New London - Stone Fleet Tavern Restaurant opened this week at the former site of Zavala at the foot of State Street.
The restaurant, with 1,800 square feet of dining space, promises "simple, rustic American food," a long way from the Mexican cuisine offered at Zavala, said head chef Mike Burt of New London, most recently a sous chef at Skipper's Dock in Stonington.
Owner Mark Sebastianelli of East Lyme, who held management positions at both Skipper's Dock and Outback Steakhouse in New London over the past 10 years, said the restaurant's name derives from a little-known historical footnote.
During the early years of the Civil War, he said, a group of more than a half dozen whaling ships from New London and Mystic were loaded with local fieldstones, sailed into the harbors of Savannah, Ga., and Charleston, S.C., and scuttled in an ultimately futile attempt to block Southern shipping lanes.
"Herman Melville wrote a poem about it," said Sebastianelli, a self-professed history buff who read about the incident last year in The Day.
Sebastianelli said the name fits with the ambiance of "bar room comfortable" that he is trying to promote, with "something between bar food and restaurant food," as chef Burt describes it.
"It's simple, rustic food - nothing too crazy," Burt said. "It's just a good neighborhood place."
Sebastianelli said the restaurant, which opened the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, hopes to cash in on crowds heading to and from the Block Island and Fishers Island ferries as well as Union Station. Favorite menu items include the cheese steak poutine, a shaved ribeye with sauteed onions for $7, and New England cod cakes for $8.50.
Sebastianelli figures the bar business should be big, and he features a wide array of beer offerings, including items from Cottrell Brewing Co. in Pawcatuck and Shipyard Brewing Co. in Portland, Maine.
The restaurant is employing 18 largely part-time employees and is open from 11:30 a.m. to midnight most days, with expanded hours to 1 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. The kitchen has been completely renovated, and daily specials as well as a bar menu will be available in the near future.
Stone Fleet Tavern is adding to the downtown dining choices that in the past few months featured the opening of The Commoner restaurant on Bank Street, which has a similar ambiance. But Sebastianelli said he believes the extra restaurant choices will be a draw rather than a problem.
"I don't look at it as competition - I look at it as bettering downtown," he said. "The city's really starting to come around."
Sebastianelli, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, said parking may be an issue for some people, but the nearby municipal parking garage as well as city-owned lots off Golden Street should be sufficient.
Sebastianelli's mother and father, Cliff and Christine, have been big supporters of their son's endeavor, with dad acting as a part-time bartender and mom doing the food and drink testing.
Sebastianelli looked in other towns, including East Lyme, Mystic and Groton, but fell in love with the space at 2 State St., which he is leasing from Kip Bochaine.
"I walked in and had a vision," he said.