Old neighborhood's loss aims to be harbor's gain

Bo Brooks crab house moving to Canton site

February 24, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN STAFF

Hammering -- of everything from inch-long nails to posts and pylons -- creates a symphonic sound in rapidly developing Canton, Baltimore's hottest neighborhood these days.

Come this summer, even more pounding will be heard: the sound of wooden mallets crashing into hard-shell crabs, over and over again.

Bo Brooks Crab House -- a city institution known for its spicy and steaming crustaceans -- is moving from its longtime digs in Northeast Baltimore to a harbor locale.

"This is as good as it gets for us," says Bo Brooks' owner, Herm Hannan, who expects his new restaurant to open at the newly rebuilt Lighthouse Point pier on May 1. "We're going to evolve as a restaurant, and we're going to move to a location that's pulling people left and right. The sky's the limit."

One neighborhood's gain is another's loss. Bo Brooks, in the 5400 block of Belair Road, has put the Gardenville neighborhood on the map for close to 40 years, drawing tourists, professional athletes, entertainers and folks from all over the mid-Atlantic for crabs considered among the area's finest. There, visitors were confronted with the decor, an onslaught of homespun, orange-and-brown tackiness. Some looked past the surroundings. Some came to embrace it. But everyone seemed to fall in love with the food.

"The restaurant isn't the best thing to look at, but it grows on you," noted Pat Vittek, a longtime customer, as she ate crab fluff in the restaurant's virtually empty dining room on a recent day. "It's kind of sad they are moving, but most people understand. Times have changed. They need some new life. A new start."

The new Bo Brooks -- nestled in once-blue-collar Canton, which is now bursting with BMWs, Internet start-ups and $150,000 renovated rowhouses -- will look nothing like the old.

Housed on the first floor of a soon-to-be completed two-story building on Boston Street, the restaurant will be encircled by windows that nearly reach from floor to ceiling.

The decor will be modern, with "a nautical motif," says Hannan, who says he is spending about $1 million on the interior space of the building, owned by Lighthouse Point developer Dr. Selvin Passen. It will be light and airy and hold about 350 customers at full tilt, he says.

On warm days, the harbor-front restaurant will serve diners on a deck, where customers can nosh on soft shell while looking out on yachts, water taxis and Fort McHenry.

But, the main attraction will be the same. Crabs. Hard and soft-shell, steamed in a peppery mix of spices, beer and vinegar.

Hannan, as he does now, will serve them year-round, relying mainly on shipments from Texas and Louisiana.

Bo Brooks also will expand its menu. Hannan believes a restaurant offering limited fare -- the menu today includes just a few steak, chicken and fish dishes -- would not be appropriate in Canton, which is becoming increasingly eclectic and knowledgeable about food.

The restaurant's first "executive chef" will soon be hired, Hannan says. The chef will develop a menu stocked with fresh seafood to augment the crab. The chef will create special sauces for the fish. (The essential sauce used at Bo Brooks' these days consists primarily of butter, butter -- and a touch of butter.)

Bo Brooks' neighbors in the quiet, humble neighborhood the restaurant has called home for nearly 40 years seem to be taking their loss in stride.

"Any business owner worth his salt would do the exact same thing in moving to a place like Canton," said Harold Y. Borden Jr., a local real estate agent and head of the Gardenville/Belair Business Association. Borden and others in the neighborhood hope the vacancy left by Bo Brooks will soon be filled, possibly by a pharmacy.

Restaurant observers say the move is a natural. In a crab town like Baltimore, why wouldn't one of the biggest crab restaurants move where the most energy is?

"It's a perfect fit" noted Tracy Cohen, marketing vice president for the Restaurant Association of Maryland. "Canton has a young demographic, lots of people who live and work and want to eat right there. The place should be packed."

"Frankly, it's a little frightening," observed Kathy Keller, a manager at The Atlantic, a nearby seafood restaurant as she thought of the added competition. "It's going to be on the water. People are going to come."

Hannan, who has owned Bo Brooks since 1985 and has been looking to move the restaurant for nearly as long, says he's just looking forward to a change in scenery. "This is really invigorating," he said. "At least there will be some nice ambience, and some nice views to look at."

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