IT'S possibly Colchester's best kept artistic secret.

That's the Level Best Art Cafe in Culver Street East, which has been providing people with learning disabilities a range of opportunities to gain work experience and training for the last ten years.

The social enterprise project, run by the Dacon Trust, has a number of project strands from making and selling items such as jams, chutneys and fruit cordials; to working, and growing produce, on their allotment; working alongside the park rangers in Castle Park; running the Cafe itself; and finally taking part in art and design projects.

Originally based in Great Tey, the trust decided it would be better for the project to be based in the centre of town and so moved to its present premises in 2008.

Colin McAllister is officially the cafe's marketing support officer but as an accomplished artist in his own right he also helps out with the art workshops and exhibitions.

Running until Friday, the main part of the cafe is currently adorned with the colourful Manga drawings of Andrew Houghton.

Inspired by Dragon Ball Z and Pokemon, he's holding his private view tonight from 6pm to 8pm.

Colin says: "Andrew has organised the exhibition himself, which all our service users are encouraged to do. From the publicity to the private view, which all our welcome to attend. There will be a buffet that Andrew has paid for and which will be made by us fresh on the day in our kitchen.

"It's just one of the many ways we try to help promote the art that we do here."

At the same time Ben Andrew is putting on his debut show on the Cafe Wall Gallery.

Colin adds: "Since coming to art classes at Level Best, Ben's art is coming on leaps and bounds and he really loves his sessions there.

"Ben's is the third show we have had on the Wall and it's gone down very well. He really likes drawing Disney characters, although he also does a good caricature picture as well. His Ant and Dec drawing is very good indeed.

"As well as picking the drawings, we framed them together from the frames that are donated to us, and he decided where they should be hung."

Ben, who lives at Maple House in the town, says: "I only started coming last year and I've had a great time. I've always liked drawing but it's been nice to come here to the cafe and do it.

"I'm very pleased with my exhibition and I hope lots of people come to see it."

Colin said the exhibition on the Cafe Wall Gallery changes every month with Ben's running until March 16 and the next artist up to exhibit being Naomi Turpin.

About 60 people take part in the various projects run at Level Best, referred to the Cafe through a number of different routes including Essex County Council, support workers, special educational needs schools and families.

"We have around six to each session," Colin explains, "with some people coming three days a week and others just for an afternoon each week.

"The art workshops are very popular but there are plenty of other things to do here as well, including helping out in the cafe, which is a great way of inter-acting with the community."

With just over half of the produce used to make the cafe's predominantly vegetarian lunches coming from the organisation's own allotment, Level Best prides itself on being very self sufficient.

"We open for lunch between 12.30pm and 2.30pm," Colin says, "but the Cafe itself is open 9.30am to 4pm. We have a lot of regulars who come in for lunch and they always say how impressed they are with the art work we have on display.

"Our artists take great pride in what they do and I think it's very rewarding when visitors come to see their work."

On March 14 Level Best will be hosting their free art event, Be Curious, at Firstsite art gallery between 10am to 4pm in Learning Room 1.

For more information call 01206 366059.