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Hot Rod Cafe owner opens second downtown New London restaurant

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New London — When Gus’s Pizza bit the dust, Bill Cornish, the landlord, needed somebody to open a new restaurant in the 24 Eugene O’Neill Drive space that also houses Winners, an off-track betting parlor.

He asked his son, Rod, if he knew anyone looking to open a restaurant.

“I didn’t know anybody,” Rod Cornish said in an interview. “But dad’s always had my back. I told him I’d do it.”

And so, with his Hot Rod Café, a Bank Street anchor, about to turn 14 years old, the younger Cornish added an option to the downtown dining scene, opening “1784” a week ago Friday. The restaurant’s name refers to the year the Whaling City was incorporated.

If not for the familial connection, Cornish hardly would have opted to compete with himself “from 200 yards away,” but he’s always liked the high-profile location, its Eugene O’Neill Drive exterior bearing the whale mural that greets visitors to the city. While Hot Rod Café has established itself as a “family friendly” spot with an eclectic clientele, Cornish sees 1784 catering to an older demographic.

“It’ll have its own personality,” he said. “It’ll be family friendly, too, but more of a bar and grill. We hope to get a lunch crowd here and eventually deliver downtown.”

Cornish describes 1784’s fare as “cheeseburgers, grinders and fresh bread.” No single item on the menu tops $9.95, and the daily special served from noon to 3 p.m. — a beer or a glass of wine, a burger and fries — goes for $8.95.

“We’re starting with a small staff,” Cornish said. “We’re going with one cook, with me as the backup, and a couple of bartenders who I can back up, too, if necessary. Right now, we’ve got five employees. When it gets rolling, we’ll double that.”

The new restaurant opens at noon on Sundays and at 11:30 a.m. the rest of the week and closes at 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and at 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Cornish, 54, a graduate of UConn and the University of Michigan’s business school, lived in Manhattan for five years while working for Merrill Lynch. He returned to his native New London in 2001 and has since learned the restaurant business from the ground up. 

He was 40 when he opened Hot Rod Café. In 2011, he opened Tio Rodrigo’s Mexican Grill on Bank Street, closing it the next year, he said, because it wasn’t living up to his expectations.

In the weeks before 1784 opened, the Cornishes scrubbed the place, the centerpiece of which is a 35-seat copper-covered bar that winds throughout the restaurant. Built by Bill Cornish, it’s a reminder of the restaurant’s first incarnation as Copperwood Grill, which Bill opened in 2010 when the OTB facility was authorized.

In addition to the betting areas where simulcasts of horse and dog racing and jai alai are screened, the restaurant has two pool tables and several video arcade games. Bands will be featured on Fridays.

Rod Cornish wants 1784 to “feel” like New London. He put out the word on social media that he wants to decorate with old pictures — of sports teams, firemen, policemen — “the kind of stuff that ends up in people’s basements and closets.”

“There’s a lot of history in New London,” he said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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