Cacao Lane restaurant was born on Ellicott City's historic Main Street two years after the flooded wreckage of Tropical Storm Agnes was cleared away in 1972 -- and it has survived and prospered along with Lori and Allen Parsons, who bought it in 1977.
Occupying three adjoining stone houses that date to 1834, the restaurant is marked by its maroon front awning and bare, 2-foot-thick granite walls and brick floors. The Parsons kept the restaurant's name but "don't have a clue" about its origin, Lori Parsons said.
The main entrance is through the middle house, where the bar is located. Those heading for the nonsmoker dining room must pass the bar, where smoking is permitted, and behind it through a side wall and across an air shaft between two of the houses. In the front of the dining room, two tables are set on small, raised platforms in what were once store windows facing Main Street. Combining three quirky old stone buildings -- set against a steep hillside -- into one modern restaurant makes for lots of twists and turns, ups and downs. Even finding the restroom can be an adventure, and the wait staff gets a real workout.
"They don't have to sign up for any aerobic exercises," Lori Parsons said.
In the early years, the Parsons lived above their restaurant in one of three top-floor apartments, she said, until after the first of their three sons was born.
Over the years, they have expanded, purchasing the third building about 10 years ago. They've also built outdoor decks on the steep hillside behind the buildings, opened a second-floor room for live entertainment and started another restaurant in the early 1980s -- Sidestreets -- across the street in cobblestoned Tiber Alley. They later sold that business to their Sidestreets managers, but retained ownership of the building -- as they did with another restaurant called Russell's, which they founded in Catonsville in 1983, Lori Parsons said.
Now, with their three sons -- Russ, 18, Matt, 16, and Daniel, 12 -- old enough to work part time and learn the business, they're concentrating on keeping a good thing going. Daniel's still a bit young, but he helps wash dishes on weekends, his mother said.
"There's always something to do. It's that way in any restaurant, but with 2-foot-thick granite walls, you can't beat the atmosphere," she said.
The Parsons family is working to expand a special-event business: being hosts to weddings, wedding rehearsals and business meetings. The restaurant's seating capacity is about 200 in the rooms on two floors, plus 70 more on the outdoor decks during nice weather.
The staff, many of whom have worked at Cacao Lane for years, Lori Parsons said, run up and down steps and maneuver through the maze of rooms.
Cacao Lane's food is the fairly standard American continental variety, with beef, chicken and seafood entrees and several specials. Recent specials featured sauted rockfish topped with jumbo shrimp and raspberry ginger montrechet cheese and grilled veal chop topped with a poached pear and a wild mushroom pommery demi-glaze, each with glazed baby carrots and rice pilaf.
The true challenge in Ellicott City is parking. The lot behind the old post office farther up Main Street is usually full, and those who find a spot on Main Street can count their blessings.
Lori Parsons said that as businesses and restaurants have flocked to Main Street, they have drawn more customers and used up parking space.
"What you're competing for are parking spaces," she said, noting that her weekend staff alone is 25 people, most of whom need parking, too. Eventually, she said, Howard County needs to build a parking garage to accommodate more vehicles.
Where: 8066 Main St., Ellicott City; 410-461-1378.
Hours: 11: 30 a.m. to midnight Monday through Thursday; 11: 30 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers, $2.50 to $8.50; entrees, $17.50 to $24.50; pasta, $10.50 to $12.
Credit cards: MasterCard, Visa, Discover.