Through the unremarkable door at 730 Massachusetts St., up a creaky staircase, past the Hookah House and to the right, there’s another door you can’t enter without ringing the bell.
On the other side is one of the region’s most unique dining experiences.
At Cafe Beautiful, chef and owner Melinda Roeder schedules, shops, cooks and serves — one party at a time.
It’s not an underground restaurant — the location, while discreet, isn’t a secret, and you don’t need an invitation or membership to dine there. What you do need is a reservation, a couple of hours to relax and an open-mindedness about food.
“The focus is definitely on intimacy. I only like to do one table at a time — just to slow life down somewhat,” Roeder says. “It’s just a great night to sit back and not make any decisions.”
Jay and Pamela Joachim, of Baldwin City, have dined at Cafe Beautiful several times and have another reservation later this month.
Jay Joachim said they enjoy the intimate atmosphere, and the opportunity to talk to the friendly chef herself as each course comes out.
“We think that part of dining is the dining experience, not just food,” he said, adding, “but Melinda’s really an incredible chef.”
Roeder serves parties of one to 14, often recruiting an extra server or two to help with the largest groups.
The food she serves is Asian fusion with an emphasis on seafood, which she flies in to ensure it’s fresh. Into that mix, Roeder throws seasonal items and local produce, which she picks up at the farmers market or even friends’ gardens. The current cost of a multi-course dinner is $70 per person, she said, and diners bring their own wine, beer and even playlists if they want.
Cafe Beautiful doesn’t have a menu. Meals are different for every party, every night. After talking with diners about allergies and dietary restrictions, Roeder said, she plans the courses and shops for ingredients, usually the day of the reservation.
“As soon as I know what can’t happen, then it’s endless possibilities,” she said.
Jenny and Robert Hill, new parents who just moved to Lawrence, celebrated their six-year wedding anniversary at Cafe Beautiful this month.
Jenny Hill found the restaurant on Yelp.com, and she said it had great reviews but she wasn’t sure what to expect. She was surprised when instead of ordering from a menu, Roeder — with whom Hill discussed her “long list” of dietary restrictions ahead of time — had the full meal prepared.
“She had already worked around all of my food allergies perfectly,” Hill said, “and everything was still super delicious, which is a rare occurrence for me.”
For the special occasion with the baby at home, Hill said, it was neat to be the only customers there.
“The atmosphere was very intimate, and very peaceful and calm,” she said. “It was a very romantic dinner experience.”
On a recent evening, Roeder greeted a couple at the door, leading them through the softly lit room, past the fireplace and an Asian screen to their table-for-two at a picture window looking down on Massachusetts Street.
Votive candles flickered as Roeder opened and poured their wine. Over folded napkins and porcelain chopstick boxes, the couple talked and laughed as each dish came out of the kitchen.
Hot and sweet chili-garlic edamame. Butternut squash coconut curry soup, with sweet pepper, fresh cilantro and a curried-cashew crunch. Fruit salad with North Lawrence blackberries, raspberries and blueberries scattered among fans of thumbnail-sized peach slices as thin as fork tines. By 10 p.m., the 8:30 reservation was finishing up a compact, sophisticated version of Vietnamese bun — a cold rice noodle dish with slivered vegetables, basil, mint and candied pork — and had more courses to go, including a sweet corn crabcake, yellow fin tuna tower, curry-dusted steelhead trout and local blueberry sorbet.
Roeder said she’s had 38 engagements in her restaurant since she took it over from chef Ken Suken less than two years ago.
There’s a short stack of leather-bound guestbooks on the mantel, filled with hand-scrawled thanks for everything from anniversary dinners to special dietary accommodations to memories with family and friends.
Roeder, formerly a chef at Mariscos, was a regular at Cafe Beautiful before she bought it. The stories in those guestbooks and the tailor-made cooking are why she loves it.
“It was just an answer for creative freedom,” she said.