Given the discussions in comments here and elsewhere over the eponymous theme underlying American Tobacco's newest addition, the Providence, R.I.-based Cuban Revolution, you can tell this is not your typical restaurant.
Then again, Ed Morabito is not your typical restaurateur.
He's not a foodie by nature, bucking the trend in Durham where master chefs who've cut their teeth working at renowned establishments become both kitchen master and owner themselves.
Morabito, instead, brings a much more unusual (and political) background to Cuban Revolution, which opens today at 11 at the sight of the old Symposium Cafe at ATC.
A onetime Republican -- Morabito served in the White House under Pres. Reagan, as spokesman for southwest Florida Congressman Andy Ireland, and as chief of staff for Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Almond, among other roles -- he became an independent earier this decade, after becoming infuriated over 9/11 and the Iraq War, and was a candidate for Congress in the 2004 election.
The owner notes that he was in the NYC subway en route to a meeting in WTC Tower One on Sept. 11, 2001 -- and was two subway stops away when the building was hit. It was clearly a seminal event to the political consultant and insider; coupled with the passage of the Patriot Act and other malaprops under the Bush administration, Morabito turned to an independent affiliation and an iconoclastic, if quixotic, campaign for the House of Representatives, as noted in this Providence Journal feature from '04.
And with his wife, he turned to the restaurant business to boot. It's a business in which Morabito said he was advised not to try to mix politics in with food. But "lo and behold, the more we do, the more successful we are," Morabito told BCR.
In an interview conducted amidst the hustle-bustle of a restaurant mere hours away from its pre-opening sneak preview -- an event that drew hundreds of guests to sample mojitos and Cuban sandwiches from the eatery occupying the space that Symposium Cafe left in December -- Morabito noted that politics and food mixed well in Williamsburg, Boston, and other revolutionary cities and 'burbs during America's founding.
And Morabito and his wife Mary are equal-opportunity "revolutionaries," with murals and artwork depicting not just Fidel Castro and Che Guevera, but political and cultural revolutionaries ranging from Malcolm X to JFK to Marilyn Monroe.
"Twenty years ago, would [a Malcolm X mural] have raised some eyebrows in Durham? Probably," Morabito said.
"We do honor that revolutionary fervor," he added. "And maybe we need some of that in the United States."
To Morabito, the fusion of politics and food seems to be as much about experience as polemics, about creating an environment where people can debate and discuss and feel engaged in something bigger than themselves -- something that is a good analogy for Cuban Revolution's design as a loud, engaged place for socializing and conversation in an active and boisterous setting.
Given Morabito's political connections in Rhode Island, and the presence of Providence-based PFM Inc. as the operator of the new Durham Performing Arts Center, the Durham-R.I. connection seems obvious.
(PFM president Lynn Singleton, in his days starting up Providence's art center, navigated the realm of infamous Providence mayor Buddy Cianci -- meaning he, like Morabito, clearly was used to swimming in the Ocean State's sometimes warm, sometimes chilly political waters.)
Morabito didn't expressly deny that connection, though noting only that it was a broad set of connections and pieces in place that led him to open this restaurant, his third and first outside his New England base, in the heart of the Bull City.
He noted particularly the work of the Goodmons and Capitol Broadcasting in putting together American Tobacco. "This is really, truly, one of the stellar developments anywhere on the East Coast, in terms of the critical mass they brought here."
But Morabito added that without the renaissance of downtown Durham, and the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, and Duke -- and, yes, the DPAC -- there'd be no Cuban Revolution opening in our town.
"Durham is an eclectic mix of all kinds of people, and I think we fit that very well," Morabito said, noting that Cuban Revolution in Providence draws a crowd that ranges from theatergoers to seniors to familes and young professionals.
The food itself is described as "Cuban fusion," ranging from light fare like pressed Cuban sandwiches and wraps to heartier entrees including pork and chicken platters -- all joined by a full bar featuring tropical-themed adult beverages and a broad selection of beers.
Unusually, the restaurant will feature its full menu throughout the day and into the night, with the late-night experience described as a key part of Cuban Revolution's plans. The restaurant will open nightly at 11am, staying open until midnight Sundays-Thursdays, and until 2am on Friday and Saturday. Morabito noted that the late-night hours would be "trial and error" as the restaurant feels its way in the local market.
Physically, Cuban Revolution is nicely redesigned since its Symposium days. The entrance has been moved southward; whereas the 'Pose's front door spilled in almost accidentally into the center of the restaurant, the two entrances (exterior and interior) are placed purposely near the bar close to the water tower, leaving a larger open area for dining.
The kitchen is more open and exposed to the rest of the space, while the bar itself features copper and steel accents. The upstairs conference-room is open dining, though still available for private events.
And fourteen TVs on the ceiling will show, well, documentaries of the Cuban revolution -- there's that political theme again.
Morabito noted that he'd already had conversations with several members of Durham's Latino community, expressing concerns from some Cuban-Americans over the theming.
The longtime pol noted that he didn't expect to necessarily bring everyone to his perspective, but felt encouraged that he engaged in some long conversations with those community members over the theming -- and talking to Morabito, you quickly get the sense it's that dialogue he believes in. Isn't that the way, after all, we should solve problems, through conversation and debate?
Tuesday night's grand opening -- well-joined by twenty or so BCR readers and their guests -- was full of conversation, perhaps less political than simply conversational. Several City Council members were present, as were fellow developers (including Scientific's Tucker Bartlett and Greenfire's Carl Webb), Durham P.D. Lopez (rockin' the casual clothes as opposed to his uniform), and local business leaders, among others.
The fourteen ceiling-mounted TVs were still showing ESPN, and the soda fountain was under construction... but a projector played a documentary of revolution above the south wall of the restaurant.
Just in case you might be curious.
Cuban Revolution at ATC opens its doors for lunch today at 11am.