Landmark restaurant will be transformed in wake of sale

March 09, 1993|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,Staff Writer

The empty parking lot and hand-lettered "closed" signs on the windows make Buell's Restaurant look even more surreal than usual -- a quaint anachronism at the corner of U.S. 40 and Rogers Ave.

The restaurant, an Ellicott City landmark for 54 years, closed and was sold for an undisclosed sum last week. The building will be remodeled as a Szechuan restaurant to open in the fall.

Such a place could not be built today. The slopes out back are too steep. The back yard is virtually unchanged from the days when the Buells raised pigs and chickens there.

Out front, a huge horseshoe and the letters inside it that spelled Buell's have been taken down. Weather-stained vestiges of the logo are so pronounced that from a distance, it looks as if the horseshoe and the letters are still standing.

Inside an alcove at the front entrance are stacks of real estate fliers and a newspaper vending machine. The vending machine hawks a weekly tabloid with a huge headline asking, "How's Business?"

The headline, and the answer it gives in smaller type -- "Signs of growth amid layoffs suggest a climate in transition" -- seem a fitting eulogy.

The restaurant that was Buell's is definitely in transition. The old business -- hot pork sandwiches, grilled ham steak, fried oysters, and crab puffs -- is gone. The new business -- moo shi pork, barbecued spareribs, Szechuan shrimp, and egg rolls -- is not yet.

The new business is expected by fall, but for a while it looked as if it might not come at all.

The new owner, Wilson An-Tuen Lee, was planning to do extensive renovations -- knock down a wall separating the bar from the restaurant, increase seating from 75 to 120, and replace the roof -- when his engineers discovered the building had structural problems that would be expensive to repair. Mr. Lee still wanted to buy the restaurant, but at a lower price. He also wanted his $10,000 deposit back.

The former owner, Gertrude Buell, sued for breach of contract and asked $250,000 in damages. Mr. Lee counter-sued. On Friday, they reached agreement at an undisclosed price.

"We all came to a meeting of the minds," Ms. Buell said. The suit and counter-suit "are now defunct. It was just business, that's all. They are very, very nice people. I want to see them open and have a very good business here."

The effect of the sale of the 54-year-old family business "is probably going to take a while to hit me," Ms. Buell said. "I think what they have in mind is exactly what I would do if I were that young again. To see it [succeed], would make me very proud."

Mr. Lee could not be reached for comment. Thomas Baker, his Baltimore attorney, said Mr. Lee and Ms. Buell "resolved their differences quite amicably."

Mr. Lee expects to open the restaurant under a new name by the end of summer, Mr. Baker said. Mr. Lee had earlier indicated he would call the restaurant Uncle Y. Y.'s and serve Szechuan-style health food. Mr. Baker said he did not know what it would be called.

The county Liquor Board approved a liquor license transfer from Ms. Buell to Mr. Lee on Oct. 29, that was contingent on his buying the property from her. The license would prohibit Mr. Lee from selling beer and liquor as carry-out items, as Buell's had done.

Buell's had a tavern license. Mr. Lee was granted a restaurant license. The difference is that the majority of tavern sales come from alcohol and the majority of restaurant sales come from food.

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