Peerce's Plantation closes its doors

As financial woes overtake restaurant, its heyday is recalled

March 22, 2001|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,SUN STAFF

Peerce's Plantation, the restaurant where Baltimoreans once celebrated everything from proms to retirements, has served its last house-smoked salmon and Chesapeake filet.

Owner Peerce M. Lake told his staff Monday that the 64-year-old restaurant in Phoenix had been forced to close because of financial problems, which became public in October 1999 when the restaurant filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. First Mariner Bank, which holds the mortgage on the restaurant and an adjoining property owned by Lake, is seeking about $1.2 million, said the restaurant's lawyer, Lawrence Yumkas.

"This is a personal tragedy for my family and me," Lake said in a statement. He said the restaurant's difficulties - including the bankruptcy - "made it impossible to sustain the restaurant and catering businesses profitably enough [to] permit me to re-organize Peerce's on my own."

Many were saddened by the announcement, but few seemed surprised. The staff sensed that the closing was imminent, said longtime waiter Tom Flynn. "There weren't a lot of us left in the end," said Flynn, who landed a job yesterday at the Oregon Grille in Hunt Valley, which is run by Peerce's alumnus Mark Henry.

The decision to close Peerce's was made after negotiations with a restaurant management company fell apart last week. The restaurant still hopes to find a buyer who will use the Peerce's Plantation name.

Peerce's catering division, which had booked banquets up to six months in advance, will find other restaurants and country clubs to fulfill those obligations, Yumkas said.

"We are closing it down now to maximize its assets," he said. "It's a shame. It's been in his family for years."

Founded in 1937 by Lake's parents, Peerce's was a destination as much for its location as its food. The old house on Dulaney Valley Road has a stunning view of the Loch Raven Reservoir in what was then considered the country. Families made the long drive to sample Peerce's fried chicken, soft-shell crabs and shrimp-in-a-basket.

Lake, born and raised on the property, took the business over in 1963 and oversaw its transformation into an upscale restaurant. The signature dishes became lobster bisque, made from an old family recipe, and Chesapeake filet, a steak and jumbo lump crabcake combination served in bearnaise sauce.

Men were required to wear jackets and ties; women were given menus with no prices. The restaurant dropped the latter practice, while trying to hold on to the former. Under the stewardship of Rudy Paul and Josef Gohring, it was considered one of the area's premier dining spots.

By 1999, some were wondering whether Peerce's standards had slipped. The Sun's restaurant critic, Elizabeth Large, wrote a withering assessment in June 1999 headlined: "For This, Four People Pay $200?" Large reported that the meal was "rich and heavy and oddly flavorless." The warm bread was garnished, she reported, with a spot of green mold.

In September of that year, First Mariner filed a foreclosure lawsuit, saying it was owed almost $1 million in mortgage payments and late fees. Lake maintained that his restaurant was thriving. But he filed for Chapter 11 hours before the Oct. 29 foreclosure auction was to begin.

Peerce's appeared to receive a reprieve with the arrival in March last year of Michael Gettier, a well-known local chef who had recently closed his restaurant, the Orchard Inn in Towson. He spruced up Peerce's menu, and the revitalized restaurant received a glowing review from Large in May.

But it was still an old-fashioned menu, Large noted, and an expensive one, with entrees ranging from $25 to $30.

It often was an anniversary - or a birthday, or some kind of celebration - at Peerce's, said Gettier, who has been on leave from the restaurant for several months, since the Orchard Inn reopened on a limited basis.

"It was where you go when Aunt May comes to town," he said. "We did the [engagement] ring thing in the cake with some frequency."

Peerce's will continue to operate its takeout business at Kenilworth Mall. It also is negotiating with area restaurants to honor certificates.

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