The corner building that houses the City Cafe was a car dealership during the 1920s, and so it was constructed with 12-foot-tall display windows that later made the restaurant a great place to see and be seen - a gallery showcasing the friendships and fashions of its urbane and artistic neighborhood.
But the windows of this Mount Vernon gathering place were dark yesterday, bouquets of roses beside the doors, in mourning for its owner, John Patrick Darda, whose gregarious personality was like a high-wattage bulb that blazed out onto the street and into the neighborhood, friends said.
Customers were horrified to hear that Darda, a 43-year-old former catering business owner who ran the cafe at Eager and Cathedral streets with his brother and a friend, was shot to death at 11:15 a.m. Monday during what police believe was a robbery set up by an employee whom Darda had hired.
Local shop owners and residents said that although the killing was allegedly a frightening example of betrayal, they don't think it's a reflection on the safety of their long-struggling neighborhood, which has seen business rise over the past year as crime has dropped by nearly 20 percent.
`An inside job'
"This is really not an indication of what the neighborhood's like, because it looks like it was an inside job," said Iris Frank, a designer at Foxglove Design florists at 1014 Morton St., near where Darda was shot.
"But that doesn't mean it wasn't a real tragedy. A trusted employee? If it was some maniac on drugs, you could perhaps explain it away. But this is really hard to understand," Frank said.
Robberies in Mount Vernon fell from 89 in 1999 to 64 last year, while assaults decreased from 35 to 30 over the same period, although car break-ins continue to be a problem. There were no homicides in the historic neighborhood of museums and restaurants in 2000, and one in 1999.
Jack Elsby, owner of the Brass Elephant Restaurant at 924 N. Charles St., said that Mayor Martin O'Malley's crackdown on crime has improved business in the area because people are no longer afraid to drive into the neighborhood for dining or shopping.
Neighborhood coming back
"The neighborhood has come back, it's doing very well and people feel safe walking around," said Bruce Eward, owner of Salon Salon hair stylists at 1014 N. Charles St. "We don't have the prostitutes or drug dealers hanging around anymore."
Several area business owners said the 6-year-old cafe is an important part of the neighborhood's life.
"I think John saw the cafe as the vital core of Mount Vernon - a place where a fragmented yet vital community would come together," said Darda's half-brother and cafe co-owner, Gino Cardinale, 32. "He really believed in this neighborhood and had faith it would turn out well."
Coached three daughters
Friends described Darda as a barrel-chested, jocular man who held a black belt in karate and enjoyed coaching basketball and soccer teams for three daughters - Amanda, 19, Amber, 13, and Rachel, 11. He lived with them and their mother, Anita, his wife of 21 years, in Bel Air.
He was a fanatical sports fan who traveled to Tampa to watch his Ravens win the Super Bowl, even though he had to buy a ticket on the street.
"John was so friendly with his customers, it was almost as if he would just throw a big bearhug around them," said Greg Tucker, a cafe regular and spokesman for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
The cafe's co-owners say they hope to reopen after a period of mourning. A Mass of Christian burial is planned for 10 a.m. Friday at St. Ignatius Roman Catholic Church, 533 E. Jarrettsville Road, Bel Air.
Grew up in Dundalk
Darda was born in Eastpoint and raised in Dundalk as the son of Patricia Cardinale, an A&P grocery store manager, and his step-father, Vincent Cardinale, a letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office. Darda graduated from Dundalk Senior High School in 1977.
In April 1981 he and a partner, Tom Ayres, bought a business, Hill's Deli and Catering, at Taylor and Oakleigh avenues in Parkville. Darda, who withdrew from the business in 1989, worked there with his younger half-brother, Gino Cardinale.
In 1994, Cardinale and his partner Bruce Bodie, an architect and designer, became inspired to open a cafe in Mount Vernon. They loved to socialize in the neighborhood's eclectic, artsy bars and restaurants, but felt the neighborhood needed a place where people could hang out and talk for extended periods.
A friend recommended the corner building at Cathedral and Eager Streets with the huge windows. It was originally the Cleveland Chandler luxury automobile dealership, but from the 1970s until a fire in 1986 the building was a popular disco called Girard's.
Darda joined the business in 1995, and together the three made the cafe expand and prosper. It grew from seven employees to 45, adding a dining room, bar and larger kitchen in 1996 and 1997.