Ten years ago, Annapolis was known largely as a place to sail, a place to stroll and, occasionally, a place to eat.
But to look at Main Street now, lined with Indian, Japanese, Chinese and continental restaurants, packed with tourists staring at lengthy menus, all that has changed. Annapolis has become known as a great place to eat.
Once a town of bar food, residents and restaurants owners say, Annapolis has become a town of cuisine. A lot of cuisine.
"Downtown restaurants are thriving right now," said Robert Youngblood, executive director of the Annapolis Chamber of Commerce, "and there appears to be enough business to go around."
The race to open restaurants began in the late 1980s, but unlike in many cities that experience occasional restaurant booms, the quality of food, service and aesthetics in Annapolis restaurants has remained high, at least partly because of high rents, historic district regulations and increased competition.
Within the city limits are more than 30 restaurants, more than half of which didn't exist 10 years ago, local officials say.
The emergence of so many restaurants was a cause of concern in 1993, when many residents called for a moratorium on new restaurants. The city council voted instead to ban future bars, which seemed to quell fears that the area would become the next Georgetown, losing much of its character.
"We would hate to see all of Main Street be restaurants," said Ann Fligsten, president of the Historic Annapolis Foundation. "You can have too many. I would hope the market would limit the number."
Instead, the market is supporting an increase. Analysts suspect growing tourism in Annapolis has kept many places alive, even places that might have disappeared in other cities amid the intense competition.
"Visitors have certainly proved their worth here," said Peggy Wall, president of the Annapolis & Anne Arundel County Conference & Visitors Bureau. "One of the reasons they come to Annapolis is because they know they can always get a good meal."
More than 3 million visitors trek through town each year, twice as many as 10 years ago. The tourists attract the restaurants, which attract the locals, who now no longer wander outside the city to dine, city officials said.
"As soon as a restaurant closes, another one snaps the place up and starts a new one," said Dirk Geratz, a city urban designer.
Locals are wandering outside the historic district, however, which has helped improve the outlying areas. Sam's Waterfront Cafe, which is on the water farther south, has seen a boom in local business ever since the dozens of restaurants opened downtown.
So has Mangia, on Compromise Street near City Dock, which opened in May. Mangia owner Priola Pietro has lived in Annapolis since 1974, and also owns Maria's on Market Space. For a new restaurant, Mangia was surprisingly packed with tourists in the summer, Pietro said. And he was surprised to see the number of locals already regularly patronizing his restaurant.
"There's enough business here for everyone," Pietro said. "Maria's has grown. Mangia has grown. Over the last five years or so, the area has blossomed."
"This used to be an old, frumpy liquor store," said Mangia waiter Mark Thompson. "It didn't meet the new Annapolis mind-set."
That mind-set is one that comes with a number of restrictions for new restaurateurs. Everything is subject to strict architecture and usage guidelines, as the owners of the McDonald's in the first block of West St. found out. After a heated battle, the fast-food chain was allowed to open this year but only after toning down its exterior design and color scheme significantly.
So much so that first-time visitors Jean and John McLean of Pittsburgh didn't even notice it.
"This place is just wonderful," Jean McLean said. "There's nothing obtrusive about any of [the restaurants] at all. In a resort town near the shore, you can't ever have too many restaurants -- well, good ones anyway."
Pub Date: 9/11/97