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COVID has created a watershed moment for downtown Baltimore restaurants, with some foundering, others opening

Ricky Johnson, owner of Forno in downtown Baltimore, sits for a portrait inside his restaurant on Thursday. 07.01.21.
Ricky Johnson, owner of Forno in downtown Baltimore, sits for a portrait inside his restaurant on Thursday. 07.01.21. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Before the pandemic, guests would cram into Forno, the Italian restaurant and wine bar across the street from the Hippodrome, to catch a meal before or after a show. This summer, the 2,248 seats inside the grand Eutaw Street theater have sat empty for over a year, and so, too, have the chairs at Forno.

Last week, Forno’s owner, Ricky Johnson, learned he didn’t get a grant from the Small Business Administration’s Restaurant Revitalization Fund that would have been a lifeline. An email from the SBA informed him that fewer than one third of applicants received grants through the $28.6 billion program.

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He owes 16 months of rent and faces $750,000 in lost revenue from 2020. His location, blocks from Lexington Market, seems to attract more trouble than customers lately. On a recent visit, men shouted out an exchange of cash for pills by the entrance. Within the past two weeks, the business has seen two break-ins.

“It’s like a canoe with a hole in it,” Johnson said. “Eventually, we’re going to sink.”

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Johnson says he’s watching restaurateurs in other neighborhoods return to prepandemic levels of operation, slammed with customers and desperate for staff. But he and many other business owners in and around downtown continue to struggle.

Many say they are operating at drastically lower volumes, having lost catering and lunch orders as offices continue to allow employees to work from home. The lack of cultural offerings isn’t helping: In addition to the Hippodrome holding off on live theater until November, Royal Farms Arena has no events scheduled before September and attendance at Oriole Park at Camden Yards is down.

Edwin Thomas, who is turning the former City Cafe in Mount Vernon into a restaurant called EDR (Eat, Drink, Relax), surveys some of the finishing design touches.
Edwin Thomas, who is turning the former City Cafe in Mount Vernon into a restaurant called EDR (Eat, Drink, Relax), surveys some of the finishing design touches. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

Some restaurants have closed permanently, marking an abrupt contraction in the once-growing downtown dining scene. Losses include corner espresso shops, a decades-old neighborhood pub and splashy newer concepts like Ida B’s Table, an innovative soul food restaurant downtown named for pioneering Black journalist Ida B. Wells.

Other coronavirus pandemic departures included Chez Hugo and the Alexander Brown Restaurant, the opening of the latter following the painstaking renovation of a bank building. The opening of those two downtown restaurants, in particular, had seemed to herald a new era for Baltimore’s Gilded Age architecture, said Bill King, a former downtown resident who chairs the City Center Resident Association.

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“Both of them were the shining example of what you can do with this part of Baltimore,” he said.

King, who lived downtown for several years before moving last year to Guilford in North Baltimore, said city center residents worry about the area’s future as commercial vacancies rise.

According to a report from the Downtown Partnership, office vacancies rose more than 5% between the end of 2019 and end of 2020 — from around 18% to 23% — higher than the national average. In recent months, large employers such as Bank of America, T. Rowe Price and Transamerica announced plans to relocate from the city center.

Downtown’s residential population declined only around 1% (from 42,706 in 2019 to 42,336 in 2020). But the past year and a half has shown how much the restaurants and overall economy of Baltimore’s central business district depend on office workers, says architect Klaus Philipsen. In a March blog post entitled “Is Downtown Baltimore doomed?” he wrote the area is “in serious trouble” and will need to reinvent itself to survive. “The definition of downtown as a place where all the offices are is just obsolete,” he said.

It’s not the first time the central business district has faced a turning point. In the 1950s and 1960s, high-profile departures prompted local leaders to embark on massive urban renewal projects such as the Charles Center, which developed office space and hotels. To Klaus, the post-pandemic moment requires similarly visionary thinking. “Coming out of COVID is a time to really think big,” he said.

For some, it’s a time of opportunity.

