"Arena Patio Open, with New Owners Serving Food, Jazz To Come"
By Maryellen Fillo (c) Hartford Courant
Paul Lewis made history when he and his wife and business partner, San San, established their Szechuan Tokyo restaurant in Elmwood as THE place for live jazz and an Asian fusion menu.
The restaurant building was recently torn down but now the well-known couple are operating in a well-known and established neighborhood bar in Hartford's South End.
The Arena Patio Restaurant has been a fixture on Hartford's Wethersfield Avenue and Lewis wants to keep it that way.
"It's been a neighborhood bar with a wonderful history and that is what is appealing to me," said Lewis about the place originally known as the Arena Restaurant. "People used to come here on the way to Wethersfield Cove to fish," he said explaining the building was once a fish market before becoming a restaurant. "I love the neighborhood concept, the fact the neighborhood and the cliental are an eclectic mix," beamed Lewis. "I think in the short time we have owned it we have turned it back into what it was, a comfortable place to have a drink, eat good food, enjoy fine company."
The 2,000-square-foot building has been spiffed up by the new owners with updated bathrooms, fresh paint, new floors and a kitchen overhaul. Wall décor including signed pictures of famous Hartford celebs still grace the walls, and a juke box with a wide range of music including '40s swing and jazz is tucked into one corner. An outdoor patio is getting a makeover with fresh flower boxes and plantings and in the back, a grape arbor is being installed where customers who like a pick-up game of cribbage or cards can comfortably enjoy.
Lewis made it clear from the onset that he wanted to serve authentic Italian food at his new place and with help from a host of longtime staff and customers, including Diane Morin, Victor Stagnitta and Roger Gramo, they have developed a menu that includes homemade pasta e fagiole and escarole with sausage soups, stuffed Italian hot peppers with olive oil and provolone cheese and black olives, homemade San Marzano marinara sauce used in several pasta (including the house made ravioli) and parmigiana dishes. Salad dressings are made from scratch and there are daily specials including Morin's special corned beef.
Some of San San's Szechuan Tokyo dishes have also made it onto the menu, including the crispy chicken or buffalo chicken wings, the homemade spicy Szechuan dumplings with sauce and garlic, the $1 chicken teriyaki on a stick appetizer and $1.50 spring rolls with bean threads and bamboo shoots.
The menu also boasts oversized grinders and sandwiches. There is a diverse selection of beers including Peroni and Moretti from Italy as well as martinis including the "Chocolate Box" and "Grateful Dead."
"We are so enjoying this because the space is ours, it's smaller, more manageable and less overhead," said Lewis. "We want this to be what the South End restaurants were, and we are doing that with a commitment to customer service and good food."
Now that Lewis has got his new place open and a menu in place, what about the music?
"We've had live jazz on opening night and have a couple of things planned," said Lewis. "But we have to go slow because people are still finding their way out here."
Arena Patio Restaurant, 873 Wethersfield Ave., Hartford, is open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 11 p.m. Daily happy hour featuring food and drinks specials is 4 to 6 p.m.
Paul Lewis (seated) will get plenty of help from good friend Roger Grano (L), cook Diane Morin and Victor Stagnitta (R) with his latest venture, turning the old Mike's Arena Patio & Restaurant on Wethersfield Ave into a restaurant and jazz club in Hartford's south end. (John Woike, Hartford Courant / July 28, 2011) (c) Hartford Courant 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 Café 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."
The former owners of Szechaun Tokyo restaurant in West Hartford have acquired
a new dining venue in Hartford's South End, one that will offer an
Italian-American flavor with its jazz.
Paul Lewis and spouse-business partner, Yin-Mei Huang, have bought the
building that formerly housed Mike's Arena Resturant at 873 Wethersfield Ave.,
Lewis confirmed late Tuesday.
The couple paid $320,000 for the 2,000-square-foot building and plan to open
their 125-seat Arena Patio Restaurant in mid-September, he said. Century 21
Clemens & Sons Realty brokered the sale.
The building also features a "very comfortable, intimate room'' that will
host jazz duos and trios -- a carryover attraction from Szechuan Tokyo, he
Their menu will feature, among other things, fresh pasta dishes and grinders
-- all using fresh meats, breads and produce supplied by vendors in of the
city's South End. No pizza will be served, Lewis said.
Lewis said he and "San San,'' as Yin-Mei is also known, were fortunate to
gain title to such a landmark Hartford dining locale in the midst of a
neighborhood undergoing an economic rebirth.
Mike's Arena Restaurant was run for years by "local hero'' Michael Martin,
until his death two years ago.
"I was a customer at this restaurant for quite a few years,'' Lewis told HBJ
Today. "It was the perfect marriage at the perfect time
''The restaurant served
its final meal last Christmas. Three months later, the Lewises closed Szechuan
Tokyo's doors for good to make way for a retail strip center at South Main
Street and New Britain Avenue that includes space for a branch of American Eagle
Federal Credit Union.
Arena Patio will open with a staff complement of about a dozen, he said,
including both Lewises working the floor.