Michael Millan, a former partner and chef of Mary’s Gourmet Diner, is planning to open a Latin restaurant in the Mary’s building at 723 N. Trade St.

Millan and his wife, Michelle, will be the owners of the new Mojito Latin Soul Food, an expansion of the Mojito Mobile Kitchen food truck they have operated since 2017.

Millan and Mary Haglund, Mary’s founder and co-owner, announced in late May that they would permanently close Mary’s after 20 years. At the time, Haglund said she was uncomfortable with running a dining room during the COVID-19 pandemic. She also said that Mary’s menu, which relied heavily on eggs cooked to order and other breakfast dishes, wasn’t conducive to takeout, which has become essential for restaurants struggling with 50% seating capacity during Phase Two of the government-ordered pandemic restrictions.

Millan said at the time that he had mixed feelings about closing Mary’s, but respected Haglund’s wishes. “Running Mary’s had become a bit complicated, partly because we had a breakfast place (Famous Toastery) right behind us. Mary’s had done breakfast for so long and done it well, but now there’s a lot more competition downtown,” he said this week.

Mojito Latin Soul Food will be significantly different from Mary’s. Millan, a Cuban-American from Miami, said that whereas his truck served mostly Cuban food, the new restaurant will serve dishes from a variety of Latin countries.

“We will definitely have our staple items,” Millan said. “Our Cuban sandwich is staying. The Mojito bowl (with rice, beans, chicharrones and more) is staying. But we’re expanding on some things.”

The menu will include such other Cuban dishes as fried steak (Milanese style) and a Cuban version of shrimp and grits.

The restaurant also will serve dishes from Mexico, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other countries. “We’ll have ceviche. We’ll have Mexican fish tacos, and we’ll be making our own tortillas. There will be a lot of food from the Caribbean, which uses all these great spices,” Millan said.

Millan hopes to open in mid-August. He currently is redesigning the dining room. “We’ll be changing the flow of the restaurant,” he said.

Changes will include building a bar in the second dining room near the patio entrance. The restaurant will have full ABC permits. It also will have a humidor for cigars. Millan said he hopes to start a monthly cigar club that would meet on the patio.

The front dining room will get a new mural by a local Latina artist. Millan also said he plans to keep the popular Art-o-mat machine.

“The restaurant will have a kind of Miami Art Deco look,” he said.

Millan plans to keep operating his food truck in the long term. But he said that, starting in July, he will stop running the truck in the short term except for special occasions, just to give him time to focus on opening the restaurant.

The new restaurant will offer takeout and curbside service. Millan noted that many Cuban and other Latin dishes are takeout-friendly, an important consideration during the pandemic, when many people still prefer to not eat in a restaurant dining room.

“We have people come to the truck and buy food for three or four days,” Millan said. “It keeps well. It reheats well. That’s just the kind of food it is.”

He said he knows that opening a new restaurant during a pandemic carries a lot of risk, but he feels good about his decision.

“I’m optimistic about downtown and I’m thinking this too shall pass, even though I know things are going to change,” he said. “I know the risks are super high right now, but I’m OK with that. I feel like this is the right move. I hear a lot of people saying they want something like this in town.”

Photos: Mary's Gourmet Diner through the Years

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