“We’re still seeing a lot of investment interest in downtown,” said Michael Evitts, vice president of communications for the Downtown Partnership. Gov. Larry Hogan recently announced that 3,300 employees at the State Center complex in Madison Park would eventually relocate downtown, a move Evitts said will be “the single largest influx of employment” in the neighborhood’s history.

“It’s a great time to buy,” said Nick Courtalis of BCV Commercial Realty.

Among his company’s latest listings: the former Mt. Vernon Stable and Saloon, a nearly 7,500-square foot property on North Charles Street in Mount Vernon, north of downtown. It’s listed for $1.25 million, including furniture and kitchen equipment.

Nick Courtalis, a principal at BCV Commercial, is representing the Mt. Vernon Stable & Saloon, which closed due to the pandemic.
Nick Courtalis, a principal at BCV Commercial, is representing the Mt. Vernon Stable & Saloon, which closed due to the pandemic. (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

The 36-year-old Stable, a beloved neighborhood watering hole known for its quirky décor — including a sarcophagus that hung on one ceiling — closed in March 2020 and never reopened.

“COVID pushed people into early retirement,” Courtalis said of the Stable’s owners. “If the pandemic didn’t happen, it wouldn’t be available.”

Another property on the market is Ida B’s Table near City Hall. The building, which includes 235-239 Holliday Street, is listed for sale by BCV Commercial Realty for $2.75 million. The restaurant offered carryout during the pandemic before closing this year. A partner in the restaurant told The Baltimore Sun in April that the eatery had lost money for years and the pandemic had made things especially difficult.

Owners have struggled to stay open amid an ever-shifting business and dining landscape.

Since March 2020, Valanti Koliofotis has tried three different times to reopen his restaurant, Plates, on Centre Street in Mount Vernon. But with so many area employees working remotely, it never gathered enough clientele.

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For now, Koliofotis’ team is using the kitchen to prepare catering orders, which get delivered to local hospitals and to customers as far away as Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania. The popularity of his dishes tells him: “It’s not the food” that’s keeping customers away, “it’s the foot traffic.”

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Places that remain open are grappling with a drastic downturn in revenue.

David and Dad’s owner David Cangialosi said customers have recently begun returning to his deli inside a former downtown bank building on Charles Street. At the same time, the restaurant is only about half as busy as it was before the pandemic. Business catering orders have plummeted, while costs of food and labor are rising.

“Business is more expensive and we have less revenue,” he said.

Catering businesses like Koliofotis’ and ghost kitchens, which deliver food but don’t have a brick-and-mortar presence, have become an increasingly attractive prospect to restaurateurs during the pandemic. Several are operating downtown, including Sporty Dog Creations, which sells gourmet hot dogs from the former Woman’s Industrial Exchange in downtown and has plans to open a dine-in restaurant.

And there are signs of life elsewhere, with new hotels, apartments and a revamped Lexington Market slated for downtown.

“There are a lot of bright spots,” said Kristen Mitchell, executive director of the Market Center Merchants Association, a nonprofit organization that represents businesses around Lexington Market.

“That’s not to say it hasn’t been a struggle; it still is a struggle.” The city has significant work to do, she says, to make the area feel more hospitable to pedestrians.

Mitchell said she’s encouraged to see an increase in Black-owned businesses in the area, including six on a single block of Howard Street.

Inside the former City Cafe in Mid-Town Belvedere north of downtown, which closed during the pandemic, business owner Edwin Thomas, who is Black, is planning to open a restaurant called “Eat. Drink. Relax.” It will serve guests from the evening until early morning hours.

“The Baltimore nightlife scene is dying,” he said. He wants to reinvigorate it.

Ricky Johnson, owner of Forno in downtown Baltimore.
Ricky Johnson, owner of Forno in downtown Baltimore. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

Thomas, who also owns The Civil in Mount Vernon, isn’t worried about the area’s recent drop in foot traffic because he says his new concept won’t rely on the existing neighborhood for its clientele.

“I’ve had way more luck going outside of my neighborhood than I have within the neighborhood,” he said. He plans to market his brand through Facebook and his personal Instagram page, where he has over 13,000 followers. “I’m kind of popular,” he said. “People listen when I say, ‘Hey, try this out.’”

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