Cafe Otis across from Norwich City Hall to open Monday

AUTHOR: Claire Bessette  - Day staff writer

“Norwich — With marble square, round and rectangular tables, elegant metal chairs, couches in corner cubbyholes, antique paintings and giant mirrors on the walls, Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes barely recognized her agency’s former home.

But starting Monday, she plans to hold meetings with colleagues, representatives from other agencies and lunches with her staff in the place they used to occupy. The Norwich Sunrise Rotary will meet there for breakfast, too.

The transformation of the former Human Services building, and the original home of Otis Library is complete. Café Otis, a Mediterranean fare “fast casual” dining spot for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a bar serving local brews and wines, will open at 7 a.m. Monday.

“I’m thrilled!” Gomes said Friday. “I was so sad to leave my building, and I’m so thrilled to see what they’ve done to it.”

The city moved Human Services to City Hall in spring of 2017 in a cost-cutting, revenue generating move. The City Council approved selling the building and rear parking lot to restaurant developers the LeWitt Group, headed by Sofia LeWitt and Asaf Cohen for $131,300 in February 2018. The group at first planned a food vendor market in the building, with various food vendors sharing a kitchen and a common dining area.

But LeWitt said the layout and kitchen placement at the rear of the first floor turned out ill-suited for the plan, so a more traditional café was created. LeWitt purchased the antique wall hangings at auctions and brought some items from her own collection.

Café owner Nancy Isa, a Norwich native and 1997 Norwich Free Academy graduate, was putting the finishing touches on the café with her staff of 10 employees on Friday. White paper was removed from the tall narrow windows, and cooks readied the menu and gave the counters and kitchen equipment final wipe-downs and tests. Isa is excitedly awaiting the time when she will turn the “Closed” sign around at the front door that directly faces City Hall.

Isa graduated from Cornell Hotel School and worked for Four Seasons hotels in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C. before returning to school to earn her master’s degree in nutrition at New York University. She worked at a catering service in New York before pursuing her dream of opening her own restaurant.

She chose the Mediterranean heritage of her father, Salim Isa, a Beirut, Lebanon native, and returned to her hometown of Norwich, where her mother, Ann Cook Isa, and her 100-year-old grandmother, Elizabeth Cook, grew up on Cedar Street.

Isa said the restaurant will feature fresh local produce in season and dairy products from local farms and producers, including Elm Dairy, Mystic Cheese, Wildowsky Dairy and Mountain Dairy. Behind the center stairway in a former office space with the door and wall removed is the Nine Mile Market, featuring local crafts and foods, including honey, pottery, soap, and even Café Otis apparel made at a Waterbury shop.

“It’s really important to tie in with the community,” Isa said. “We are using as many local farms as possible in season.”

She wants Café Otis to be considered “a third place, between home and work” where people feel comfortable.

“I’m very proud of Nancy,” LeWitt said, “and for what the café will do for Norwich. We’re really proud of how it came out.”

The cafe restaurant will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. and the bar open until midnight seven days a week.

Across the street, Norwich city officials — some of whom got early peeks — are anxious to stop in for morning coffee and breakfast, lunch or after-work winding down. Isa was unaware and pleased that her opening day Monday will coincide with a City Council meeting at 7 that night. She hopes those who voted in favor of LeWitt’s purchase of the building 13 months ago will stop in to see the results.

City Planner Deanna Rhodes echoed the restaurant owner’s enthusiasm Friday.

“It’s just going to be such an added benefit to the city,” Rhodes said. “It’s just so exciting. It shows the city can collaborate with developers to sell buildings and they can become assets to the community.””

Nancy Isa