Restaurateurs savor sweet taste of success

THE DINING GUYS

August 23, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

How do you become Baltimore's hottest restaurateurs?

First, ditch your boyhood dream of becoming an undertaker. Then spend a dozen or so years serving crabs, saving money and looking longingly at a former brothel on Boston Street. Find a partner who sells ATMs and bank equipment and things that interest you about as much as pocket lint. Work like a dog, never see your mother, your friends, your own furniture. And finally when it all comes true -- when the joyful buzz around town is that yours is the bistro du jour -- break all the rules by doing it again in a run-down warehouse in no man's land. Time elapsed for renovating and opening the second spot: 100 days.

Do all this and surely you will be compared to Jim Mikula and Tom Douglas, the current crown princes of the local restaurant scene. Sitting across the table, having just finished corn and crab chowder (Jim) and a barbecued chicken sandwich (Tom), the partners in Weber's on Boston and Bohager's restaurants clearly look like guys on the verge of something big. But what? Success? Madness? Exhaustion?

"We're only one mistake away from financial disaster," Mr. Douglas says with a wry smile. "That's kind of exciting."

Exciting? Other guys get their fill watching the Orioles beat the BlueJays. Not these two. To understand, listen to them talk about the July opening of their latest bar and restaurant, Bohager's.

A disastrous start

Hours before 600 people arrived, the liquor trucks circled the block waiting for the liquor license to be delivered. Construction workers were inside painting over sawdust; the cleaning staff was mistakenly wiping paint off still wet walls. The chef fired up the grill only to realize the bricks supporting the oven were cracking. And 30 minutes after opening, the toilets flooded.

"It was horrible," says Mr. Douglas, 32. "That was about as unglamorous an opening as I've ever seen."

On a bustling Friday night in August, it's easy to laugh about such nightmarish days. With its mahogany bar, paisley wallpaper and stamped tin ceilings, Weber's on Boston, the duo's first joint venture, has drawn an eclectic crowd -- Canton neighbors, suburban yuppies, local celebrities.

WBAL-radio personality Elane Stein occasionally drops by for the grilled fish, Hopkins doctor Levi Watkins swears by the Caesar salad, and Pat Sajak and his wife, Lesly, have been in for dinner twice.

There's little Mr. Mikula has to do here. A year after opening, the restaurant has rhythms of its own. He adjusts the music, tinkers with the shades, snatches a crumb off the carpet.

Less than a mile away, in the industrial-style Bohager's, the mood isdecidedly different. By 11 p.m., nearly every stool at the 75-foot bar is taken. The kitchen can't make the nachos fast enough, the sound system blares with David Lee Roth's version of "Just a Gigolo," and a Corvette and BMW nearly collide fighting for one of the last spots on the 130-space parking lot.

Best of all, say the boys by the bar, is this: Babes have arrived. They point to a group of women with hot pink pumps and tight dresses and big hair. Ahh, to be young and single at Bohager's on a Friday night.

"This," shouts Tom Douglas, his face glistening with sweat, "is everything Weber's isn't."

Opposites attract

In many ways, one man is everything the other isn't. Tom Douglas isthe salesman, the showman; Jim Mikula is the Dundalk kid who made good. Mr. Douglas drives the BMW, wears the Rolex watch, dines at the Conservatory; Mr. Mikula drives the Honda Accord, wears the 15-year-old Seiko, eats at Obrycki's.

"They're like two gears that fit together," says Diane Neas, a restaurant consultant who has worked with them. "They mesh."

Much of Mr. Mikula's life has led up to this. The youngest of seven from a working-class family, he was hired by Obrycki's as a teen-ager and stayed 17 years. His only distraction: a brief flirtation with mortuary science. His first class, which took him out of the classroom and into the city morgue, changed his mind.

"I realized I wanted to talk to people," he says, "and I wanted a response."

In 1983, he graduated from the University of Baltimore with a B.A. in marketing/advertising. He worked as the operations manager for a local oil company but always stayed at Obrycki's, even when money was no longer an issue.

Mr. Douglas came into the business almost by accident. A native of Lexington, Ky., he majored in business at the University of Kentucky before going to work in sales. But after handling accounts for everything from soft drinks to bank machinery, he ++ was ready for a change. Enter Jim Mikula.

The two met four years ago at a party given by a mutual friend. "I thought he was crazy," Mr. Douglas says. Mr. Mikula called his future partner "pretentious."

"Everyone was there in shorts. Here comes Tom in this BMW convertible. He has on Italian leather shoes and light pants and a polo shirt. I think he even had a hat on that day," says Mr. Mikula, 34.

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