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Mystic restaurant group opens long-shuttered Norwich marina restaurant

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Norwich — But for the coronavirus, there would have been a grand opening of the restaurant at the Marina at American Wharf back in May, perhaps with a live band, a large crowd and much fanfare for the long-shuttered seasonal eatery at scenic Norwich Harbor.

Jon Kodama, managing partner of JTK Management Restaurants — which owns Steak Loft and Go Fish in Mystic and Breakwater at Stonington Harbor — was ready to sign a new one-year lease for the restaurant at the Norwich marina in February. It would be the restaurant group’s first seasonal restaurant, with its outdoor dining patio, bar and interior space with huge windows that open for fresh waterfront breezes.

“Then COVID came, and I said, ‘I can’t sign a lease now,’” Kodama said.

As spring turned into summer, and outdoor dining opened in the state, the same Norwich people who initially asked him to take on the restaurant that has been closed since fall of 2018 came calling again. Michael Aliano, son of the late marina founder Ronald Aliano, and a boat owner at the marina, and Jason Vincent, executive director of the Norwich Community Development, urged Kodama not to give up on his plan to open the Norwich restaurant.

Kodama signed the lease. 

On Thursday, Café Marina opened officially and quietly. No balloons, no ribbon-cutting, no VIP speeches. Vincent helped Kodama set up a Facebook page. Marketing will come when things settle, Kodama said. The restaurant had a soft opening on Saturday, which went well, Kodama said.

Kodama admitted opening mid-season is a challenge. He hopes to employ 30 to 35 restaurant staff members but has only about half that number now. He has had difficulty attracting applicants and invites anyone interested to stop by or call the restaurant’s new phone number, (860) 222-3876.

He hopes the idyllic setting and people’s fond memories of enjoying an evening of dining on the waterfront will help attract customers once again to the marina.

“You don’t know where you are when you’re here,” Kodama said, turning his gaze toward the Thames River, dotted with geese, ducks and gulls, the docks and boats, the green hills overlooking the harbor and downtown Norwich in the distance. “The scenery, the water, the natural cooling that’s always here. Anyone living north of here would have to drive another 30 minutes to get to the shoreline.”

Located on the marina grounds at 1 American Wharf off West Main Street, Cafe Marina features a menu with soups and salads, appetizers, burgers and wraps, and entrees of steaks, fish and grilled chicken. Kodama hopes to expand the menu over time. Although the bar is closed, the restaurant has its liquor license and offers full beverage service.

Reservations are available, as is takeout ordering. The café will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Saturdays, “later if people want it,” he said. Soon, he plans to open for lunch on Saturdays and Sundays, and if there’s a call for it, during the week.

Kodama said he hopes the café can stay open through October, depending on the weather and patronage. He’s planning to be open at least through Columbus Day weekend.

Friends Joanne Eisenhard of Preston and Kathie Pia of Waterford wanted to find a place to “meet up” after Pia dropped off her granddaughter at her Norwich home Thursday. They were pleased to find Café Marina’s new Facebook page and called to confirm it was open.

“This has always been a great spot,” Eisenhard said. “I know it’s been open, and closed and open and closed.”

Patty and Bob Spayne of Norwich said they’ve been coming to the marina restaurant since it first opened under Ron Aliano’s ownership. They’ve come back under the several different names and owners the restaurant has had over the past 30 years and plan to make Café Marina no exception.

“We love this place,” Patty Spayne said. “We’ve been coming here for years. I really miss this when it’s closed. It’s such a gem. I really hope the people in Norwich enjoy it. It’s right in their backyard.”

Mayor Peter Nystrom echoed that thought Thursday. He said he went to the soft opening Saturday and had called Kodama a few times in the past month to check on things.

Marina manager Don Wallace said he had been working with Kodama for well over a year trying to entice him to come to Norwich. The deal was nearly ready when the coronavirus hit. Wallace kept in touch with Kodama, as did others from the city.

“It got to the point where we just said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it,’” Kodama said.

Nystrom thanked marina owner, Joyal Capital Management, Michael Aliano and Vincent for helping to bring Kodama to Norwich.

“I hope the public take a little walk down memory lane, and go down there,” Nystrom said. “We need to support him. Starting this late in the season, and opening up, this city needs to get behind him. I’m very, very grateful for his belief in Norwich.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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