The World Café International Bistro exists as a special and extraordinary concoction of many qualities that each combine and work in synergy together to offer patrons a singular and stellar dining experience. Located at 200 Center Avenue in Downtown Bay City, the Bistro first opened its doors in December, 2010; and over the past 14-months, proprietor Diana Hadad has proved to be a visionary restaurateur, shepherding each component of her establishment into many marvelous directions.
With a focus firmly set upon providing fresh & healthy ingredients to create a marvelous array of international lunch & dinner items ranging from Lebanese, Chinese, Italian, Mediterranean, and American cuisine, along with daily lunch & dinner specials that change constantly, the fact that the comfortable setting, inviting space, and tasteful interior design all converge to compliment the enticing warmth of the menu items serviced with a smile to each table is no mistake, but the result of a true passion for cooking, entertaining, and they mysteries unveiled through travel & exploration.
One glance at the menu and you get a clear idea of how quality, expertise, and affordability converge across all corners of the world at the World Café, with 'tapas' items such as Saganaki and fresh garlic infused hummus, homemade spring rolls filled with shredded veggies; salads such as Mandarin Duck or Grilled Sesame Tuna; or dinner items such as Thai Peanut Noodles ($11.00) or Baked Ziti Florentine ($12.00) or a New Orleans Seafood Combo ($17.50) or Steak Diane (tender filet mignon cooked to order and served with brandy mushroom cream sauce ($18.00).
Diana is well suited and eminently prepared to further her vision for a world-class bistro, having worked in a variety of restaurants ranging from Chinese to Vietnamese - and even a health food restaurant - since she was a teenager in college at MSU. "I'm interested in a variety of foods and my husband's family is Lebanese, so I'm also interested in Mediterranean and Eastern foods," she explains.
She opened her first operation 12 years ago, which was an Italian restaurant named 'Ciao'; only sticking to one type of cuisine was too limiting for Diana's tastes. "It's great because a woman came to dine here at World Café that once worked for me 12 years ago at my Italian restaurant and commented, 'this is the place you always wanted'; and I'd never thought of it that way, but its true because back then I wished that I could do Chinese or serve gyros or something besides Italian, and now I'm doing that," she exclaims.
Indeed, the food is not the only thing built from scratch at World Café, as Diana also constructed the building from scratch on a vacant lot when her husband's family company acquired the lot as a tentative parking lot. "Initially we were going to build four specialty shops, but when our liquor license became available, we figured we might as well go for it".
Diana also cites the conception and ideas behind World Café as largely stemming from her active home life. "The feel and nature of the menu is inspired by what I cook at home," she explains. "My children will pick out a country and ask me to prepare that for dinner; the kids will say I want Italian tonight, or let's do Chinese; so that's how I cook - by inspiration."
When she pulls her menu together, does Diana seek to represent items from different countries, or is the menu constantly evolving? "We do a bit of both," she explains, "and 80 percent of our menu is what I conceived when we opened. But we do offer different lunch and dinner specials every day and there is always something featured that is not on the menu. A good example would be our Mandarin Duck Salad. We decided to take some duck strips and place them on a salad with mandarin oranges and wonton crisps. It became so well accepted that we now feature it as a regular part of the menu, because the public has spoken!" she smiles.
Diana also emphasizes that she does view American food as 'World' food. "I didn't think we needed to hit different regions so much as offer a broad variety of choices. People of all ages and tastes can come in and one might fancy Thai peanut noodles, another might prefer a classic burger, while a fussy friend may prefer Mac & cheese, but the quality remains consistent and ties them all together," she reflects.
The biggest hit on her menu that turned into somewhat of a surprise is the World Café's Chicken Shawarma sandwich. "A traditional shawarma is chicken that is stewed, almost like pulled pork, only I wanted ours to be different, so we took long bread and added tomatoes, cucumbers and our own super-garlicky sauce, and its turned into our number one seller and kind of a signature dish," she explains. "It's not like it is in Lebanon or even Dearborn, but if you're familiar with shawarma in many ways its like an Eastern burrito, and people absolutely love it."
Each day is a surprise and on Valentine's Day, for example, the lunch special consisted of Eggplant Parmesan with angel hair pasta and dinner was a lobster alfredo - the types of items that not a lot of people bother to cook at home.
