CLEVELAND, Ohio – You’ll notice the first difference between The Aviator and its former occupant, the 100th Bomb Group, before you walk in the doors.
The airplanes are gone.
The mounted planes stood outside the space adjacent to Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for years. But new owners have come in and revamped the design, look and amenities of the location. It’s been rehauled and converted it into an event center, pub and restaurant.
The Aviator, at 20920 Brookpark Road, serves as one-stop shopping for weddings and other events. Photography, video, flowers, DJ, dinner, reception and drinks are all bundled under one roof. Brunch can be included, too.
The Aviator, which opened April 6, is owned by Khadar Soussou; the Rababy family, which runs United Concessions Group at airports including Cleveland Hopkins; and Tony Di Fiore. All have known each other for years.
“They spared no expense in building this place,” Soussou said of the former owners, California-based Specialty Restaurants Corp. “The bones were here. We just had to make it look pretty again. … “
The goal, he said, was to give it “a modern spin, but keep the bones of the place.”
That meant bringing in new furniture, applying fresh paint and opening up the event space. And the outdoor areas took on a renewed emphasis. The Aviator caters to weddings, corporate events, showers – all sorts of gatherings.
“We made it easy on families,” Soussou said about wedding logistics. “They are not professional planners.”
The theme, he added, is “imagination without barriers.”
“We will never, ever say no,” Soussou said.
A private lounge leads into the spacious ballroom setting called Flight. Previously it was divided into three rooms. Now it’s one large space that can accommodate as many as 350 people. The first wedding was held April 2.
A halo light with 450 Swarovski crystals hangs atop a sleek dance floor with the runway in sight through the windows.
“If someone drops something on this, no big deal,” Soussou said of the floor, which has a sheen along with a slightly soft, comfortable sponge-like feel for those doing their Electric Slide or chicken dances.
As Soussou wandered recently through the space, which was dotted with dozens of chairs and tables, he said 95% of event-rental venues in Cleveland charge an average of about $7 per chair, he said.
The space embraces its patio: Every room opens to the long brick-lined area. Curved brick firepits are positioned along the patio wall.
Outdoor access was key, said Soussou, who said he was told it is the largest patio in Cleveland. (If not, it has to be close, since it runs alongside the length of the building, parallel to the runway.)
A pergola also stands, with hanging Edison string lights coming. An outside sign offers a clever theme: “Love is in the air.” And a rooftop bar also is in the works.
“The beauty of the rooftop is it’s the after-party,” Soussou said.
In the main event space, a faux living wall provides a lively backdrop for selfies and photos, and can accommodate corporate logos as well.
One of the first changes: The owners segregated the connecting hallway between the public dining area and private ballroom with a curtain wall. Previously, guests going to a private event had to walk through the dining area.
A casual pub offers 10 to 12 seats at the bar with assorted tables. With full view of the runway, the space includes a fuselage art piece atop a fireplace and five televisions.
Small venue rooms are offshoots within The Aviator. Maria’s Place is a small space for showers and cozier gatherings while Sophia’s Room takes on a more manly vibe.
“Day of the wedding, we give this room to the guys. It gives you the vibe of the cigar shop,” Soussou said. “This one I kept fairly original.” The space had been the Churchill Room. The dark, wood-paneled walls lend a definite masculine, clubby feel.
Ninety-five percent of the décor were items leased from families to the previous owners. “It took months to track down the families,” said Soussou, who scoured Etsy and replaced many, though not all, of the pieces. One that remains in Sophia’s Room: A portrait of Winston Churchill, Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin in July 1945 from Potsdam.
Gabriella’s Room is named after Soussou’s infant daughter and holds 110 to 120 folks for ceremonies and also is popular for corporate gatherings.
In total, if every space and seat were filled, The Aviator could accommodate 1,000 people.
“It was a massive undertaking,” Soussou said. “Not many people were looking to take on a (major) project in the pandemic.”
It appears to be paying off. Like planes soaring down and up the nearby runway, bookings took off – even while the remodeling was underway. Now, the place is averaging three to five showers and a couple of weddings per weekend, plus weekday corporate events.
Executive chef Jon Standen’s domain includes an open kitchen in the restaurant, which holds 115 people. The menu focuses on “American contemporary pub” fare and features a smash burger that “took a month to perfect,” Soussou said. Brunch, a mainstay in the Bomb Group days, also is popular.
Standen is vegan but won’t shy from concocting meat dishes. The smash burger means the meat is flattened, allowing for crispy edges and juice center. Parmesan-truffle waffle fries take a light touch with truffle. A 16-ounce bone-in-ribeye is served with fingerling hash and topped with charred cilantro chimichurri.
The Aviator partnered with Jack Frost Donuts for chicken and doughnuts – “a fun play on chicken and waffles,” said Standen, who spent 10 years working with Michael Symon. Bourbon-maple and housemade sauces are drizzled lightly on the sandwich, which surprisingly is not overly sweet and offers an intriguing, tasty contrast of hot sauce and doughnuts.
Speaking of doughnuts, The Aviator’s giant Bloody Mary comes with one.
Speaking of sweets, desserts include cheesecake, cannoli and “deconstructed crème brulee.”
Soussou and Co. have definitely put their imprint on the space. The original restaurant opened in 1983, but through the clouds of the coronavirus pandemic, a clear, refreshed vision has been applied to the restaurant and event space.
“They write one check, show up and get the wedding of their dreams,” Soussou said.
Aviator Event Center and Pub to open this year, offering ‘one-stop’ wedding planning, services
New restaurant planned for site of former 100th Bomb Group
100th Bomb Group restaurant up for auction
I am on cleveland.com’s life and culture team and cover food, beer, wine and sports-related topics. If you want to see my stories, here’s a directory on cleveland.com. Bill Wills of WTAM-1100 and I talk food and drink usually at 8:20 a.m. Thursday morning. Twitter: @mbona30.
Get a jumpstart on the weekend and sign up for Cleveland.com’s weekly “In the CLE” email newsletter, your essential guide to the top things to do in Greater Cleveland. It will arrive in your inbox on Friday mornings – an exclusive to-do list, focusing on the best of the weekend fun. Restaurants, music, movies, performing arts, family fun and more. Just click here to subscribe. All cleveland.com newsletters are free.