Towne Hall is open to all

Opening: The restaurant's emphasis is on affordable comfort food, with baseball's Cal Ripken far in the background.

May 27, 2001|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

The garnish on the crab cakes was wrong. The fried onion strings needed to be thinner. The salmon with horseradish crust on a bed of sliced apples looked appealing but was not hot enough.

So said Andrew Silverman recently as he examined some dishes that will be on the menu of Towne Hall, the new restaurant that opened last week in Greenspring Station at Falls and Joppa Roads, just north of Baltimore.

Among restaurant-goers it is news that a handsome new 200-plus seat establishment is in the space formerly occupied by Harvey's restaurant. There is also a local-boy angle. Silverman is a graduate of Franklin High School and University of Maryland who has made his mark in the New York City restaurant scene with moderately priced restaurants, and is transporting that concept back to his hometown. But the big buzz associated with Towne Hall is that it is Cal's place. Cal Ripken, the Orioles All-Star baseball player, and his wife, Kelly, are in the group of owners.

The decor does not advertise that baseball's Iron Man has a piece of the place. In keeping with Ripken's low-key no-showboating style of play, the restaurant looks more like a law firm than a baseball locker room. There is plenty of polished wood, a beautiful cherry back bar, rows of upholstered banquettes.

Even the opening is low-key or "soft" in restaurant lingo. That means last week and over the next two weeks the kitchen crew has been "warming up" gradually, serving customers just part of the full menu. "You get the chicken dishes down pat," Silverman said. "Then you get the meat dishes down, and the seafood." When the restaurant is in full swing, which Silverman predicted would be by the first week of June, it will be open for lunch and dinner but will not take reservations.

Cal will not be there to meet and greet dinners. When asked to describe the primary role Cal and Kelly will play in the restaurant, Ira Rainess, Ripken's business manager, said "patrons."

In other words, the restaurant is a business opportunity for Cal, not a career change, or a social outlet. There is an enclosed dining room tucked in the back of the restaurant, near the back door, a place where a family could enjoy a private meal without having to parade through the restaurant. During a recent interview Silverman referred to this space as the "Ripken room." But he later called it "the private dining room," the kind that many restaurants have to accommodate small groups.

Silverman is aware of how quickly Cal can draw a crowd. "I have met him for breakfast at 6:30 in the morning at a deli in Palm Beach and seen how people are all over him," he said. Yet Silverman contends that the quality of the food rather than the chance of glimpsing a Ripken will be the key to Towne Hall's success.

"Food brings the customers in, service brings them back," said Silverman, 47, who by his count has opened 24 restaurants during a span of three decades in the business.

Born in Owings Mills, Silverman grew up with his brother Marshall Silverman and three stepbrothers, Robert, Jeffrey and David Glushakow. After graduating from the University of Maryland in 1976, he went on to get a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., then teamed up with some Baltimore-area friends to operate a restaurant in Aspen, Colorado. Eventually he worked his way to New York where he opened the Maryland Crab House in the Gramercy Park neighborhood. "New Yorkers," Silverman recalled, "eat soft shells and crab cakes but not hard crabs. Some even asked me to boil the crabs, I said 'No, No, No we don't do that.' " He bought more restaurants, sometimes in partnerships with other chefs, and by 1996 the New York Times was writing about Silverman's "growing empire of reasonably priced restaurants in the Flatiron District." His Prix Fixe restaurant, which later was converted into the Flatiron Diner and Baking Company, was touted for delivering a flavor-packed dinner for under $21 in a city known for triple-digit dining experiences.

About four years ago Silverman teamed up with Rainess when a mutual friend introduced them. Along with Ripken, the men looked at several sites, including locations in New York and Florida, before settling on Greenspring Station as the place for their restaurant. "It is a good location, near the Beltway and I-83," Silverman said. It did not hurt, he said, that Ripken lives nearby, a few miles north. Or as Rainess put it, "Baltimore is home."

As he did in New York, Silverman said he wants to keep his entree prices at Towne Hall under $20. To do that and still make money, Silverman figures he will have to keep very busy, turning the tables twice a night. Moreover, he said, this has to happen on traditionally slow nights such as Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, not just the weekends.

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