As we all prepare to give thanks this week, Atlantans are expressing their gratitude, and grief, for chef Ria Pell, 45, owner of Ria’s Bluebird Café, who died suddenly Sunday. Services will be held at noon Saturday at Westlake Cemetery, 1680 Westview Drive S.W. A wake will follow, appropriately, at Ria’s, 421 Memorial Drive S.W. Survivors include Pell’s wife, Kiki Carr, and her business partner, Karen Portaleo.
Both natural causes and a heart attack have been cited for her death. As the news spread this week, her Facebook page filled with tributes of love and sadness. An impromptu tribute grew outside her cafe with bouquets of flowers, notes, and a vinyl record or two.
“We love you Ria! Peace to you & your extended family,” read one.
Upon learning of her death, the Grant Park Neighborhood Association posted this statement on its Facebook page: “We are hearing news of Ria Pell’s (Ria’s Bluebird) passing today from an apparent heart attack. This is a huge loss for Grant Park and Atlanta. Ria, you will be sorely missed.”
“Terrible news,” posted Justin Baker. “Ria singlehandedly jump-started the restaurant renaissance on Memorial Drive. Her transformation of that old, boarded-up former liquor store on the corner into an inviting breakfast/lunch (and dinner, for a short while) space back in 2000 was inspiring.”
“Very sad,” wrote Jessica A. Lembach. “She WAS Atlanta.”
Pell, who was born March 10, 1968, in New Jersey, is being remembered as many things: a familiar figure on the Little Five Points punk music scene, an active member of Atlanta’s LGBT community, co-founder of the (now-defunct) MondoHomo queer art and music festival, a DJ, a friend and a mentor.
She started her Atlanta career at Dish, the Flying Biscuit, Mondo and Floataway Café. According to the Bluebird website, her New Jersey mother and Danish grandmother inspired her to cook the comfort foods that would become her signature dishes — like the hand-sifted pancakes topped with caramelized bananas. Pell competed on the Food Network show “Chopped” in November 2012 and won, and contributed her time and food to the Atlanta Community Food Bank. Georgia Voice named her its best chef in 2011 and 2013.