The Clintonville restaurant, badly damaged by a fire last October, reopened Tuesday with a renewed spirit.
Dan Otanicar decided to look for a silver lining on an otherwise soot-tarred situation.
His Clintonville eatery, Whole World Natural Restaurant & Bakery, welcomed back customers on Tuesday. The vegetarian restaurant closed in October after a fire caused extensive damage throughout the 950-square-foot space.
"What's kept us positive over the last eight months is everything's been updated," Otanicar said.
A fresh coat of paint, new carpet, refinished tables and new chairs greeted patrons at the 34-seat restaurant, 3269 N. High St. What survived: The Middleby Marshall rotating oven, which has been in the space since it was known as the Clintonville Bakery, and the original mural above the counter depicting woodland creatures experiencing the four seasons.
A lot has changed and, well, much has stayed the same since Dan and his wife Kim Otanicar opened Whole World in 1978.
"I've always told people we're the truck stop of vegetarian food," he said. "Everything's fresh."
Whole World started out as a pizza joint, offering such gourmet toppings as zucchini, alfalfa sprouts, red cabbage and water chestnuts, and something that also was unusual at the time - a wheat crust.
The menu grew, offering more and more vegetarian fare, along with a few dishes to accommodate the occasional omnivore, such as pepperoni pizza, a ham-and-cheese croissant and ham sub. The decision to go totally vegetarian happened in 1998 at the behest of employees and customers.
"We truly have a relationship with our customers because we're so specialized in what we do," Dan said. "It's a big family."
Whole World is known for its scratch kitchen, turning out fresh breads, homemade soups, hand-tossed pizza dough and desserts. Otanicar said more gluten-free options will find their way onto the menu.
He said he's also kept the menu affordable, as all items, save for a few pizzas, are priced $8 or less.
The Otanicars had considered expanding into an adjacent storefront or moving to a different location. They decided to stay put, opting for a familiar, cozy space instead of flashy new digs.
"My philosophy is, I'd rather have a full little restaurant than an empty big one," Dan said.
One major programming change could come within the year. Otanicar said he will seek to overturn the dry status of his precinct roughly bounded by West North Broadway, High Street, Pacemont Road and the Olentangy River by placing a liquor option on the fall ballot. He said it's his intention to sell beer and wine to complement meals, not create a drinking establishment.
The fire that set back Whole World for eight months occurred Oct. 29 in a beverage cooler in the kitchen. It was started by a faulty compressor and then spread through the floor, into the basement and up a wall on the opposite side of the space, general manager Todd Warden said. The hope was to have the restaurant open by Jan. 1, but everything had to be brought up to code. Warden estimates the damage at $50,000 in architecture and permitting fees, and new equipment, not including lost wages.
The good news is, most of the staff is returning to the restaurant, Warden said.
"I'm extremely glad they're coming back," he said. "There are plenty of customers who will be happy to see familiar faces, that's for sure."
Judith Brooks, assistant manager of the nearby Clintonville Community Market, is a vegetarian who celebrates Whole World's return. She said the temporary closure left a void in the central Ohio dining establishment.
"I love that place and have been going there for years," she said. "They always have incredible soups, they have great desserts and there are a couple sandwiches I really like."
Whole World is open for lunch and dinner hours daily. For more information, call 614-268-5751.