First things first: Ceia Kitchen + Bar in Newburyport was not a victim of the pandemic. Owner Nancy Batista-Caswell put it up for sale nearly a year ago, and was in negotiations with Reza Rahmani, owner of Bar 25 in downtown Ayer, back in January, when COVID-19 stormed in.
“I felt like Ceia had a shelf life,” Batista-Caswell says. “I opened that restaurant when I was 28 years old, and I’ve got other things now that I’m passionate and excited about as far as food goes.”
Negotiations stalled this spring, as the pandemic shuttered restaurants, and Batista-Caswell explored possibilities for turning Ceia into something new, trying out some guest chef dinners and sushi nights. Meantime, she was also shopping for a new location for Brine, her other Newburyport restaurant, which needed to move out of its cozy State Street space if it was to survive 2020, while also overseeing operations at her Boston restaurant, Oak + Rowan. It was a lot, and she felt like she needed to let something go. “I needed to shift energy,” she says. “I just didn’t know where.”
Likely a testament to the restaurant culture that Batista-Caswell helped to build in Newburyport, Rahmani returned to the negotiations over the summer. “I was shocked when Reza came back to the table and said, ‘I really still want to be a part of Newburyport, and I want to move forward with the deal,’” Batista-Caswell recalls.
According to The Daily News of Newburyport, Rahmani is still developing the menu for his spot, slated to open in January. His Ayer restaurant, Bar 25, specializes in cocktails crafted from fresh ingredients and a menu of tacos and quesadillas.
The outpouring of affection from fans since the announcement has been terrific, Batista-Caswell says. Ceia’s award-winning burger, topped with crispy prosciutto and Manchego cheese, has been selling out every night since the news became public, and people are calling, texting, emailing, and even sending flowers. While she had interest from buyers who wanted to retain the name and the concept, she felt it would be better to let someone else create a new vision for the space. Ceia means supper in Portuguese—in a nod to her roots—and the concept is personal to her.
“It’s bittersweet for me,” Batista-Caswell. “The community has allowed us to do the food we want to do, and has understood us.”
Ceia is closing, but Batista-Caswell isn’t going anywhere. For the time being, Brine will remain at its location at 25 State Street, Batista-Caswell says, while she continues to look for a bigger space. “The reality of expanding during COVID is concerning, of course, but we believe in that restaurant,” she says. She’s also putting her full support behind Rahmani, hoping to help him succeed. “I know how special it is to be part of Newburyport,” she says. “I want to be a support system for him to help him really thrive in our community.”
Want to grab one last burger? Ceia’s last dinner service will be November 25. The restaurant will also offer a five-course wine dinner ($85) on November 28, featuring a selection of Batista-Caswell’s favorite wines over the years.
38 State Street, Newburyport, 978-358-8112, ceiakitchenbar.com