore. But people come for a great meal, too—a Southern-inspired, regional dinner that is 100-percent farm-to-table.”

Speer describes the restaurant as “Southern food with sparkle”—a place known just as much for the hugs he doles out at the door as Mama Vena's Meatloaf, the house-made candied pecans, and the fire-and-spice acts that burst from the stage with a punchy mix of magic and sass. Come this summer, guests will even find Speer back in the spotlight with a puppetry medley inspired by the works of Wayland Flowers and Madame.

At the end of the night, when the bar stools are finally empty and the piano is quiet, Speer rests his feet at a booth near the back of the café. “Try running a restaurant,” he quips with a deep sigh. “This isn't easy. I'm running around this place constantly and rarely know where I am at any given moment.”

But in the silent pause of a night when the doors have finally closed, he's able to admit, “I've lived a very good life. I've always been a dreamer, and the dream has come true.”

To his devotees and disciples, he offers just a few words of worldly advice. “Be a dreamer. Be a believer. If you're not, you're not going to really understand this little place we call Café Vena.”

Whether we do or not, the show must—and will—go on.

 

SB: Show Schedule

Wednesday — Lisa Manuli Cabaret

Thursday — Charlie Fellingham as Frank Sinatra (New York, New York)

Friday — Jai Luci's MoTown in Motion

Saturday — Atlanta Legend Gary Narramore

 

Visit Café Vena at 3300 Cobb Parkway, Suite 104, or call to make reservations for a memorable show at 770.937.9089.