Restaurateur Seeks To Bring Affordable Italian Fare To 'Arena'
By Charlotte Christopher
July 29, 2011
In a dimly lighted dining room surrounded by red leather booths that look as though they're from another era, Paul Lewis is inheriting a history.
He seems an unlikely recipient. Although he describes himself as a "German guy from New York," Lewis has made it his goal to help revitalize the Italian American heritage of Hartford's South End.
Lewis, along with his wife and "boss," Yin-Mei Huang, known as San San, is the former owner of Szechuan Tokyo, an Asian fusion restaurant and jazz venue in West Hartford that closed in late March when the owners of the building, Tombrock Corp., decided to demolish the structure and build a bank in its place.
The couple bought the building on Wethersfield Avenue that once housed Mike's Arena Patio & Restaurant for $320,000, and hope to create an Italian restaurant that will embrace and cultivate the locale's long-standing heritage after it opens in September.
"It's got a venerable history," says Lewis, explaining that The Arena Restaurant, as it was originally called, opened more than 50 years ago. "People used to come here on their way to Wethersfield Cove."
Before it was Arena, the building was a fish market. Most recently, the restaurant was run by Michael Martin, whom Lewis describes as a "local hero," until his death nearly three years ago.
Lewis, who was a customer at Mike's, was approached by Martin's wife, Nancy, who was looking for someone to reopen the restaurant.
Part of the key to doing this, he says, is making it affordable and involved. The restaurant will purchase many of its ingredients, including meats and bread, from South End vendors, and Lewis says it's important to him that the restaurant maintain prices that families can afford. "There's no need to charge a fortune for a nice Italian meal."
He has another trick as well. Through the years, Lewis has become an important fixture in the jazz scene and will bring the music community that was so important to Szechuan Tokyo along with him to the South End. This is not a mere relocation, he says, but rather, a homecoming for the Hartford jazz scene, which was once burgeoning in the South End, with Cafe 880 Jazz, among other places.
The reopening of The Arena Restaurant will also be a homecoming for chef Diane Morin, who worked at Mike's. During the period when the restaurant was closed, Morin stayed at home. "I just waited for him patiently," she says smiling, near Lewis. "I'm going to be 65, but I'm a workaholic. I'm always happy to be cooking."
Lewis didn't say how much he's spending on the project.
"If we don't keep the fire alive in the South End, we might as well tear down the 'Little Italy' signs and put them in the garbage. Hartford needs to cherish its neighborhoods."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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