Popular New London restaurateur to make mark on Niantic
East Lyme ― New London-based entrepreneur Rod Cornish is expanding into Niantic with promises to put his own spin on Charlie’s Place.
Cornish on Thursday said the name will stay the same, and much of the menu. The most significant additions to the Niantic mainstay will be an outdoor deck and the award-winning chicken wings that serve as the Hot Rod Cafe’s claim to fame.
Cornish has been running the cafe on New London’s Bank Street for 18 years. That’s the same amount of time business owner Charlie Anastasiou has had his place on West Main Street in East Lyme’s coastal village.
Anastasiou on Thursday noted he already serves wings, which come in three varieties on the menu. Hot Rod’s menu features 24 flavors.
“He’s going to put more wings,” the Greek-born businessman said. “Which is OK. It’s not a bad idea.”
But he reiterated the restaurant that regulars love won’t change all that much once the sale closes July 3.
“If it’s not broke, why bother?” he said.
Anastasiou, 68, is ready to retire after a half century in the restaurant business. He recalled newspaper articles through the years that revealed local businessman Bill Cornish and then his son, Rod, as reputable men in the New London community.
“I figure, maybe if it’s a right guy to buy the restaurant, it’s Rod,” he said.
Anastasiou described his thought process like this: “What the hell I’m gonna lose if I just text him and say ‘Hey, I got a restaurant in Niantic. You wanna buy it?”
Cornish this week said he’s long envisioned owning a place in either Mystic or Niantic.
With Mystic coming in fourth on USA Today’s top summer destination rankings last month and Niantic immortalized in April by The New York Times as “clean, safe, peaceful and quiet,” he described the two locations in terms of opportunity.
“I just kind of put it out there in the universe, and I guess Charlie heard it,” Cornish said. “I went and looked at it and I fell in love with the place.”
Cornish said he didn’t realize until he got there that it was the same place he’d eaten broasted chicken as a kid. Now, postcards for sale online identify the midcentury snack bar as the Latchstring.
“I really believe that Niantic is on the upswing,” he said. He pointed to the Interstate 95 improvement project touted by state officials as transformational and recent developments on Main Street that are bringing new places to live, shop and eat on the bay.
Cornish will retain the kitchen staff that Anastasiou said are responsible for a faithful clientele in Niantic.
“Most of my employees here, they’re over 12 years. My cooks are here since I opened in January 2006,” he said. “It’s a consistency. The food is always the same. It never changes.”
Cornish credited the staff at Hot Rod’s, including 18-year chef Carlos Paucar and manager Kelsey MacCraken, with making the transition possible.
“I can really rely on them to keep that boat afloat while I focus my attention on putting my stamp on the new place,” he said.
He said the proximity of the two restaurants to his home in New London was an important factor in the decision to buy Charlie’s Place.
“My number one priority is my son and being a good dad,” he said. “I always want to be able to be close by.”
For Anastasiou, the deal represents a chance to make up for lost time.
“I want to spend a little time with my grandkids, because I didn’t spend time with my kids,” he said. “Because I was working hard to educate them.”
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