Pikesville native's niche in Big Apple Restaurateur: Andrew Silverman's 10 Manhattan restaurants have a reputation for giving customers their money's worth.

September 04, 1996|By Abbe Gluck | Abbe Gluck,SUN STAFF

Bringing the tastes of the mid-Atlantic to New York, Pikesville native Andrew Silverman has established an empire of restaurants with a philosophy -- inexpensive, quality food in a casual atmosphere -- that folks from around here can appreciate.

"When you leave his restaurants, which are all casual and very energized, you feel like you've gotten your money's worth," said Martin Dorf, a restaurant consultant and designer.

Nearly all of Silverman's 10 restaurants are within walking distance of one another, between Union Square and East 20th Street, Manhattan's Flatiron district. And, according to Dorf, Silverman "has his finger on the pulse" of his mostly single, middle-class and under 35 clientele. "These are the kinds of places you go back to every night and, even when they're new, feel like they've been there a while."

Silverman's decision to bring a little Baltimore to the Big Apple in 1981 proved to be his biggest break.

Trying to boost business at his first restaurant, Cincinnati, an American restaurant serving everything from Cajun cuisine to New England dinners, he threw a two-week "typical Baltimore crab fest" in a promotion with New York magazine.

"I made crab cakes, crab soup, brought in Eastern Shore wine and National Bohemian beer, and we spread The Sun around everywhere," he said. "It was such an amazing, original thing that we said, 'The hell with it -- we're closing this place down and opening the Maryland Crab House.' "

Silverman turned Cincinnati into Maryland Crab House, a 45-seat restaurant on East 19th Street, where Silverman did the cooking and which anchored his restaurant business for 12 years, until he decided to open the 300-seat City Crab and Seafood restaurant he runs today three blocks east.

Silverman, 42, said he "got the bug early."

Growing up in a family with a Lazy Susan on the dinner table and where "meals were rituals," he was inspired from age 6 by restaurants like the Chesapeake on Charles Street, where he ate weekly and was "so impressed by what was really fine dining."

After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1975, he worked at his cousin's store at Lexington Market, the Yogurt Tree. Silverman said he and his cousin came up with the idea "right after Dannon opened in New York."

He maintained hometown ties and, after attending the Culinary Institute of America, developed a concept for three Baltimoreans opening a restaurant in Aspen, Colo. Frustrated by the seasonal nature of that market, Silverman moved to New York in 1979 and opened Cincinnati, with help from two designers he met at Girard's, a disco on St. Paul's Street in Baltimore.

Since then, Silverman has opened 14 other restaurants, including Duke's, a neighborhood grill; Steak Frites, a french steakhouse; L'Express, a 24-hour cafe; and Chat 'n' Chew, a home-style cross between a cafe and a coffee shop.

"Prices, value and positioning -- that's my whole hook," Silverman said, adding that he's filled a void in the neighborhood. "There was no place real people could go, get a beer and a $15 meal."

In 1990, Silverman made a name for himself in value, when he recognized that customers still desired luxurious meals despite the recession. He opened Prix Fixe, a 200-seat restaurant that took advantage of economies of scale by offering gourmet three-course dinners with set menus for $21. At the time, food critics said Prix Fixe -- which Silverman called "the best concept I've come up with" -- revolutionized the New York scene by showing just how much a little could buy.

"We wanted to show you can deliver a $50-$60 meal for under $30, but you need 200 seats" and fewer choices to do it, he said.

Passing on savings to the consumer also requires a good eye for real estate, said Dorf, author of "Restaurants That Work." "He buys low and sells high, and real estate is the art of the restaurant businesses these days," he said.

With a stepfather in the used-car business, Silverman said he buys nothing new. Instead, he furnishes his restaurants with items from flea markets from New York to Paris, a strategy he said creates an aura of "familiarity, a place that's been here for 30 years."

And he creates the look himself, without hiring a designer and often without a professional crew, Dorf said.

Finally, "positioning" means knowing your market.

"Friday is guys night out, Saturday is date night and by Sunday the cash is gone, you don't want wine, you just want a piece of chicken, and you pick and price your specials accordingly," Silverman said.

It also means creating an atmosphere casual enough to be a neighborhood place but "frenetic and fun" enough to attract under 35 customers and make them feel they've had a night out -- which Silverman's done, Dorf said.

And while saying he's "always wanted to do a great diner in Frederick or something in Annapolis," for now, Silverman said, he's happy in New York.

His last venture in Maryland involved plans to do the food for the failed entertainment complex at the Baltimore Fishmarket in the late '80s.

But with plans to bring Maryland crabs to Boston and Las Vegas, as well as open a second City Crab in Times Square, Silverman said his success -- while not near the Chesapeake -- certainly comes from it.

Pub Date: 9/04/96

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