By MARYELLEN FILLO, email@example.com
The Hartford Courant
February 20, 2014
It was about 15 years ago when then Reader's Feast owner Louis Lista heard about a culinary opportunity he could not resist, one wrapped in rose gardens and park charm.
This year, Lista is celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Pond House Café in Elizabeth Park, one of the city's most popular dining venues.
It was 1999 when Lista was chosen by the city of Hartford to establish a year-round restaurant in the dilapidated pond house. With tenacity and a kind heart and a business ethic above reproach, Lista went to work to bring fine dining with a relaxed twist to the landmark park.
"I saw it as an opportunity to do more," said Lista. "I was intrigued that it had the banquet space and really didn't know much about that but saw it as a way to learn."
Besides a cozy and comfortable dining room, the main portion of the building is dedicated to small weddings, banquets and a slew of non-profit events that the altruistic Lista promotes.
The Pond House was built in 1959, but had fallen on hard times. The building once housed a snack bar that served hot dogs and other light fare, but closed in the early1990s.
The building was renovated thanks to $700,000 in state grants, the Ethel Donaghue Trust and the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. The kitchen was modernized, a new air-conditioning system was installed and the building was made accessible to people with disabilities.
"I had never had any formal training but I started working at a restaurant when I was 16," Lista said. "I was hooked on the organized chaos of the kitchen. In college, I studied government for as a major but still loved cooking so much. I opened Reader's Feast in 1989 and never looked back when it came to my profession. And along the way I learned form a lot of people."
An eclectic menu, including gluten-free choices, is offered at lunch and dinner. There are the famed Nachos in the Park: house-fried blue corn tortilla chips with three cheeses, vegetarian chili, sour cream, pico and guacamole; and the kale Caesar salad with housemade dressing. Duck breast and waffles, grilled five spice pork tenderloin and seafood jambalaya are testimony to Lista's fresh-food culinary roots and the creativity he and his chefs have fine-tuned in the kitchen. Salads, burgers and desserts are not run of the mill but something special at the restaurant that is often referred to as the oasis in the park. The café is famed for its Wednesday-evening brunches, its traditional Saturday and Sunday brunches and the seasonal al fresco dining that will be expanded this year.
"We work hard to stay current, relevant and offer a menu that is fresh and appealing to people," said Lista. "I am proud of this restaurant."
It has not been without challenges outside of the kitchen.
Shortly after Lista took over the restaurant, some neighbors of the park that sits on the Hartford and West Hartford line started a bit of a firestorm concerned the year-round restaurant was causing more traffic and commotion in the neighborhood. Officials eventually worked it out and since then, the restaurant, the park and the neighbors have found peaceful co-existence.
Over the years Lista and the Pond House Café have become benefactors of many nonprofits, offering reduced price menus that make it easier for nonprofits to raise money at events there. Lista is proud of the number of non-profits his restaurant has helped and is continuing that assistance during the anniversary year with special promotions and events designed to benefit the organizations that have held their events there over the years.
Other special anniversary events include the $16.55 fixed price Tasty Tuesday dinners, marking food trends from each of the years in the Pond house Café history.
As to the future, Listo sees more of the same, tweaking things here and there, adding tables and patio space where the building allows, and continuing to be a vibrant part of the city and of the landmark park where café has become a fixture.
>>The Pond House Cafe is at 1555 Asylum Ave., West Hartford. Lunch is served Tuesday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; dinner is served 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday brunch is served from 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Information: 860-231-8823 or pondhousecafe.com.
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