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West Hartford’s Coracora Named CT Restaurant of the Year, Café Louise Earns Top Catering Honors

CEO and chef Macarena Ludena of Coracora (left) and COO Grecia Ludena aaccept the overall Restaurant of the Year award at the CRAzies awards. Photo credit: Jeannette Dardenne

The Connecticut Restaurant Association held its 2023 awards ceremony on Dec. 4, 2023 at Foxwoods, with West Hartford well-represented among the CRAZIES winners. [Updated, Dec. 5]

Louis Albin of Cafe Louise won Caterer of the Year at the CRAzies Awards on Dec. 4, 2023. Photo credit: Isabelle Albin

By Ronni Newton

A West Hartford restaurant took home the top honors as the exceptional talents of the state’s hospitality community were celebrated Monday night at the sold-out fifth annual Connecticut Restaurant Association CRAZIES Awards Gala held at Foxwoods Resort Casino, and attended by a record 1,400 industry professionals.

Coracora was not only named Restaurant of the Year for Hartford County, but also received the coveted overall Restaurant of the Year which was chosen from among 24 nominees that were among the eight finalists from each county.

“The 5th anniversary of the CRAZIES Awards Gala was a huge success for our association, for our industry, and for the tens of thousands of Connecticut residents we employ,” Connecticut Restaurant Association President & CEO Scott Dolch said in a statement Tuesday morning. “The energy and enthusiasm of 1,400 industry professionals coming together demonstrated that Connecticut’s restaurant and hospitality industry continues to be a powerful economic engine, accounting for nearly 10% of all jobs in our state. The CRAZIES once again showcased the exceptional talents our industry has to offer, and we look forward to building on this success each and every year as we encourage everyone in hospitality to take part in this annual celebration.”

The event was described as a chance to honor the “best-of-the-best” as well as to toast “an incredible year of dining, hospitality, and food-service innovation,” CRA said in a news release. Gov. Ned Lamont was among the attendees and he offered words of support and encouragement to the industry, which struggled for several years during the pandemic.

Grecia Ludena (left) and chef Macarena Ludena of Coracora accept the Restaurant of the Year award for Hartford County at the CRAzies awards. Photo credit: Jeannette Dardenne

“I can’t really believe this is happening,” Grecia Ludena, COO and co-owner with her sister, CEO and chef Macarena Ludena, of West Hartford’s Coracora said when accepting the overall Restaurant of the Year honor.

Ludena said her mom “started the dream 12 years ago” when the Peruvian restaurant Coracora opened in a space previously occupied by a McDonald’s at 162 Shield Street in the Elmwood section of West Hartford. Her parents spoke no English, and were new to the restaurant industry, when they opened the restaurant – named for their hometown in Peru.

“They taught us everything about sharing, about who we were,” Ludena said.

Earlier this year, Coracora was also named a finalist for the James Beard Award.

Louise Albin (right) and her daughter, Isabelle Albin, accept Cafe Louise’s 2023 Caterer of the Year award. Courtesy photo

West Hartford was also represented in other categories, with Caterer of the Year honors going to Louise Albin of Café Louise, chosen from among five finalists from throughout the state.

The finalists are chosen by a committee of industry professionals, and then the public has the opportunity to choose from among the finalists. There were 25,000 online votes cast in this year’s competition, according to the CRA.

“I’ve always been blessed with exceptional staff. I have an incredible chef …,” Albin said in accepting the award Monday night. Earlier she said how excited she was to have been nominated.

“This is crazy. We are so thankful to the CRAZIES – Connecticut Restaurant Association,” Grecia Ludena said earlier in the evening when accepting the Hartford County Restaurant of the Year honors. We are so blessed and honored to be here standing tonight with the best among Connecticut,” she said, noting the they were the only Latino restaurant named a finalist.

Tony Pham and Rich Reyes of Mecha Noodle Bar – which has five locations, including one in West Hartford – were previously announced as Restaurateurs of the Year and were also honored Monday night.

It looks like a coffee cup, but this was the completely edible dessert served at the 2023 CRAzies awards. Photo credit: Isabelle Albin

In addition to Coracora in Hartford County, the County Restaurant of the Year Awards, presented by Sysco, included: Materia Ristorante in Bantam (Litchfield County); Taproot in Norwalk (Fairfield County); Strega in Milford (New Haven County); Camille’s Wood Fired Pizza in Tolland (Tolland County); The Essex in Old Saybrook (Middlesex County); Stone Row Kitchen + Bar in Willimantic (Windham County); and The Port of Call in Mystic (New London County).

Macarena Ludena was also a finalist for Chef of the Year, which was awarded to David DiStasi from Materia Ristorante in Bantam. 

Other major awards included:

  • Restaurant Newcomer – 29 Markle Ct (Bridgeport)
  • Server of the Year – Meghan Zampedri (Fair Haven Oyster Co., New Haven)
  • Bartender of the Year –  Sam Reyes (Mariposa Taqueria, Danbury)
  • Pastry Chef of the Year– Franck Iglesias (Foxwoods Resort Casino, Mashantucket)
  • People’s Choice – J. Timothy’s Taverne (Plainville)
  • Vendor of the Year – Seacoast Mushrooms (Mystic)

The CRA also inducted two restaurants into the Connecticut Hospitality Hall of Fame – Pellicci’s Ristorante in Stamford and Shady Glen Restaurant & Ice Cream Parlor in Manchester, and presented House Minority Leader Vincent Candelora with a Friend of the Industry Award.

Wilbur Cross High School was recognized Monday night as well, for their restaurant management team winning a National Championship at the National ProStart Invitational this past May.

A complete list of finalists can be found in the PDF below.

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