Downtown New London sees post-pandemic surge of new restaurants

·5 min read

Jul. 3—NEW LONDON — Tisha Henry had been cooking at her home for years before she started serving up home-cooked meals to workers in the Bronx.

The Louisiana native retained that passion for cooking after her recent move to New London and joined with family earlier this year to open Seafood Delights at 194 Bank St., a mix of soul food and Caribbean fare.

Just down the road at 357 Bank St., Payuska Morales Burns of Norwich is sharing a slice of Ecuadorean culture and food and preparing Ecuadorian-style encebollado, a fish stew, and ceviche, a raw seafood and citrus dish, at the newly opened Portofood.

The two restaurants are an example of the recent surge in new restaurants opening just in time for summer crowds. The eateries are not only filling vacant downtown storefronts but providing some diverse offerings.

"There has been substantial interest in particular from Hispanic/Latinx businesses that is widely representative of New London's ethnic and cultural diversity," said Elizabeth Nocera, the city's economic development coordinator.

A few examples are El Punto Exacto, a new Mexican restaurant opening at 121 Montauk Ave., and the soon-to-be opened Candy's Chapina Restaurant at 181 Bank St., which will feature Guatemalan cuisine. Mi Familia Puerto Rican restaurant, already well established in the city, is planning a move to a larger space at 365 Broad St.

New owners also are moving into the former Berry's Ice Cream at 90 Bank St. and planning to open Favorites Bistro and Bar. Sal D'Angelo has re-imagined, redesigned and renovated 52 Bank St., the former O'Neill's Brass Rail, and last week opened the Blue Duck Bar and Restaurant specializing in international street food.

Daniel Burns, owner of Portofood with wife Payuska Morales Burns, both from Norwich, said the area is calling for authentic Latino cuisine and his restaurant aims to satisfy that need. In addition to serving Ecuadorian food buffet style, Burns said the restaurant will experiment with food, music, drinks and dance from other Latino cultures and help to educate people about the culture surrounding the food they're eating.

"Puerto Ricans, Colombians, Guatemalans ... I want to support all the cultures," Burns said. "This is 100% authentic, the best food you're ever going to have. I think through food people can learn about the culture."

The couple has no formal restaurant experience but Burns said his wife, who moved to the U.S. from Portoviejo in Ecuador abut two years ago, has long been the go-to cook at parties, cookouts and people have often told her she needed to open a restaurant.

The two married about a year ago are receiving help at the restaurant from Morales Burns' two older children. Revenues from the restaurant also will help in Payuska's quest to become an American citizen.

Seafood Delights owners Tisha and Tyrone Henry said this is their first time opening a restaurant. But Tisha Henry has been cooking for years and started the Seafood Soulfood Delights catering business here in New London before opening Seafood Delights. Tisha Henry said she only dropped the soul food from the restaurant name to fit onto a sign on the business.

It's a family affair at Seafood Delights, with Tisha's Henry's husband, sister Nashell, daughter Tniya and sons Dante and Boogie all pitching in. Her son-in-law Marlin Wallace is cooking up the jerk chicken.

"It's amazing to see a dream and a passion of mine come to life," Tisha Henry said. "I've been cooking at home for years. Cooking is my passion."

Prior to her move to New London, Tisha Henry had worked for 17 years with children who have mental and physical challenges. She had started selling meals to a local hospital and to Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers. The food was a hit, she said.

Tyrone Henry said he was driving a truck for Pepsi and delivering to Mambo Bar & Restaurant on Bank Street when he noticed the empty space at the former Fatboy's Kitchen and Bar where there his restaurant is now located.

Tisha Henry described Seafood Delights as a mix of soul and Caribbean-style food with a focus on seafood. Offerings include crab leg and lobster dinners, mac and cheese, jerk chicken, oxtails and Jamaican-style patties.

The restaurant opened for dinners on Mother's Day and is slowly working toward expanded hours.

"We're taking our time, building it up one step at a time," Tyrone Henry said.

A grand opening for Candy's Chapina Restaurant owned by Candy Simaj, in the former Daddy Jack's building, is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on July 7 in an event sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut.

Nocera said there is a renewed confidence in investing in New London, part of the reason for the wave of recent openings. She attributes that to the ease of operating in the city, incentive programs for new businesses, the investment in downtown infrastructure with federal pandemic funding, state grants, increased housing opportunities "and an eye towards the future with the National Coast Guard Museum moving forward with the announced federal support."

The National Coast Guard Museum Association, the group fundraising for construction of the museum on the city's waterfront, is the recipient of $50 million in federal funding toward the project.