Fine Dining, Greater Impact

Photo by Maddie Schroeder

Photo by Maddie Schroeder

Ally Lanasa

It’s quiet at Zoe in the early afternoon, except for the continuous ringing of the telephone. Patrons are calling to make reservations. When the restaurant opens at 5 p.m., those callers will fill the unoccupied tables adorned with utensils and appetizer plates. Unfailingly, locals will stop at half a dozen tables, greeting neighbors and sharing laughs, before being seated.

“I think it does have a community feel in the way that you don’t get a lot anymore, because of the way everything is structured,” says Scott Bradley, the owner of Zoe and an Ohio University alumnus.

The contemporary, urban feel of the red brick exterior of Zoe extends indoors to the dimly lit restaurant. Circular high-top tables line the floor-to-ceiling windows, overlooking East State Street. Adjacent to the tables is a full bar in the shape of a trapezoid, decorated with potted sansevieria plants. Beyond the bar, square wooden tables are organized so the wait staff can move easily around the restaurant. In the back, a serving window exposes head chef Alex Ziff and the line cooks.

Bradley, who studied English at OU, named the restaurant after J.D. Salinger’s “Franny and Zooey” and the film “New York Stories. In Greek, Zoe means “life,” which correlates with the restaurant’s motto: “Food is life.”

“I liked the fact that it was feminine, but it also felt like a strong name, distinctive, and at the time, it might have been important that it was easy to find in the phone book,” Bradley says with a laugh.

Zoe was established in May 2004 outside of Athens but relocated to 24 ½ E. State St. — next to Passion Works Studio and Precision Imprint — in September 2008. Bradley says patrons told him Zoe “upped the game” for restaurants in Athens once it moved uptown.

“I think we have a great food town, and I think [Zoe has] something to do with that,” he says.

Despite accolades for being the best fine dining and the best place for a date, Bradley is most proud of raising the quality of food and leading the standard for local food sourcing in Athens. Bradley regularly buys produce from the Athens Farmers Market, Green Edge Gardens in Amesville, Ohio, and Integration Acres in Albany, Ohio. Dairy products come from Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, Ohio.

Bradley describes Zoe’s cuisine as “upscale comfort food” with options such as Ziff’s brine chicken breast served over organic grits from Shagbark Seed & Mill, located in Athens.

“I’m just really happy to be a part of this restaurant,” Ziff says. “I’m really happy to be a part of a growing trend of women in positions of power, especially in the restaurant industry.”

Zoe is making an enormous impact in Athens County beyond the restaurant industry. The restaurant supports local nonprofit organizations and contributes to efforts to decrease food insecurity in Athens. Zoe has donated gift cards for raffle prizes at The Dairy Barn and food to The Gathering Place’s annual Community Illumination event.

Since July 2015, Zoe has been involved with the Athens Food Rescue, which collects leftover food from donors and transports it to partnered nonprofit organizations in efforts to reduce food waste. According to a report published in January by the Athens Messenger, Zoe has donated more than 1,100 pounds of food to the Athens Food Rescue.

Every week, Zoe donates frozen leftover food like carrots, mashed potatoes and rice to the Athens Food Rescue. The donations go to United Campus Ministry (UCM) for its meal program. UCM, a nonprofit organization at OU focused on spiritual growth and social justice, generally prepares to feed 25 to 35 people every Thursday for dinner and every Saturday for lunch year-round.

Zoe also donated appetizers to UCM’s largest fundraiser last year. The Justice Jubilee, which took place in November 2018 at ARTS/West, celebrated the organization’s social advocacy work over the past 50 years.

“Basically, it was just a time for people to come together,” says Lacey Rogers, the assistant director of UCM. “And specifically this year it was our 50th anniversary as a nonprofit organization, so it was kind of a celebratory event where we brought out a lot of our archives… We had a couple speakers that we brought from UCM’s past to kind of give some words of wisdom and kind of share some things they used to do at UCM and their vision sort of for the future.”

Rogers is involved in UCM’s fundraising efforts and its different programming opportunities. Since it was founded in 1968, UCM has helped other organizations get established, including My Sister’s Place, the Gay Activist Alliance and OU’s Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies program.

In addition to being an ongoing partner with UCM, Zoe participates in the Souper Bowl hosted by the Athens Area Mediation Service. Zoe donates two gallons of soup for the annual event. Attendees select their favorite locally made bowls and enjoy soup and other food and desserts donated each year to support the work of AAMS. The 19th Souper Bowl took place on March 24 at the Athens Community Center.

Bradley’s favorite project is his collaboration with Vinton County High School. For the past 15 years, Zoe’s staff has organized a traditional French dinner for the high school’s French club. About 40 students dine for roughly $20 apiece.

Throughout the years, Zoe has scaled back on some aspects of its fine dining atmosphere that were unsuccessful. However, two aspects of the restaurant have withstood time. Since 2008, the restaurant has been a leading standard of high quality food and social advocacy.

“I’m very proud of the thing we do here,” Bradley says.