Visitors to downtown Gloucester’s new casual dining spot, Happy Belly, may find the space familiar. The exposed brick walls, warm wood fixtures, and cozy seating nooks were all part of what made the eatery’s predecessor, Alchemy, a local favorite until it was shut down late last year.
“Alchemy was a destination restaurant. It was well loved,” says Mark McDonough, owner of Serenitee Restaurants, the group responsible for Alchemy, as well as Happy Belly and nine other North Shore restaurants. “But people want to eat out more often, for less money.”
That’s where Happy Belly comes in.
The new restaurant eschews formal mealtimes in favor of all-day offerings like pastries, French toast, and egg sandwiches. After 11 a.m., afternoon and evening choices like gourmet grilled cheeses, colorful salads, and BBQ pork belly tacos join the menu. Instead of traditional table service, diners consult the sprawling chalkboard menu and order at the counter.
The journey to Happy Belly began in 2004, when McDonough and local chef Jeff Cala first struck up a partnership. Cala had worked in several Gloucester restaurants, but was getting tired of answering to a boss. McDonough—whose previous pursuits had included software, philanthropy, astrology, and family therapy—was ready to invest in something new. Mutual friends hooked them up to start talking about a restaurant venture.
Alchemy launched as a casual fine dining restaurant, offering upscale comfort food that struck a balance between elegant and homey. It was an immediate hit and the new partners decided to try their luck with a second establishment, opening Latitude 43 in 2007. Since then, restaurants in Manchester-by-the-Sea, Hamilton, Beverly, Middleton, Salem, Georgetown, and Winchester have followed.
At the end of last year, it became clear that high-quality casual food served up quickly was a growing trend in the restaurant industry. So, the partners decided to jump in.
The result is an eatery with a diverse menu of sandwiches, salads, and other snacks. Asian-inflected choices like banh mi and Thai greens salad are served up next to American classics like the wedge salad and chicken and waffles. Creative touches abound: charred pineapple in the lentil-and-rice bowl, fried olives on the falafel gyro.
Beverage options include fresh juice cocktails, smoothies, and cold brew-liqueur-ice cream blends playfully called “booze-a-ccinos.”
All of the breads and baked goods are made on premises. The coffee is all roasted in-house, and creative juice blends are fresh-pressed to order.
“I love the way Jeff cooks,” McDonough says. “He’s very eclectic. He’s bold.”
The warmth and character of the restaurant may evoke Alchemy, but Happy Belly has its own personality: family-friendly, with a well-stocked toy kitchen in the back surrounded by artwork created by local children at nearby arts nonprofit Art Haven. The bar seating up front extends into the kitchen, power outlets abound, and a large community bulletin board reinforces the neighborhood feeling McDonough has always admired about the space.
McDonough and Cala plan to keep expanding and tweaking the Happy Belly concept. They’d like to offer catering and look forward to selling holiday pies and desserts this fall and winter. The menu will remain a work in progress as they continue to hear from customers about what works and what doesn’t.
The goal, however, will remain the same: good food served quickly and priced fairly, offered up in a place that builds community.
“There’s a pretty big niche for this here,” Cala says. “This is a place that will keep evolving.”
3 Duncan St., Gloucester, 978-281-3997