Another major plus factor is that World Café is totally capable of providing gluten free entrees and food items. "We take all our ingredients unassembled, so we can meet specific dietary structures and goals," she explains. "This past Christmas a family was planning a get-together and they had people requiring gluten free, one vegetarian, one kid with peanut allergies, and 14 people all together. They can't go to the chain restaurants because people in the kitchen don't know or have the capability to cook in this manner, so our seafood and meats come in as they are, not in a bag and not in a sauce. The fact we cook from scratch is significant. For example, we make our own hummus and now have people driving from Clare to order it."
"High-volume restaurants might cut up 20 tomatoes when prepping their food, whereas we might cut up three and prepare as we need," she continues. "Our purveyors deliver fresh to us a couple times a week, so the staff is either cooking recipes we set or co-operating with me. I oversee it all, but also once worked as an Americorp supervisor, so am accustomed to working with young people and giving them respect. When we sit at a table and brainstorm most of our employees have something to offer and fresh ideas to suggest, so I believe strongly in collaboration."
In her earlier years when cutting her teeth working in different restaurants, what was the most valuable lesson Diana learned? "Keep it fresh and keep it simple," she immediately responds. "Guests are the most important thing, so you need to treat your patrons like family members. This is how we're building our business. You can do flash or under-price your items and end up shooting yourself in the foot, so I believe in consistently offering good food and service."
Another corner of culinary delight that the World Café is strongly developing is a brilliant reputation for providing signature desserts. "I was fortunate to work with a young cook that suggested we do more of our own breads, so we started offering baguettes in-house," she relates.
"We were doing a mix of our own desserts and some from other purveyors, but eventually we started making our own cheesecakes and became known for it. We do an excellent lemon chiffon cheesecake and a Very Berry one that's a combination of raspberry and blueberry; and then we experimented with a chocolate peanut butter cheesecake that sold out in hours."
A big of fan of offering 'special event' dining, on March 8th World Café will conduct a special presentation of a wine tasting for a new collection called 'The Seekers' from 6-8 PM. 'The Seekers' will focus on vineyards taking wines around the world under the concept of international explorers from the 1800s and feature wines from New Zealand, Argentina, and all around the world," she notes. "The area district rep will present the wines and we'll present a tapas size version of different menu items to accompany them, so we'll feature possibly a filet mignon slider, or something with seafood to go along with the wine. We seat 25 people at a table and they interact with the presenter, so these events are both fun and interactive." Indeed, this event is a bargain at only $30.00 and if interested you should call 989-402-1110.
Lest one think the World Café is only about food, the bistro also serves up delectable delights for the ears with a regularly cycle of featured live entertainment. March 3 and 8th will place the spotlight on The Reivers, which is an Americana rockabilly musical ensemble that gives those looking for solid entertainment the opportunity to hear it in a clean, family oriented atmosphere. And on March 16th patrons can enjoy 1960s and 70s inspired blues-rock with Madame Dev's Gypsy Wagon from 8-10 PM.
When asked what the biggest misconception is about World Café that people harbor, Diana points to how people often mistakenly think they only offer vegetarian cooking. "Once I had a person call and their first words were, 'You guys got meat?" This made me laugh because people think we're only a Vegan restaurant or a place that you can't take Grandma and the kids. We do international cuisine, but also offer chicken nuggets for Kids and Mac & Cheese for everybody, and also do a fine version of the ubiquitous Chicken Caesar Salad wrap, which you've got to do."
World Café is also big on offering 'Farm to Table' dinners, which will be coming up in the near future as the weather breaks. "Some of our farmers do them in areas like Brighton and Ann Arbor, and because we offer Bay County raised meat we can do, for example, a Prime Rib with roasted white beats and purple potatoes and exotic carrots that are literally pulled from the ground and prepared the day of the event. The taste is literally so much better when food is fresh, and these types of events are both thrilling as well as healthy."
It takes a considerable amount of guts, talent, vision, and courage to build an establishment that is both equally varied and focused as The World Café International Bistro; and that such a Shangri-la for the taste buds exist in the Great Lakes Bay Area is a welcome addition for those seeking the finer things in life without breaking their wallets during the search.
If you haven't experienced it yet, do yourself a favor and check out the many varied lunch, dinner and daily special items that beckon for your attention.
The World Café International Bistro is located at 200 Center Avenue in Bay City and is open Tuesday - Sunday. Phone 989-402-1110 for more information or to make reservations.