A recipe for success sours Closing: Because of a lease dispute, Baltimore County's renowned Milton Inn restaurant may be moved to the city.

September 03, 1997|By Jay Apperson | Jay Apperson,SUN STAFF

The Milton Inn, rural destination for connoisseurs of elegant charm and acclaimed cuisine, will close this month amid a dispute over the lease on the Baltimore County landmark.

General manager Lynn Patrick, who plans to open another restaurant near Baltimore's waterfront, said yesterday that he will close the historic inn's dining rooms when the lease ends Sept. 15. The owner of the inn, meanwhile, is seeking a new tenant to run the business.

"From my perspective, it's close to a tragedy," wine writer Robert M. Parker Jr. said.

Parker, at the restaurant for a wine-tasting and private lunch, said: "To me, it's been the best restaurant in the state over the years. I say that unequivocally."

For decades, the Milton Inn, in the north county hamlet of Sparks, has been one of the area's most popular spots for special occasions. Its dining rooms -- formal but unimposing, with fireplaces adding warm touches -- have seen countless wedding proposals and anniversary celebrations. Business people on expense accounts have long employed the gourmet cuisine as a tool to woo clients.

But Patrick said three years of negotiations failed to produce an agreement on a new, 10-year lease. He said he is negotiating with owners of a historic building in Baltimore in hopes of starting a restaurant that would feature "key players" from the current Milton Inn regime. He would not disclose the location.

An official from MacKenzie Properties, which controls the limited partnership that owns the Milton Inn building and name, said the partnership is negotiating with prospective tenants to resurrect the restaurant within the next few months.

Gary T. Gill, executive vice president of MacKenzie Properties, said, "I don't have any doubt that the next operator will have the reputation, resume, repertoire, or any word you want to use, to equal or exceed the recent reputation of the restaurant."

The Milton Inn is housed in what was originally a coach stop for Quakers who settled in the area.

Later, the building was home of the Milton Academy, a boys' school that counted John Wilkes Booth among its students. Half a century ago, it was restored to its original use as a country inn. There have been at least four ownership groups at the York Road restaurant.

National guides, such as Zagat's and Conde Nast Traveler, have rated the restaurant one of the area's best. The constantly changing menu of Maryland cuisine now features appetizers such as crab and orecchiete pasta with shallots, mushrooms and lemon basil sauce, and entrees such as seared Chesapeake rockfish with spinach and Parma ham.

Such pampering comes at a cost: $28 entrees; $7 soups, salads and desserts; and $20 snifters of cognac. Diners fight for the privilege; reservations for preferred times in the restaurant's popular Hearth Room must be made at least two weeks in advance.

Still, for years the restaurant has struggled financially, said Patrick, who started as a waiter and has been part-owner of the business for three years.

"Despite all the awards, despite the good food, desite all the good reviews, it's always operated in financial distress," he said. Much of the strain, he said, came from the rent, now about $14,000 a month.

He said the rent is about 11 percent of his sales -- or about 5 percent higher than the norm for a successful restaurant. What's more, he said, he and his partner have had to spend thousands of dollars on repairs and maintenance of the building, parts of which are believed to be more than 250 years old.

Yesterday, water trickled across the basement floor and wine cellar. Patrick pointed to sagging ceilings in the Hearth Room and the fireplace that sparked a fire a few years ago in the Gunpowder Room. In the building's front yard, he said, a gazebo surrounds piping designed to vent septic fumes high above nose level.

"This is the greatest building as far as a restaurant, but the worst building in terms of money," Patrick said.

He said negotiations stalled over a demand that he borrow $250,000 to renovate the building.

But Gill, the MacKenzie Properties official, said the expenditures on renovations would have allowed the landlord to lower the rent.

"I offered him relief," Gill said.

He said he is negotiating with restaurateurs who can retain the culinary standards -- and open their checkbooks to maintain the building.

"We're not looking for somebody who's just got money, and we're not looking for somebody who's just able to cook," he said.

"We feel a responsibility to the community that that place be preserved properly. In our mind, it's not just another piece of real estate. It's a special place."

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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