Wall to wall windows, white tablecloths and the sound of craft cocktails coming alive in their shakers: that is how you know you’re in for an evening crafted to delight the senses at Benicia’s best kept secret, Italian-American restaurant, Bella Siena. An exposed brick interior lends warmth to this rustic, modern space. Knowledgeable staff, fashionable locals, de rigueur cocktails and a California wine list create an ambience so inviting, you’ll forget you’re already on your second Blood Orange Martini (a must try, by the way).
If you live in Benicia, chances are you’ve already discovered that this casually upscale restaurant boasts so much more than panoramic views of the Carquinez Strait. What you might not know is that, to be here, the Benicia family behind the menu nearly lost everything before getting a chance to open the doors or fire up the grill. It took over a year for the young couple to transform what was once a tannery into a fully functional, licensed, up to code restaurant.
“I first saw the vacant building while fishing with my son,” said Yilmaz who felt a long-awaited opportunity present itself. If you’re curious about the first meal Yilmaz ever served in the newly purchased, pre-constructed space, I’ll tell you. It was a picnic of deli sandwiches by the window with his son (an official 9 year old as of August 10th) on some old patio furniture left behind by the previous owner.
Today an average night at Bella Siena bustles with repeat patrons filling both the reservation books and their bellies with dishes that pay homage to the Bay Area flavors that inspired Yilmaz and his family during the Bella Siena menu creation. “I love this community,” said Yilmaz of the Benicians who frequent the local destination. Side note: Yilmaz has been known to create a dish or two on the fly for patrons with an off-menu craving… so be sure and stop in on a weeknight and you might be pleasantly surprised.
The signature, informally-elegant design of the space was quite intentional on the part of designer and co-owner, Elizabeth Kurt, the mastermind behind Bella Siena’s chic, lofty, old school aesthetic. “The existing brick walls really started the inspiration for the space. I love to play on the old and the new.” said Elizabeth. “The rustic modern vibe was easy to create with all the beautiful exposed natural elements.”
Needless to say, the conception of Bella Siena was a team effort spearheaded by both Elizabeth and Yilmaz Kurt, who met and fell in love 14 years ago while working for a downtown Napa dining staple, owned by Yilmaz’s cousins. He first saw Elizabeth while she filled out an application for an open server position. Luckily for the many of us who enjoy dining at Bella Siena, she got the job.
“He used to call me his butterfly because of how I floated from table to table,” said Elizabeth of her courtship with Yilmaz. “Now we are married and we have two kids.”
What makes this dynamic duo so unlikely is the fact that Yilmaz almost never made it to the United States to witness the soon to be hostess fill out that pivotal application. Originally from Yeniköy, Turkey the would-be restaurateur spent his childhood dreaming of a life in the City by the Bay, a place he grew to idealize over the years of watching American TV. But dreaming had never been enough for Yilmaz who, as a young adult, put years into the acquisition of his U.S. Visa (an extremely tedious thing to obtain) and saving the money he knew it would take to have a fighting chance in the States.
Two weeks before his flight, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck Istanbul, ripping his home to shreds. He climbed through debris and detritus to retrieve the visa and passport it took him over 5 years to earn. Did he make the flight? You better believe it.
“In the very beginning (of life in the U.S.) I washed dishes, but I always knew I was going to move on,” said Yilmaz. “After three weeks I asked to be a busser, I was just never going to stop.” During his years bussing tables, Yilmaz says he not only learned English but also got to know the Bay Area culture and community. Bella Siena’s menu is a reimagination of traditional Italian dishes with an American comfort food feel and an “only in the Bay Area” international fluidity.
“I’ve never had a bad meal here,” said Benicia local and Bella Siena regular, Diane Bettencourt, who frequents the restaurant for events ranging from romantic dates with her husband to New Year’s Eve parties and swears by the warm Napa cabbage salad. But Bettencourt’s favorite part of dining at Bella Siena? The gorgeous, dog-friendly patio illuminated by twinkling string lights and overlooking the water. “Benicia is such a dog-friendly community,” said Elizabeth who happens to have a furry friend of her own, a golden retriever named Siena. “I couldn’t think of opening a restaurant in Benicia that wasn’t pet friendly.”
Case in point, the Bella Siena experience is lovely from start to finish. “The most important thing to me is a person with a good attitude,” Yilmaz said of his hiring process. And it shows. Bella Siena is one of those small-town finds – simultaneously elegant and comforting. Gourmet but still surprisingly affordable, and uniquely lively without being threateningly pretentious.
The menu is a poetically diverse blend of flavors whipped, baked and scalloped into one glorious celebration of Bay Area living, with dishes ranging from traditional thinly sliced carpaccio, to skewers of teriyaki skirt steak. Saffron pappardelle generously coated in shrimp bisque cream sauce, and tantalizing dessert offerings. Everything on the menu is delicious, satisfying and made with love.
My advice? Get your next date night in the reservation books while there’s still time.