By Camila Vallejo
When you think of your typical family-owned restaurant, you tend to imagine a business brought complete from the ground up — name, menu, space, etc. But sometimes success isn’t a matter of creating but instead reinventing. That was the case for Vinith and Cassandra Keola, the current co-owners of 50 West in Plainville.
Running for about six years under a previous owner, the restaurant had undergone several concept changes. From fine dining to a noodle bar, 50 West had tried it all with little long-lasting success. But for the Keolas it provided a foundation and following. All it needed was their special touch.
In March of 2019, they took over and developed a menu that would cater to all palettes and pockets.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles,” Cassandra Keola says.
The Keolas describe their food as American comfort with an Asian flair. Some fan favorites include buffalo bleu wings with bacon crumble ($11- $20), drunken noodles with pappardelle pasta ($14) and sauteed clams in a wine sauce with chorizo ($14) — just to name a few. The menu also offers other classics like burgers, salads, flatbreads and, of course, crafted cocktails.
Vinith is the mastermind behind the menu with over 20 years of experience in the industry.
Prior to 50 West, he owned a catering business and a restaurant in West Hartford which he conceptualized on his own. The West Hartford locale eventually closed because he says he went “too big too fast,” an experience he now keeps in mind when making business decisions.
Today, his focus is not so much on the big picture, but instead on the little things that contribute to a great restaurant, Vinith says, like ingredients, flavor and customer satisfaction. He shops locally for produce two to three times a week and 90% of the food is made from scratch.
“My food is my art and my pan is my canvas. I love taking a simple dish, deconstructing it, and making it into something I would eat myself,” Vinith adds.
While Cassandra works a full-time job at UConn Health, she can attest to Vinith’s passion by just the looks of the kitchen on a daily basis. She says the amount of fresh vegetables and spices makes it seem like Vinith goes foraging in the backyard.
“We offer high-end dishes, but without the high-end prices. We just want full bellies and full smiles.”
“There are so many different spices in the world that people don't know about. We like to highlight them in our dishes. America is so used to starches and salty food that people are often forgetting about pungent, bitter, savory and spicy flavors. When you take a bite, you should taste one part and in the other bite, another.”
Good food and hospitality are in their blood, says the husband-and-wife duo. Vinith migrated to the U.S. from Laos in 1980 with his family. While his parents worked, Vinith took care of his older brother and learned his way around the kitchen. He may not have a formal culinary education, but he knows cooking is all about trial and error.
Cassandra’s mother is Scottish and Native American and her father is Barbadian. She says the mix provided her an appreciation for different cultures and, more importantly, cuisines.
Vinith uses their different cultures as inspiration for his dishes. One example is 50 West’s Cubanh Mi — a fusion between a Cubano and Bahn Mi sandwich with grilled marinated pork, Asian slaw and spicy aioli.
While creative dishes are at the center of 50 West, the Keolas pride themselves on customer service above all else.
“You can go to a restaurant every Friday and order the same thing. But, it's different when you're greeted by warm and welcoming staff. You might enjoy your food more, eat a little slower and taste things a little differently, ” Cassandra says. “We create an environment where customers feel like they’re eating with friends whether they’re dining alone or with others.”
Like many others, the COVID pandemic has not been easy for the Keolas. The state-wide shut down and restrictions came at a time where 50 West was just getting started. Nonetheless, the Keolas have been able to attract a regular customer base by providing authentic dishes in a warm and friendly environment. They and their staff of nine hope to see the end of this pandemic soon. And in the meantime, they’ll work towards the future.
“We’d like to see another location one day,” Vinith says. “There are so many things you can do with food and to stick to one location or kind of food it’s just limiting the creativity.”
50 West offers indoor and outdoor seating and catering is now available for family-style packages and special events. COVID hours are Wednesday to Saturday 4:00pm to 9:00pm and happy hour specials are from 4:00pm to 6:30pm.
Find 50 West online at 50westrestaurant.com, on Facebook and on Instagram. 50 West is located at 50 West Main Street, Plainville, Connecticut.
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Photos courtesy of Joy Monroe
By Alicia Brown
Joy Monroe began creating art at the young age of four. She originally pursued a creative career in elegant cuisine as a chef, eventually joining up with a group of artists in 2011 called Connecticut Arts Initiative, where many more of her creative visions were birthed.
In the years that followed, Monroe’s focus on her art became more prominent. She was offered a position as a dancer, where she learned about production work and was introduced to the art of body painting. It was then that she knew she wanted to be involved with big productions by painting and creating something new—creativity was ignited inside of her.
Monroe has since participated in the International Body Art Competition, one of her favorite events.
“What we go through, it’s life. We are the art. We are what we envision.
“Nobody is judging each other, and everyone feels good about their bodies,” she shared. “It’s a room full of artists making art and it’s all about storytelling—I’m a storyteller, period. I love to tell a story through my art. I want people to understand what life is all about.”
Using art as an avenue for storytelling is magical, and Monroe hopes her art helps people paint vivid pictures in their minds, to be inspired by life.
“What we go through, it’s life,” she explained. “We are the art. We are what we envision. Creation is being creative.”
Monroe’s dreams of growing her art career became realized when she was able to purchase her own space. Her business, Joy of Life Creations, was born and is located at 3580 Main Street, Building 11 in Hartford, Connecticut.
And, her dreams continue to grow. Monroe wants to help other artists pursue their dreams by offering studio rental space. She’s working toward this goal by sharing her expertise in body art with local students and providing internship opportunities.
Monroe also focuses on promoting body positivity through her art, giving back to her community by painting murals to support the arts and movements like Black Lives Matter, and holding summer art camps for kids. This past summer, she and students from area schools beautified Bushnell Park by painting trash cans so passers by had something nice to view as they strolled through the park.
She’s also been working hard to put together a calendar to showcase all of her artistic bodywork from the past year.
With everything she does, Monroe wants to challenge people to see the world in a unique way.
“You might see a bottle cap and say, oh wait, I can turn this into an earring,” she shared. “Art is about putting it out there so someone can see something different.”
For Monroe, she simply wants everyone to see the joy in life.
Follow Joy of Life Creations on Facebook or visit her at her studio. She’ll be sure to inspire you with her passion, creativity and innovation with everything she does.
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