For decades, the well-heeled and hungry went to the Chesapeake Restaurant at the corner of Charles and Lanvale streets for formally served dinners of charcoal-broiled steaks, unabashedly rich seafood dishes like jumbo crab lumps au gratin and a decadent dessert named the coconut snowball.
Nearly 25 years after the doors closed on one of Baltimore's most cherished spots, they're back open now, with a new set of owners hoping Baltimore warms to its 21st-century update, which they're calling The Chesapeake.
For many, the new restaurant symbolizes not only the potential of an emerging arts district but the prize in what had evolved, over the years, into a grueling contest to reopen the long-vacant property to the public.
"I think it was a problem from a visual standpoint," said Mike Molla, board chairman of the Station North Arts and Entertainment District. "As you're coming over the [Charles Street] bridge, either as a resident of the city, a commuter or someone who wants to explore, the empty storefront of the property suggests that this is not a place to go."
Restaurateurs, meanwhile, welcomed an opportunity for the neighborhood to attract more diners.
"There's strength in numbers," said Ann Costlow, whose Sofi's Crepes is an established presence on the other side of the Charles movie theater. "The more people you get in the neighborhood, the better for business."
The Chesapeake flourished from the 1930s until the mid-1970s, but in its declining years was twice shuttered, twice foreclosed on and twice auctioned, eventually landing in the hands of a lawyer, Robert A. Sapero, who purchased the property in 1986 at auction for $341,000. After a brief attempt at a revival, he gave up and shut the doors in 1989.
And he kept them shut.
Long frustrated in its attempts to have Sapero either sell or re-open the Chesapeake, and having failed to acquire the property in 2005, the city finally purchased it from him, for $2.5 million, through the Baltimore Development Corp., in 2008, along with adjacent lots on Lanvale Street
In 2010 the BDC re-sold the property, for $2.5 million, to Michael Shecter and Ernst Valery of Station North Development Partners LLC, which had also been the city's preferred developer for its attempted 2005 acquisition of the property.
Under the deal approved by the Board of Estimates, the development team paid $500,000 up front and is to submit 5 percent of gross receipts to the city until an additional $1 million has been paid. The developers will then pay 2.5 percent of gross receipts to the city until the full $2.5 million has been paid. The terms of the sale mandated that the restaurant open before the developers could begin construction of mixed-use buildings — residences, shops and offices — on the adjacent lots.
"It is great to see a restaurant come back in a prominent space that has been vacant since at least the first Bush Administration," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "This is also a very exciting and positive development for the Station North community which has become a thriving center of arts, culture, film, and unique cuisine."
The developers originally announced Qayum Karzai, owner of The Helmand restaurant, as a partner in the planned restaurant, but Karzai, who also owns Tapas Teatro, the restaurant adjacent to the Chesapeake property, pulled out of the partnership within months of the purchase.
The search for a new restaurant operator eventually arrived at Valery, one of the principals in Station North Development Partners.
Valery's restaurant partners include his wife, Dana, and Mauro Daigle and Annie Baum-Stein, a husband-and-wife team of Philadelphia-based cafe owners. The two couples are also partners in the Milk & Honey Market, a cafe in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood.
The old Chesapeake was a dining institution, but the new proprietors said they have no intention of creating a facsimile version. For starters, according to Daigle, The Chesapeake will now be less expensive.
The opening menu is a trim mix of contemporary bistro fare with a few nods to the old days. Look for oyster-in-the-half shell and, yes, the coconut snowball. Weekly promotional specials include prime rib dinners on Friday and Saturday and Throwback Thursday, featuring original Chesapeake menu items and cocktails.
"We're paying homage to the Chesapeake," Daigle said. "We researched the history of the Chesapeake. And we tried to select elements that were the most sensible to bring forward."
Daigle said the interior look he was going for was "approachable, comfortable but still elegant." Instead of mimicking the old Chesapeake's clubhouse atmosphere, with its wood paneling and crimson booths, the new operators have a more neutral cosmopolitan space, with a reserved palette and simple design elements.
But he wasn't yet fully satisfied with the results. "When you do come in you will see a little too much naked space," said Daigle, who plans to continue to put finishing touches on the venue.
"The challenge as a restaurant owner was how do you create an environment where it's comfortable to buy a hamburger or $30 entree and a $50 bottle of wine," he said. "We don't want to beat anyone over the head with history. It's not a seafood restaurant, it's not a nautical restaurant. It's a Baltimore restaurant."
Daigle said his team was also challenged by restrictions imposed by the site's historic status.
Some people may be expecting a return to the old Chesapeake, but its former owner isn't one of them.
"There's no way it could be the same," said Philip Friedman, whose father founded the restaurant in 1933 and whose family operated the Chesapeake until 1986. "If they attempted to be the same it would be a failure."
Friedman, 88, who lives in Pompano Beach, Fla., said the old Chesapeake had vanished even before the restaurant closed, for good, in the late 1980s. "Its heyday was in the 1960s and 1970s," he said, adding that the restaurant was never the same after a 1974 Preakness-eve fire that cut its seating capacity in half.
Business owners with established presences on the same block as the new restaurant said they were pleased to see the corner location open for business.
One of Maryland's 20 officially designated arts areas — and thus eligible for certain tax incentives — the Station North Arts and Entertainment District covers a midtown section of Baltimore stretching from Penn Station to North Avenue and bounded by Howard Street and Greenmount Avenue. The blocks of Charles Street between Lanvale Street and North Avenue remain the district's center of activity, with long-established residents like Club Charles and the Charles Theater and relative newcomers like the Metro Gallery and the Bohemian Cafe.
Molla envisions The Chesapeake as "the front door for some of the most exciting emerging artists and musicians anywhere."
Helmand Karzai, 33, who runs his father's Tapas Teatro restaurant, is too young to remember the golden age of the Chesapeake, but his customers do. "I always hear guests say, 'Oh, that's the place where I had my first martini,'" he said, "or 'That's the place where I had my first lobster.'"
Costlow sees The Chesapeake as another part of an already-vibrant mix that will survive even if the new restaurant doesn't succeed.
From Florida, Friedman was sending best wishes to the new owners, who he was happy kept the old Chesapeake name.
"I'm very pleased that people after all these years still remember the Chesapeake," he said. "It's very gratifying to me and to the family."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun