June 25, 2006
By GREG MORAGO, Courant Staff Writer
Next weekend, Pastis, downtown Hartford's only French bistro restaurant, will serve its last bowl of boeuf bourguignon, its final steak frites. After seven years of pushing baguettes and pinot noir to hungry Francophiles, the handsome bistro on Ann Street is bidding adieu.
Owner James Varano, who also owns Black-eyed Sally's and co-owns Pig's Eye Pub (both on Asylum Street), said heis closing Pastis Saturday. Varano, however, is hardly quitting Hartford. He said he is signing a new lease for the space, at the corner of Ann and Allyn streets, and plans to open a casual, fish house-style restaurant in late September.
"We couldn't be any more excited about it. We're really committed to the future of Hartford. But it was time for a change," Varano said. "It was something we were thinking about. With the new lease coming up, it was the kicker. It was time to do this."
Varano opened Pastis with chef/partner Chris Hussey in October 1998. Hussey's refined menu of bistro classics (roasted salmon over lentils, duck confit, escargot and coq au vin) married well with the restaurant's note-perfect decor. Although Hussey left several years ago to pursue other business interests, Pastis was still the only place in Hartford to get a classic beet and goat cheese salad and other examples of French home cooking.
But, while Pastis' customer base was loyal, it was also small - too small to bring a return on investment, said Varano, who owns the business with his wife, Dara Varano. "Sales had been flat. We hadn't been able to get sales growth. We have a loyal following who supports us, but business hadn't changed in years," he said. "There was a huge population that didn't come to Pastis. For whatever reason - they might have been intimidated by French food or French wine - they didn't give us a chance. I don't want to dismiss our loyal following. There's going to be a lot of people who will probably be upset by this, but it was a financial thing. We're excited to do something new and different."
That "new and different" obviously means "younger." The restaurant, surrounded by clubs and restaurants catering to a younger crowd, benefited little from the foot traffic surrounding the Hartford Civic Center. Varano said Pastis' age demographic was probably between 45 and 50, while a restaurant like Agave, across Allyn Street, probably has a demographic of 25 to 30.
"We're looking at a younger, hipper concept that'll have more synergy with the neighborhood," he said.
The restaurant has about 25 employees, and Varano hopes that they "will come back and be a part of the new concept." Manager Debbie Rossitto Lepri, a familiar face in the Hartford restaurant scene, and chef Frank Lepri will remain on staff and involved in planning the new restaurant, Varano said.
The new restaurant will be more casual than Pastis. "We're going for a whole new look, a new menu," he said. "It's going to be dramatically different."
Debbie Lepri said she hopes the new restaurant will appeal not only to Pastis loyalists but also to new customers. "Our customers are so great, so loyal. I hope they will come to say goodbye and be just as excited about the new place," she said. "With the exciting things going on at the Civic Center, we'll attract a wider variety of customers. I can't wait."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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