If you’re a Bay of Quinte native, chances are you’ve heard of Capers; if you haven’t, you’re missing out. Now celebrating their 20th year of operation, Capers has been a staple of Belleville’s downtown core, something owner Melanie Hilmi takes great pride in. Originally, it served as a lunch bar and catering business owned by Mel’s mother; but, as the downtown strip has changed, so too has Capers.
At first glance Capers is simply a restaurant and bar, but as soon as you walk through the doors you’ll discover it’s so much more. The first thing you notice is the welcoming and warm atmosphere. It’s like walking into a friend’s living room, something Mel has taken great strides to achieve.
“It’s basically like an extension of my living room — or our living room, everyone that works here, really. The good thing about this place is we have a small staff and not a high turnover rate. So, there’s usually a friendly familiar face in here and I think that’s really important to people, especially regulars.”
The thing I love most about Capers is that there are no expectations: it’s both formal and casual. A place to hang out with some friends and a place to go for a date. A place where you’ll find people both young and old.
What makes the restaurant stand out is its weekly schedule of live music. Mel has been involved in the music industry for almost 20 years of her life. When she moved back to Belleville she missed the live music scene she had loved in Toronto; when she took over, one of the first things she did was book live music.
Mel grew up in Belleville and spent some time living in Toronto. She’s been back for close to a decade now and has seen it transform from a bypass city to a place where people want to visit, and her restaurant has played a part in that transformation. She always knew Belleville had the potential to be a hot spot for creative minds, but the area lacked the outlets for those creatives to practice their art.
“When I moved back home from Toronto… one of the things I felt the most starved for was a music scene in Belleville. And being that it’s right in between Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, there’s no reason why we couldn’t become a hub for stopovers for touring artists and also locally. There are a lot of incredible artists that can’t necessarily fill the Empire Theatre down the road but they can put on an amazing show for 40 to 50 people and I think that’s what we can offer artists here.”
As a musician who has toured herself, she knows the struggles musicians face while on the road. She offers artists a guaranteed rate, often gives them a free meal and has even gone to such lengths to offer them a room to stay the night in her own home. Local musicians know and love Capers as well and it’s not unlikely to see the same performers more than once. You’ll find live music almost every Friday and Saturday nights. Most of the time you’ll see folk and acoustic music, but you can catch a variety of jazz, blues, rock, covers and originals.
Capers provides three separate private rooms you can book for birthdays, rehearsal dinners, business meetings or just about anything you need for a private setting with wonderful service. With original exposed brick from when the building was first built in the mid-1800s and Edison bulb chandeliers, any event you decide to hold in one of Capers’ private rooms, you’ll feel right at home. Mel also books these spaces for ticketed concerts and live events such as a songwriter’s circle which featured three acts performing their original music and telling the stories behind their songs.
Their menu offers the familiar with a twist and things you might not get an opportunity to try such as venison medallions or lamb strozzapreti. They’ve evolved from the traditional three-course meal menu to a menu built for sharing to bring a sense of social dining to the restaurant.
“We try to position ourselves a little bit different but accessible. We don’t want to go too crazy with not being able to pronounce things on the menu but at the same time, we want to be a little bit more adventurous than just your standard comfort meals.”
With new businesses popping up in the downtown core, the future is bright for Capers and Belleville. Mel is excited about all of the new restaurants being opened downtown and says, “It’s healthy competition. It’s bringing people here, it’s exciting. People need to eat, but [they] also need to socialize and that’s what brings a whole bunch of people into one area. I think that this day and age people need to get away from competition and more into collaboration. So I love it. I think it’s wonderful.”
Capers’ mission statement is to “provide a welcoming, comfortable and accessible experience for guests through food and drink,” and I think Mel and her staff are achieving that on a daily basis. I’ve never had a bad experience at Capers and the list of regulars is ever growing.
Stop by for a drink and a delicious meal to see what makes Capers a Belleville institution. To see their lineup of performers and get more information, check out their website and follow them on Instagram.