Jeremy Merrin, founder of Havana Central, a Cuban restaurant chain with a new fourth location in Edison, hadn’t planned to run what he considers to be the “Latin Cheesecake Factory.”
However, after the entrepreneurial Manhattan businessman noticed a missing slice of the restaurant scene in 2001 – and had fell in love with a Cuban girl while he was in high school – opening a Latin restaurant with live music, a bar scene and catering seemed like the perfect opportunity.
“It’s not that I ever wanted to be involved in restaurants. I simply detected a segment of the market that hadn’t been played to,” said Merrin. “Cuba is a very rich, sexy place, and the opening in the market gave us the chance to be exclusive.”
The first Havana Central opened in Times Square in 2002 and now, 13 years later, the restaurant which aims to be a national chain has made its way to the Menlo Park Mall where Champps Americana Restaurant was formerly housed.
A grand opening cocktail party and ribbon cutting ceremony with Mayor Thomas Lankey was conducted on Wednesday, Nov. 4 after 10 months of construction and planning. The event brought in 300 attendees, including business people, association heads, chamber members, politicians and council members, to drink some of Havana Central’s famous mojitos and sangria and dine from a pig roast and paella stations.
“I can’t believe that this day is finally here,” said Carmine Marabella, manager. “It’s like a dream come true.”
According to Juan Naranjo, manager, it’s a dream come true for Edison locals, too.
“We have heard from many that they have been waiting for a place like this with Latin food and music where they can have a dance without going all the way to the city or New Brunswick,” he said.
Plus, Havana Central will have a fitting home in Edison, according to Merrin, because the Menlo Park Mall generates a lot of traffic and the area is home to many other successful restaurants, though very few that are Latin cuisine-focused at a large scale.
There also are not many other Cuban-cuisine-focused restaurants in Central Jersey. One of the only others is a longtime Somerville staple, Martino’s Cuban Restaurant. The family-run eatery is known for its large portions and a budget-priced lunch buffet.
In the long-term, Havana Central hopes to have other locations in places such as Philadelphia, Washington D.C. and southern Florida.
Edison’s Havana Central can accommodate 250 people for a sit-down meal and 350 people in the cocktail area. Plus, it utilizes a porch area that has been converted into an atrium and winterized.
“Every person that comes in feels like they are not in Edison, but they are on an island vacation,” Naranjo said. “They see this as their escape.”
The Latin restaurant is targeting Latinos in the area, as well as those who enjoy ethnic food in a vibrant atmosphere, as the eatery plays cultural music five nights a week. With its strong bar program as well as catering and events capacity, Merrin said that it is an upscale, adult atmosphere.
According to Merrin, Cubans have been responding very positively to Havana Central, which is challenging because “Cubans are tough – they all think that their mother is the best Cuban cook there is.” He said that due to the restaurant’s authenticity, many customers are Cubans, plus, when introducing new items, Havana Central presents the dishes to a panel of Cubans for their feedback.
Under executive chef Stanley Licairac, some of Havana Central’s most popular dishes are vaca frita, or crispy shredded beef sautéed until crispy and served with lime, ajicito peppers, garlic and onions as well as cilantro-flavored rice and a fried egg as well as salmon glaseado en salsa de mango, or mango-glazed Atlantic salmon grilled and topped a signature mango salsa and served on a bed of roasted vegetables.
With its authentic Cuban dishes, the eatery hasn’t gone without recognition. Havana Central has made the papers of the New York Times, New York Daily News, New York Post, Village Voice and others.
Merrin said that the quality of the food can be attributed to those who work in the restaurant, including the 110 local employees now working at the Edison location. “We do proper hiring and training and everything is done with love and it shows up in the food,” he said.