Saturday, February 28, 2015 11:12 PM EST
BY ALEC JOHNSON REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
Photo: Restaurateurs George Noujaim, left, and Hector Avila have teamed up to open a restaurant downtown. They are seen Friday at 73 Main St. where construction began this week. Alec Johnson / Republican-American.
TORRINGTON — George Noujaim and Hector Avila both have high hopes for downtown, so they are joining forces there.
The culinary duo, who until seven months ago operated separate restaurants and catering operations on the far reaches of the city, have teamed up to open an upscale restaurant in the heart of the city. They have signed a lease with the Torrington Downtown Partners and this week began construction to combine two vacant storefronts into a 5,000-square-foot culinary center.
Noujaim said they are preserving the building's cedar plank walls and old tin ceilings. One space was DeMatteo Fine Arts and later the first home of the Five Points Gallery; the other was Cheyenne's coffee shop. But both have been vacant for at least three years.
"It is going to be very warm," Noujaim said. "We want people to feel like they are home and we want the food to be served to them like they would want it to be in their home."
He said the eclectic decor will be a mix of old and new.
A DELI WILL APPEAL TO THE LUNCH CROWD, business people and pedestrians looking for a quick mid-day sandwich, and Noujaim will continue to operate his catering business from the new kitchen. He plans to open the catering business, deli and restaurant in stages as construction progresses. His goal is to be open in two months.
"It is going to be a game changer for Main Street," said Noujaim, a former member of the Economic Development Commission who added that he's had his eye on downtown for years. "I personally believe in the city and I wanted the time to be right for me to move down there, and things kind of fell into the right place."
Noujaim said Hector Avila, who owned Le Bistro by Avila on East Main Street, will be chef and a partner. Noujaim is coming from Noujaim's Food and Catering on Winsted Road. He added Noujaim's featuring Avila Bistro, which now serves dinner Thursday through Sunday. The menu he and Avila are serving there is the one they plan to expand on for the downtown restaurant, Noujaim said. They will offer Mediterranean cuisine, including southern French, Spanish, Italian and Lebanese dishes.
Noujaim said the existing restaurant will remain open until the new location opens. The current price range for an entree is $12 for a falafel plate to $25 for signature garlic shrimp.
"We are going to provide something that Torrington doesn't have," Noujaim said.
Martin J. Connor, city planner, said the restaurant's location, across from the Warner Theatre, will be ideal for before and after shows.
STEVEN TEMKIN, ONE OF THE THREE Downtown Partners, said they included a clause in the lease that requires the restaurant to be open a certain amount of time to foster a vibrant environment.
"It is a very prominent location across from the Warner," Temkin said. "To have a restaurant that is going to have a wine bar, a delicatessen for lunch and takeout, it seems like it is going to bring a lot of vibrancy downtown."
"We are very encouraged," he added. "I think it could be a game changer for downtown."
Noujaim said he hopes to have his commercial kitchen up and running first so he can continue his catering business. Noujaim supplies food to lunch spots at Northwestern Community College and the UConn Torrington campus, in addition to other private and commercial sales.
Connor is enthusiastic about the restaurant, saying it will bring another dining option downtown. He said he envisions a time when downtown will be a place to stroll around and look at menus in windows before deciding where to eat.
"It is all good stuff," he said. "It is all connected with the arts and entertainment, and bringing people downtown. It is all coming together. Hopefully, these restaurants will partake in sidewalk dining."
Temkin said there are plans for the front of the building that call for either French doors that will open so dining can spill onto the sidewalk or a glass door that will open like an overhead door in the summertime.
The Partners have state grants administered by the city to pay for facade improvements to the building.
"George has very big plans for potential outdoor dining and a lot of glass in the front of the building they want to open up to the outside," Temkin said. "It is very much going to be a 2015 kind of restaurant and it is going to have a menu unlike other restaurants in town."
LYNN GELORMINO, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR of the Warner, said she thinks Noujaim's plans for a restaurant are "fabulous."
She said when the theater is full it is always nice to have as many restaurant options as possible, and because there are so many people at the theater on a daily basis, the deli will be another good lunch option.
"This is what downtowns are all about," Temkin said. "Bringing people to one location, having them on foot and being able to go to other establishments. It is great to see George has a vision to see this is a good spot to put his business."
Temkin said there may be more free parking at the site on Winsted Road in Burrville, but it's not the same.
"It is a hike to go there and it becomes a one-stop trip," he said.
It isn't likely patrons get in their car after dinner at the existing restaurant and go anywhere but home, Temkin said.
But downtown, he said, "it is so well-suited after being at an art gallery or a show. It is giving some stickiness to a visitor, a reason to continue to multiple destinations downtown. It all works together. It is not really a competitive thing that is taking away from others; it adds to it."
According to a building permit issued Thursday, the Partners are demolishing nonload-bearing walls to make four spaces into one for the restaurant. Connor approved a change of use application to switch the space's classification from an art gallery to a restaurant.
Noujaim submitted the application for use change on Feb. 11 and it was approved Wednesday.
Contact Alec Johnson at email@example.com, on Facebook at RA Torrington or on Twitter @RA_Alec.