Szechuan Tokyo, the popular West Hartford Asian-fusion restaurant and one of Greater Hartford's long-running, premier champions of top-shelf jazz fare, is shutting its doors by the end March
The restaurant's aging, four-decades old, wood-trimmed, stucco building, which in its glory days housed the Irish-themed Brock's Eating and Drinking House, is earmarked for demolition in April.
Paul Lewis, Szechuan's colorful owner and impresario of its acclaimed jazz series, says he's moving on to a new site in a restaurant in Hartford's South End, taking his prized jazz series along with him.
"We're going to relocate and present jazz in-house in our new location and, in a new twist, even put the jazz series on the road at a variety of venues," says Lewis, relaxing in his cluttered, monk-like office at Szechuan, the restaurant that he and his wife, San-San, have run successfully since 1999.
Lewis's landlord, Tombrock Corp., a real-estate company based in New Canaan, plans to raze the building housing Szechuan and build a bank on the choice piece of property at the southeast corner of New Britain Avenue and South Main Street in the Elmwood section of West Hartford.
With a flood of business details to tend to — including nailing down the purchase of his new home and making plans for closing the old one — Lewis is busy, but has a master plan worked out.
"We've got an April 1 deadline, and we'll have our last hurrahs for jazz here with shows March 25 and March 26, closing everything down in the restaurant just a few days later," he says.
"Right now we're involved in serious negotiations to purchase the Arena Patio restaurant on Wethersfield Avenue in Hartford, an Italian restaurant with a nice room, a big bar in a building we'd like to own outright. Absent any big surprises, we'll be open for business in very early May, with Friday- and Saturday-night jazz gigs soon to follow."
The menu will be Italian, not Asian-fusion, he says, with a small "Marco Polo" menu containing a few select Szechuan favorites. And the musical fare, of course, will be jazz, he adds, reserving special ardor for the word "jazz."
Launching the jazz and supper club series in 2001 with what Lewis calls "a big boost" from the savvy, Hartford-based vocalist Dianne Mower, the restaurant owner has presented more than 1,000 performances.
Szechuan has provided a venue for seasoned veterans like the venerable vocalist Tony Allen, a youthful octogenarian who lives within walking distance of the club, and emerging musicians, including such Hartford-based Young Lions as bassist Dezron Douglas and the Curtis Brothers.
The series has provided gigs for what Lewis estimates at more than 150 participating musicians, most of them jazz practitioners. But Lewis' programming also has included a sprinkling of blues, R&B, pop and cabaret.
"In the new site, which is a very intimate venue, we'll do trios, small groups," he says. "With larger ventures, we'll go on the road with a brand new program called 'Szechuan Tokyo Jazz and Sushi At Large,' possibly using lobbies of commercial buildings as venues.
"There are some incredible spaces out there that are logistically viable to do concerts in in the evening, places that people have never thought of using that way before. We'll be going all over the place with jazz at large," he says, quite pleased with this new mobile strategy that puts jazz on the road and into a variety of sites.
"One of the things that I really dig about New York City, where I'm from, is that they do concerts in the wildest places, including lobbies in office buildings," says Lewis, who, as a young man in the 1980s learned the ropes working in the entertainment, restaurant and club business in Manhattan.
First Restaurant In Clinton
In 1993, he opened a Chinese restaurant in Clinton, a spot he described as having "a 25-seat bar with 10 little tables, fabulous food, cheap drinks and jazz tracks on a CD sound system."
Years before this, as a young man making his way in New York City, everything Chinese fascinated Lewis.
A quick study with a good ear, he got himself up to speed with Mandarin Chinese by hanging out in restaurants in China Town. The self-taught linguist speaks the language fluently and often converses in Mandarin with the Chinese families who patronize Szechuan for the cuisine, which they tell him reminds them of home cooking.
While Lewis was brought up as a Unitarian, his later autodidactic studies of all things Chinese eventually led to his becoming a Buddhist.
"It was finding a spirituality that works for me. With Buddhism, I could grasp a wonderful solace, a comfort that I never felt as a child," he says.
One happy piece of karma from Lewis' venture in Clinton is that his future sister-in-law worked for him.
Through her in 1996, he met his future wife and business partner, the gracious, restaurant-savvy Yin-Mei Huang, whom he married in 1998. Yin-Mei is best-known by her nickname, San-San, which means coral in Chinese or, more particularly, salmon-colored coral.
San-San, who emigrated from Taiwan to the United States in 1984, had owned Japanese restaurants and worked extensively in the Chinese restaurant business before marrying and partnering with Lewis in Szechuan Tokyo. She is the pragmatic one in this dynamic duo.
Part of what Lewis — a native of Flushing, N.Y., who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Ridgefield, Conn. — brought to the West Hartford dining and entertainment scene was his New York view of the world, particularly his introduction to the club, restaurant and showbiz scene.
While studying for his MBA at New York's Baruch College, Lewis had day jobs in Manhattan at IBM and an ad agency.
Through a big-time club and restaurant owner and friend of the jazz singer Carmen McRae, he got swept up in behind-the-scenes jobs in the club scene, which was then rocking to a disco beat.
Soon work on his MBA and his day gig at IBM all were swept aside by the excitement of the glitzy, celebrity club and show-biz world.
"That was my entrée into a chic world. I had access to the green rooms. I heard Count Basie and Tony Bennett on stage and famous performers at the fabulous Red Parrot club, and got bitten by the excitement of seeing the great Carmen McRrae and her hangers-on. I met Nancy Wilson and Cab Calloway and ran into Bobby Short and people like that.
"I was around all the clubs all the time. Or as the comedian Joey Lewis used to say of himself, 'I've been around so many joints, I should have been an osteopath.' "
While Lewis' sense of humor can put an amusing, upbeat spin on just about anything, he admits that being uprooted from Szechuan Tokyo and, especially, the friendly, neighborhood clientele is hard.
But, he also acknowledges that he's not going to miss the soaring bills to keep the less than energy-efficient building heated in the winter and cool in the summer and big-ticket items to sustain its upkeep and image.
"It's going to be really tugging at my heart strings, but San-San and I are just going to whoop it up and say, 'Look, we had 11 great years here!' It's going to be full-speed-ahead right up to the very end," he says.
While Lewis is idealistic about presenting quality jazz programming, he's also realistic about its risks and, at best, relatively small return. Never once has Lewis deluded himself into thinking that presenting jazz was a sure way to make lots of money.
"Are we going to get rich doing jazz? No!", he says emphatically. "If I had taken another route, I could be driving a Bentley, but we don't do things that way. So I drive a little, old, junky Toyota, with two missing hubcaps.
"But at least I can go home at night and say that I've done something for the community. And I think we made a lot of great friends in our run here. I don't think we did anything of cataclysmic proportions, but we made a lot of people happy," he says.
Lewis reflects for a moment and says: "I often feel as if I'm this lucky kid of about maybe 16 or 18 who's been dropped into the life of a jazz impresario. I'm kind of looking around and wondering when the other shoe will drop because I'm having such a ball at what I do.
"Nobody deserves to feel this good and not be taking major narcotics. And I'm not taking narcotics. So I'm always in wonder, and I'm really grateful for what God has given to us."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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