Changing artistic guard

Rebirth: Restaurateur Un Kim hopes to rekindle the excitement that Louie's once inspired on Charles Street.

April 25, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Un Kim's tastes in restaurants aren't exactly meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

At her all-night Papermoon Diner near the Johns Hopkins University, waiters nicknamed "moon walkers" dish up vegetarian "weed burgers" and artichoke omelettes in a room ornamented with Pez candy dispensers, mannequin limbs and Barbie dolls dangling on fishing lines from the blades of whirling ceiling fans.

The 44-year-old South Korean immigrant is as much postmodern pop artist as cook. So she figured she'd be the perfect person to rescue an ailing restaurant that for decades was a rallying place for the city's artistic community: Louie's Bookstore Cafe at 518 N. Charles St.

Kim recently signed a contract to buy the Louie's building from a partnership led by Jimmy Rouse, who founded Louie's in 1981 and has played a leading role in efforts to revitalize the historic but troubled Charles Street.

As Kim takes over the landmark and prepares to unveil her newest creation - a restaurant called Ixia - Rouse is stepping down as president of the Historic Charles Street Association to devote his time to painting.

One artist is replacing another in the kitchen of one of the few eateries for the eccentric in this working-class town.

Kim, a former sewing factory worker who has been running the Papermoon Diner at 227 W. 29th St. for seven years, said she was inspired to become a restaurateur while hanging out at Louie's, with its shelves full of literary novels and crimson walls painted with golden flowers.

"I used to come to Louie's three or four times a week because it was the hot place to be, the place to see and be seen. It had a lot of meaning for Baltimore," said Kim as she walked through the empty restaurant, which she plans to reopen by the middle of next month.

"I want people to have fun here again. We're going to create a new Charles Street social club," she said.

Louie's boomed from 1981 to 1996. But it struggled as its management changed several times in the last four years, with Biagio Scotto buying the business in September 1999, alienating some customers by removing the books and failing to make it succeed this winter as an Italian restaurant renamed Scotto's of Charles Street.

The evolution of Louie's is symbolic of the morphing of Charles Street itself, which plays a central role in the city's cultural life.

All around Louie's, longtime tenants are moving out, and new blood is rushing in.

Across the street, the Struever Bros. Eccles and Rouse development and construction firm - which helped to open Louie's 20 years ago - recently moved out to open a new headquarters on the waterfront in Locust Point.

South of there, the rapidly growing Annie E. Casey Foundation, a philanthropic organization, is renovating a long-vacant building at 501 N. Charles St. to create offices for 60 or more employees, according to a foundation official.

Four blocks south, developers are renovating an ornate but long-empty 1870s-era office building at 300 N. Charles St. into 36 apartments. At 527 and 529 N. Charles St., Sascha's restaurant and Monument Cafe opened last year in buildings that had been vacant for years.

"Charles Street has been on a roller coaster ride," said Rouse, 55, who notes that the value of Louie's and its adjacent parking lot peaked in 1988 at about $1.25 million but dropped by about half during the street's struggles in the 1990s.

"I'm selling it because I want to focus more and more of my time on painting," said Rouse, who has been an oil painter since his early 20s and is the elder son of Harborplace developer James Rouse.

"I didn't like being in the role of landlord. But it doesn't say anything about my confidence in Charles Street," said Rouse.

During a meeting last week, the Historic Charles Street Association voted to replace Rouse as its president with Kemp Byrnes, a real estate broker who lives on Charles Street.

Kim said she's naming her new restaurant Ixia, after a tall and slender South African flower.

She plans to paint the golden columns blue and transform the restaurant into a sleek-looking 1940s-era supper club, with long drapes flowing from the ceiling and strings of beads dangling from the chandeliers.

The restaurant and cocktail lounge will feature contemporary American, Asian and Mediterranean dishes such as poached lobster with apple curry and sauteed porcini mushrooms.

Kim said: "Owning this restaurant is fulfilling a dream for me."

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