Sol Bar & Grill at 40-09 Bell Boulevard opened on June 24. Friends and curious patrons were greeted with a warm and friendly reception, and many sat down at the bar for drinks and tried some of Sol’s Latin-fusion cuisine. The Friday grand opening, which ran until 4 a.m. the next morning, was an event 16 months in the making.
It all began when Paul Rhee, Sol’s president and one of its three partners, decided to take over the site of the defunct Conga’s Bar & Lounge, which closed in 2014. Rhee immediately asked Dev Viswanath, a high school friend, to be a part of the entrepreneurial venture. Later, they brought on their friend Norman Cheng, whom they also knew from their teenage years.
“As soon as Paul said, ‘Hey I’m doing it,’ I said, ‘Yes, you’re exactly the person I wanted to work with,' and this is exactly the type of spot that I would want to be in,” Viswanath said. “I was about to have my third child, and children are exponential in terms of expense.” A lawyer by trade, Viswanath, who now lives in Hollis Hills, said that Bell Boulevard is undergoing many changes as a commercial strip. Many new, diverse options are popping up left and right, like a new Korean beer and fried chicken garden, a French-themed wine bar and a Spanish tapas bar.
Viswanath said although Sol is a Latin gastropub, the bar and grill will also be reflective of the experiences of the three partners. “We’re three Queens guys who’ve grown up all over the city and we utilize so many aspects of what we grew up in here,” he said. “I chose to live in Queens because I eat a different community’s food every day of the week.” Viswanath described the establishment as “post-ethnic” because a lot of the foods on the menu will have influences from other cultures.
For example, they’re planning to offer Korean tacos soon. “When do people of different ethnicities mix their foods? That’s Queens in so many ways,” he said. “If you’re a first, second or third generation person growing up here, that’s what you do.” In terms of the set up, the sun and moon-themed restaurant has two floors, each with a bar area. Viswanath said the downstairs area will be more easygoing and relaxed, while the upstairs, dubbed the “Luna Lounge,” will have a sleek and modern feel to it.
They plan to rent out the upstairs space occasionally for private parties, lunches, bachelor parties and other types of events. “When you walk in here you should feel at home, and we want you to feel like this is the place for me,” he said. “This is where you want to be if you want to enjoy people and interact with others and have good food.”
When Viswanath, Rhee and Cheng initially acquired the space, they thought it would take them just a few months to get a new bar up and coming. Viswanath said they wanted to paint it over, make a few renovations and have it ready by summer 2015. “We quickly realized that wasn’t going to happen,” he said. They dealt with a lot of logistical issues and adjustments along the way. They had to get all the right permits in place and apply for a liquor license. The building had to be up to code, which meant the partners had to deal with the Department of Buildings (DOB) and other city agencies. “One of the things you realize about getting a building or environment like this set up is that so many things are interconnected,” Viswanath said. “So if one thing doesn’t work, nothing works.”
But now that summer 2016 has arrived, the Hollis Hills resident said he was pumped up and excited. “At 4:30 a.m. tonight, I’ll feel like this is what it’s all about,” he said. “We’ve got loads of people that are starting to come in.” On top of all of the work they put into opening the bar, all three partners have time-consuming, steady careers. Rhee owns a medical supply business in Woodside, where he currently lives. Cheng works for a corporate courier service that does international transport. Viswanath runs his own law practice, with two offices in New York and one in Bangalore, India. Through his family he’s had some experience in the retail business. His brother owned a lounge in Astoria, which he eventually sold to a partner. Viswanath’s father and brother also bought a hotel in New Jersey with a restaurant and a bar. For both businesses, Viswanath was involved behind the scenes, dealing with contracts, licenses and with the employees.
Part of his role at Sol has been leveraging his connections and network of relationships, as well as handling the bar’s public relations, or as he put it, “making sure that when things are happening, people know.” His family’s immigrant background and entrepreneurial experience heavily influenced Viswanath’s decision to open his own bar. “People of color in particular from different ethnic groups understand that very well, it’s not good enough to be good,” he said. “Whatever status quo is, you have to be better. I think all of us have that.” Part of that drive is also understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
None of them had a background in food, so they hired a food consultant, Claudio Sottile, to help with creating the menu and training workers. “Claudio is a trained culinary chef,” Viswanath said. “He’s had a lot of input and experience in the restaurant industry.” Being better than the rest also means thinking outside the box and bringing new trends to Bayside. Sol is now selling wine on tap, which Viswanath said is something northeast Queens hasn’t seen before. “You can have great wine that comes out of a recyclable keg. It’s eco-friendly, the wine tastes great and you get a good product,” he said. “It’s teaching people to go to the next level.”
After the grand opening and initial buzz, Viswanath said he wants Sol to be a consistent place that customers frequent regularly. They’re planning to open up a backyard within the next six weeks. They’re also planning theme nights so coming to Sol will be a fresh experience, and no one will get too comfortable to the point where they stop coming.
“What I’m hoping is that they come here because they like the vibe, but they’re never bored,” Viswanath said. “I think that’s the real goal. We’re here for the long haul and hopefully that will translate to lots of success for us, but also fun and happy times for everybody who comes here.” He encouraged everyone to give Sol a shot because of their food, drinks, music and ultimately, their environment. “I think Bayside has been waiting a little while for an environment like ours,” Viswanath said. “We’re hoping that all of Queens finds that to be true.”