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A North Side restaurant struggles to survive last month's bizarre shooting. 

Belle Blues

Gerard is French and hard to understand, but he has no difficulty communicating his encounter last month with a man bearing an assault rifle outside the North Side restaurant where he works as maitre d'.

Gerard — "only Gerard, please" — hops out of the booth he is sharing with Belle B owner Lynn Lines, assumes the stance of a man aiming a rifle, then slowly turns 90 degrees to point the rifle at your chest.

Even on a sunny weekday morning in the pleasant bistro, with cheerful jazz playing in the background, the reenactment is chilling. All you feel is a touch of Gerard's helpless panic. All you see is his imaginary rifle.

On the night of March 22, all Gerard saw was the real thing. Then, seconds after he had scrambled back to the shelter of Belle B's small alcove and through the front door, a single shot rang out.

Back in the booth, Gerard lights a cigarette as Lines' head falls into her hands. It's not even noon and already she's physically and emotionally drained. Because while Gerard and the couple who were shot in their Cadillac survived the encounter, Belle B may not.

"It's a matter of weeks," Lines says. "It's bad."

The casualties started mounting the day after the shooting, when Belle B's chef quit, citing his fiancee's fears about the safety of the locale.

"I understand," Lines says, then adds with an air of cursed bemusement: "She was here that night."

It was a scary scene. The other couple in the car helped their wounded friends back into the restaurant, where staff bound their wounds with table linens and makeshift tourniquets, while customers were herded into the large kitchen until the police arrived.

Lines, who describes her own culinary skills as "mediocre," quickly stepped in as lunch and dinner cook. But other night-crew members — assistant chefs, a dishwasher — had also left, and with a downturn in business due to frightened-off patrons, the staff of 20 now numbers 12.

Business also is down by about half. There was a noticeable decline in customers the first weekend after the shooting, but "we did OK," Lines says. "We thought, 'It'll just be a little drop and people will get over it.'"

The second weekend was worse, however, with only 60 covers, or entrees served to customers, down from about 130 the weekend before the shooting. And as for weekday business, "it's been like nothing," Lines says.

As a restaurant manager in Boston, Dallas and Miami, she has seen restaurants fail for any number of reasons. But it was only after the Richmond native returned home to start her own bistro that she could think of adding "random shooting" to that list.

Lines says her sister, Paula Moolhuyzen, co-owner of Belle B, first encouraged her to create an oasis of fine food and culture in the culinary desert of North Side: a menu of southern European fare. Eclectic decor, including the work of local artists. Weekend jazz.

Upscale. Comfortable. Funky. Fun.

"You can do it here," her sister told her.

It seemed to be a good idea: little competition. An improving economy. A neighborhood in transition.

Gerard has lived in North Side for 13 years. He and other residents say the area has been undergoing a generational shift, from older folks to younger couples, in recent years.

"This neighborhood has been on a big upswing," Lines adds. So it was with a certain confidence that Belle B opened its doors with a kickoff party April 22, 1999, in what had been a bakery and deli in the retail block at Bellevue Avenue and Brook Road.

"My goal was to work with the freshest local ingredients," Lines says. "We had a really nice team when we opened. This became a destination restaurant."

Reviews were ecstatic. "Every weekend we were completely booked up," Gerard adds.

Now, next week's anniversary party will be just another Saturday night. Lines is cutting costs wherever she can find them: getting rid of the high-backed, stuffed chairs, which require steam cleaning; tossing the costly linens, and preparing to paint the tables instead; cutting back on expensive ingredients and bar brands.

"Basically, what we've decided to do is tone it down a bit, make it more comfortable for people. Try to get more of the neighborhood in," she says. That means more menu items, lower prices and new decor, "so it doesn't look so formal and fancy."

Mostly, she needs business — fast. "They can come in here in flip-flops and shorts, at this point."

There have been some positive signs. An experienced Italian chef has been hired, "so no one has to eat my cooking anymore," Lines says. The remaining staff seems to have dug in after a group meeting with a local psychiatrist. And the police presence has visibly increased, Lines and other merchants on the Belle B block say.

"This is not a bad neighborhood, and we're more protected than ever," she says.

"We're ready to rock and roll," Gerard adds.

The restaurant's first anniversary will be a new beginning, Lines hopes. "It's like we're reopening, starting from ground zero."

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