In restaurant circles, if things don't measure up, Diane Neas won't hesitate to tell her clients

THE MENU MAVEN

October 11, 1992|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Staff Writer

You look at this burned-out warehouse and see it for what it is: a soot-filled shell littered with old motors, license plates and broken glass. Diane Neas sees what it can be. A creaky floor holds tables for two, a dank storage room becomes a wine cellar, sunlight floods through steel-covered windows.

"It could be a concert-hall type of thing," she says to no one in particular, kicking up dust as she walks. "Or it could be a themed restaurant. It could be Futuretown -- a high-tech gallery with food. It could be. It could be . . ."

Diane in Wonderland. When it comes to talking about restaurants, she's as animated as a Disney character, as excited as a teen-ager in love. On this crisp fall day, with her imagination soaring, an econo-sized bistro is born here, or the idea for one at least. People eat, drink, table-hop, pass the word, as they have for many of her other projects, including Pierpoint, Spike & Charlie's and Weber's on Boston.

"I can't stop her," says Mark Foster, owner of Foster's Oyster Bar Restaurant and Market, who is with her on this day. "And I don't want to."

As a restaurant consultant, she relishes being in on the ground floor of projects like these. The only thing she relishes more is watching a place succeed -- and knowing she had a hand in it.

"Every restaurant has its own personality," says Ms. Neas, 41. "My job is to exploit it to the maximum."

She's been called a restaurant therapist, a modern-day Freud in an apron analyzing ids and egos and boosting profits in the process. Business in a rut and you don't know why? Afraid your chef is cheating on you? Simply need a snazzier menu?

Owners of the Milton Inn, Harvey House and Bohager's have turned to her for just such reasons. But the truth -- or her version of it -- isn't always pretty.

She's been known to pick fights over french fries, go on strike when owners disobey her and send in spies to test service at clients' establishments.

"I'm everybody's conscience," she says. "Everything has to be right. It's like an eclipse."

And when it isn't, she lets people know.

"She's very hard-nosed. Sometimes she can be pushy. . . . But she knows her thing, and she's very influential," says David Tamberino, an owner of Tamber's Nifty Fifties Diner, who is a client.

She knows food gossip in this town long before others do -- often hearing about restaurants before they're even built. On this day, she's anxious to try one of Federal Hill's newest, Champagne Tony's.

"I don't know a thing about it except that the name is hysterical," she says, one hand on the steering wheel of her Toyota, the other reaching for her car phone.

A tough critic

She clucks as she passes the Brokerage; she recently had dinner at Ruth's Chris Steak House nearby: "A lick-your-plate steak, the worst french fries in history."

Later, she passes Hooter's on the left. "Never been there," she says coolly. "The concept does not appeal to me at all."

Even Champagne Tony's gets the Neas treatment. "I'm crushed, I'm crushed," she says after realizing the plain typed menu doesn't resemble the attractive printed version posted outside. (It's for dinner only, a waitress informs.)

"I wonder if these tables are custom-made," she says, measuring the width with her hands before diving under to have a look.

She rattles off other concerns about the place -- linens on top of the cigarette machine, a steel cart doubling as a bus stand, a barren wall. ("It needs something -- prints or posters, a mural.")

After ordering Caesar salad with chicken, she declines to offer any advice about the menu. "Oh, grow up," she says. "You're a big girl. Order what you want."

She speaks her mind

Diane Neas speaks her mind -- whether that means critiquing a restaurant, yelling at a pokey driver on 39th Street ("What? What? What's the problem?") or chastising a construction worker about to run over a sapling. ("Stop! Stop! Don't hit that tree! My husband's an arborist.")

She's even candid in discussing her weight problem, which she considers an occupational hazard. Since entering the business some 10 years ago, she has steadily put on weight, in large part because clients constantly ask her to test their creations.

"My mother is a nutritionist," she says. "I'm her greatest failure. I once sent her a card that said, 'Mom, you made me everything I am today.' You opened it up and it said, 'Chubby.' She didn't talk to me for a week."

Although she declines to say how much she weighs, she is 5 feet 3 inches tall and wears a size 14, she says.

"I know this is not a healthy thing. I know I'm cuter when I'm thinner. I know how to eat right. But everyone's shoving food in you, and you do have to taste it," she says with a sigh.

Concerns aside, she is a gourmet cook who has been known to organize dinner parties in a half-hour. On weekends, she and her husband, Stephen, will travel to Philadelphia for Chinese food.

"I never remember learning to cook," she says. "I always knew how."

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