Bay chef eyes BMA Restaurant: John Shields, champion of Chesapeake regional cooking, is expected to take over space as Donna's downsizes.


A Chesapeake Bay phenomenon will be replacing a Baltimore icon at the Baltimore Museum of Art this summer, if a pending deal is approved by the BMA trustees' executive committee this evening.

John Shields, cookbook author, TV cook show host and champion of Chesapeake Bay cuisine, plans to open a restaurant later this year in the space occupied since 1994 by Donna's at the BMA. Shields, a Baltimore native, has written three cookbooks, and his new show, "Chesapeake Bay Cooking with John Shields," is airing on Maryland Public Television.

Shields called the proposed restaurant deal "very exciting." After two years of looking for a site, he said that as soon as he saw the BMA space, "I knew this was it."

BMA spokesman Alison Cahen said the museum considers the plan with Shields "a real coup." "John could have gone anywhere," she said. "We're delighted that he's selected the BMA for his first restaurant in Baltimore."

The space at the BMA was one of two full-service restaurants in the growing local empire that is Donna's, run by partners Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch. Last week, the partners sold the Ruby Lounge, next door to the original Donna's Coffee Bar, at 800 N. Charles St.

Hirsch called the decision to sell the Ruby Lounge and the plan to leave the BMA "business discipline."

In a memo to company employees informing them of the BMA plan, Hirsch and Crivello said that although "it is very sad for us" to leave the museum, they felt that it was too difficult to deal with two different kinds of businesses.

"We didn't realize that the full-service restaurant business was so different from the coffee-bar business," Hirsch said yesterday.

They found it difficult to concentrate on either of the restaurants properly, he said, and so the decision was made to focus on the cafes.

"It's an easy business decision to make," Crivello said, "but it's a hard decision to make when your name is on it."

Crivello and Hirsch recently opened a Donna's cafe at 31st Street and St. Paul, and they plan to open a new coffee bar on the second level of the Gallery at Harborplace in July.

That will make eight cafes and four kiosks around the area. They're also opening a cafe in Canton and have plans for a site in the White Marsh area.

"We have a lot of opportunity to expand," Hirsch said.

Crivello said she wants to get back to cooking and developing recipes for the cafes. She plans to expand the dinner menus, with dishes such as grilled duck breast to accompany the pastas and salads currently available. And she said, "I really want to get back to writing a cookbook of recipes from the cafes."

Cahen of the BMA said the museum's relations with Donna's had been good, but they understood the desire to concentrate on another type of business.

"We're very pleased at how things have worked out," she said.

The museum expects Shields' restaurant to be a destination eating spot for Baltimoreans, museum-goers and tourists.

If the deal, set for a vote at the executive committee meeting tonight, is approved, the 3,500-square-foot space at the southeast corner of the museum (which includes a terrace for al fresco dining) will be leased to Shields and his partners, John Gilligan and Dave and Marla Oros. Donna's lease runs through July, so Shields would not be taking over until August.

Shields plans to serve food that is traditionally associated with the Chesapeake area -- "not just the bay, but the region" -- but in a style that is up-to-date. He wants to develop a network of growers who will provide fresh, seasonal foods for an ever-changing seasonal menu.

Shields and his partners plan extensive renovation for the space, currently noted for its sleek post-modern style. They expect to expand the bar area, and to add a raw bar.

"We're going to use a lot of fabrics and rich colors" in the space, said Gilligan, "with subtle references to Chesapeake Bay," such as canvas sail shapes in the raw bar area.

Shields has hired Nick Burns, formerly of the Brass Elephant, as general manager, and is interviewing chefs. The 110-seat restaurant (there are 60 more seats outside) will employ about 40 people, Shields said.

Besides spending a couple of years looking for a site for his restaurant, Shields has been wrestling over the name. His former Chesapeake cuisine restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., was called Gertie's, after his grandmother. But this one seems to require a little more formality.

So, if all goes according to plan, sometime after Labor Day expect to find Shields at home in the kitchen of John Shields at the BMA.

Pub Date: 5/12/98

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