West Street's Crate Cafe may be closing its doors


Despite this year's upswing in business on West Street, the Crate Cafe is likely to shut down soon.

For two weeks, a handwritten note has hung on the door, telling customers the restaurant is closed for vacation.

The dozen-year-old Annapolis cafe, the longtime gathering spot for the Friday Morning Democratic Breakfast Club, has been operating under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection since March. George Z. Petros, the Crate's attorney, said the restaurant at 49 West St. probably won't reopen.

The owners, John and Gail Chwan, have been trying to restructure their business debts or sell the 75-seat cafe. The Chwans are the third set of owners to run the Crate.

"It's been a learning experience," said Mr. Chwan, 47, who kept the books while his wife oversaw the day-to-day operations. "We had a difficult time attracting people on the evenings and the weekends."

The Chwans, who had never run a restaurant before, said they decided to buy the Crate in 1990 because they thought it would be a good investment that would help pay for their children's college and for their retirement.

The decline of business on West Street, the increase in parking fees and high rents made it hard to turn a profit, they said. Two weeks ago, Mrs. Chwan told her 15 employees and a few customers of the bankruptcy.

"It's very hard to put your heart into something and know you're going into a slow death," said Mrs. Chwan, 43. "I was there from 7 a.m. to whenever."

At least one of the Democratic club's founding members was wistful about the cafe's passing.

"The back room was packed frequently -- very diverse people, liberals and even some Republicans. We discussed not only politics, but government. There wasn't an issue we didn't talk about it," said county Circuit Judge Warren B. Duckett Jr.

Friday, the club, which had met at the cafe for eight years, moved to Buddy's Crabs and Ribs at 100 Main St.

West Street was a thriving residential and business community until developers and city officials turned their attention to Main Street and the shopping centers outside Annapolis. In 1989, the city launched a campaign to revitalize the stretch of West Street between Church Circle and Spa Road. New office buildings went up, and new shops opened. But the recession, parking problems and high rents hampered a recovery until last year.

The Ram's Head Tavern at 33 West St. opened another bar and seating area last December and plans to start building a microbrewery this December. The brewery should be finished by spring, said Dan Goodman, a bartender.

Several new shops, including a restaurant, a delicatessen and a food market, also have opened.

"We think West Street is on the upswing," said Reid Howe, co-owner of Caliente!, a Southwestern-style grill that opened Friday at 50 West St. "I think the whole area is seeing more foot traffic."

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