Westerville News & Public Opinion

New act for old theater: Upscale restaurant

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Restaurateur Kevin Campbell hopes to turn the vacant historic State Theater at 8 N. State St. in Uptown Westerville into a theater-themed restaurant, to be called 8 State Bistro. He plans to preserve the marquee.

Westerville residents who were hoping to restore Uptown's historic State Theater into a modern movie house aren't getting their wish, but the building will no longer sit vacant if a new proposal goes through.

Kevin Campbell, a veteran of the restaurant business and a Westerville resident, signed a 10-year lease for the property at 8 N. State St., and plans to open the theater-themed 8 State Bistro inside the old theater.

He says he'll be embracing the history of the building while filling a need for the restaurant in Uptown Westerville.

"I thought, 'This is the perfect location,'" Campbell said. "We can do some fun things by celebrating the history and heritage of the old theater space, as well as delivering what I'd refer to as a Short North experience in Westerville without the commute."

Rather than a kitschy gimmick, Campbell aims to incorporate the theme into a high-class restaurant experience.

"I've watched Columbus evolve over the last 10 or 15 years," he said, "from being the test chain market of America to a market where people take pride in food quality and service and having trendy, unique items rather than cookie-cutter menus where everyone has the same thing and there's nothing special."

Campbell said the bistro will feature Uptown's first free valet parking and the former theater's renovated sign, creating an interesting streetscape for Uptown.

Inside, the restaurant's kitchen will take center stage, literally. Campbell plans to use the stage used for the theater as a platform for his "open kitchen" in front of a 130-seat dining room.

Campbell, a former operations specialist for Max & Erma's, said the menu will focus on contemporary American cuisine with steaks, fresh seafood and pasta.

At the 20-seat, horseshoe-shaped bar, "classic cocktails with a modern twist" will feature local ingredients rather than processed syrups.

Movie theater seating will serve as a waiting area, while movie memorabilia will decorate the walls. Campbell said there will always be black-and-white silent films projected on the walls inside.

But Campbell cautioned that a theme is only that -- a theme. He said it can't carry the restaurant.

"If you don't deliver a great experience, don't deliver great food consistently, people will check it out once or twice and then move on," he said. "We're committed to finding the right people, developing and training a great team that can execute that kind of experience."

Rather than taking a long drive somewhere, Campbell hopes he can provide Westerville residents with a better restaurant experience in their own city.

"People in Westerville, if they want to go somewhere, they have to either go to Easton or the Polaris area, and the traffic is a little ridiculous," he said. "What used to be a 10-minute commute is now 25 minutes or half an hour, depending on the time of day."

Despite the theater influence, Westerville Uptown Merchants Association President Debbie Benatti, who headed up efforts of the Save the State Theater committee, still wishes the theater could be restored to its original use.

"It's hard for me because I was on the Save the Theater Committee," she said. "We had really good plans ... but you have to own the building. That's the big thing. I'm glad they're using the theater theme for the restaurant and I'm really glad they're keeping the marquee."

And while Benatti said some might not be pleased with the change, she said that at least the building isn't being parceled out among multiple tenants.

"I know a lot of people really wanted it to become a theater again, so there might be some outcry about that," she said. "But I guess this is the next best thing."

Campbell is aiming for a December opening for 8 State Bistro.

He will have to clear city zoning first. The site is zoned for commercial use, but a restaurant is not a permitted or conditional use allowed in that current zoning.