How tastes change Towson: Restaurants with a wider variety of fare are springing up alongside the old taverns and eating places in the Baltimore County seat.

March 07, 1998|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN STAFF

Just as he has done for almost 41 years, owner Peter Karangelen, 74, holds court on a recent afternoon at the Kent Lounge on York Road, one of Towson's oldest bar-restaurants, regaling patrons with stories they know by heart.

Down the street, Joseph Varvaro, 67, gets ready for the evening crowd at Angel's Grotto, 31 years after he took over the tiny pub called 404. And around the corner, new management at Souris' Saloon carries on a tradition started in the 1930s, when crab cakes were 75 cents and a juicy tenderloin cost $2.

Today, the old-timers have plenty of company as Towson positions itself as an entertainment center with movies, shops, bars and restaurants. The restaurants cater not only to students from nearby colleges, but also to thousands of workers and visitors who pour into town most days.

Almost every street in town has some type of eating place, reflecting a recently released state statistic that diners spend more in Baltimore County restaurants -- $761 million in 1995 -- than anywhere else in the metropolitan area, including Baltimore.

Towson also has expanded its palate over the years.

Diners are just as likely to feast on lamb vindaloo, bean burritos and California sushi rolls as on grilled cheese, burgers and club sandwiches. Add Chinese, Korean, Jamaican, Italian and other assorted dishes, and it's no surprise that the county seat has become a burgeoning buffet table.

More restaurants are on the way.

There has been talk that a fancy steakhouse may set up shop in Towson. Developer David Rhodes, whose plans for the long-vacant Hutzler's building include at least one restaurant, said he has "been talking to a bunch of folks" about that location.

And the Melting Pot, a franchise restaurant specializing in fondue -- the comeback cuisine -- is vying for a prime spot in the 400 block of York Road. The owners say they bypassed the city in favor of suburbia.

"We looked at the Inner Harbor and the downtown area. We didn't think it would be a good marriage," said Jeffrey Nichols, who has operated a Melting Pot in Wilmington, Del., for four years with partner John Fox.

Instead, the men targeted Towson.

A new parking lot, a long-awaited $2 million street- scape project and the availability of a scarce liquor license reeled them in. If a liquor-license transfer is approved March 23, Nichols expects to open the restaurant by May in the space vacated by the defunct Flutie Garcia's cantina, a victim of bankruptcy.

Many Towson restaurateurs say they welcome new businesses. Others are wary.

"I'm not glad to see more and bigger restaurants coming in," Varvaro says, noting the recent demise of several places in town. "We're oversaturated."

Closed at lunchtime

Varvaro used to be open from 7 a.m. to 2 a.m. but now unlocks his doors in late afternoon.

"We had a great lunch business. We had -- have -- the finest sandwiches," he says. "It's gotten so competitive. I elected to close and open up at 4."

In contrast, Scott Stewart, part owner of Souris', says, "It's good competition. It brings more people to the area. People have dinner and hop from bar to bar. It's like a little Fells Point or Georgetown."

That hasn't always been the case.

Gone are the days when the young farmhands would come into town at night and whoop it up, and when talkative codgers would be glued to bar stools for hours nursing 20-cent Rolling Rocks and 40-cent shots of Imperial, Varvaro says.

Also gone are the genteel lunches at Hutzler's Valley View Restaurant, where white-gloved ladies in veiled hats sipped cocktails and nibbled chicken salad. The department store and its tearoom closed almost a decade ago.

Penn Hotel

But the restaurant that probably evokes the most memories is the old Penn Hotel, well known for its stag bar and private Quill Club in the 1960s and early 1970s. It eventually became a pizzeria that was torn down to make way for the upstart Towson Commons office-retail-restaurant complex.

"It was the premier restaurant-bar that catered to old-time Towsonites," Varvaro recalls. "All the lawyers and judges had their lunch there, and they say a lot of cases were settled in the zTC Quill Club."

Although Towson is mostly known for chain restaurants, pubs, luncheonettes and casual eateries, Towson Republican Councilman Douglas B. Riley expects more upscale restaurants

when construction of the brick sidewalks and the $2.3 million traffic roundabout is completed.

"What I'm anxious for is for the [traffic] cones to come down," he says. "Then we will have the perspective to see Towson as a very fine place."

Baltimore restaurant consultant Diane Feffer Neas is dubious. She says the college students with their small incomes keep Towson from becoming a special-occasion destination.

Strong growth

But Carol and Gino Troia have shown that a fine-dining restaurant can survive in Towson. When they opened their gourmet Italian deli 12 years ago on Allegheny Avenue, they had no idea it would evolve into three intimate dining rooms serving about 70 diners.

"We don't Americanize our dishes. They're authentic," says Carol Troia, 52, who runs the restaurant while her husband, Gino, oversees Troia at the Walters, the bistro at the museum downtown.

She says she welcomes competition in Towson.

"It keeps you on your toes," she says. "You're only as good as your last meal."

Pub Date: 3/07/98

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