A Taste for Success

Daring, fearless and fun, Steve de Castro has risen from clearing plates to commanding a burgeoning restaurant empire.

September 23, 2001|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Let's say you are the owner of a handful of prosperous, upscale steak houses who in 33 years of hard labor went from busboy to millionaire. Do you enjoy your success and relax?

Or do you continue to work 80 hours a week and risk it all by simultaneously opening two new, exotic restaurants in locations where other businesses have failed, and finance them with a good chunk of your own money?

If you are Steve F. de Castro, the choice is obvious -- if only because "relaxation" is a completely foreign concept.

"It took a lot of nerve and guts," de Castro, 47, says of his decision to open Eurasian Harbor and Babalu Grill in downtown Baltimore within a matter of months this summer. "I guess a normal person would at least do it one at a time. I've never considered myself normal."

Bravura has never been in short supply for the Cuban-born de Castro, either. Nor does he lack flamboyance, charisma or daring.

Baltimore's hottest restaurateur didn't get that way by being shy and retiring. He did it by being boisterous and fun.

"He just acts like he owns the world," marvels Darlene de Castro, his wife of 23 years. "He's always been ambitious and outgoing even when he could barely speak the language, even when he didn't know what he was talking about."

In an industry where two out of every three businesses fail and even the busiest restaurants don't necessarily make huge profits, de Castro has demonstrated a magic touch.

He owns Ruth's Chris Steak Houses in Annapolis and Pikesville and in Raleigh, N.C. The first one he opened, in downtown Baltimore, is one of the top five producers in the 80-restaurant chain. When he decided to build a nightclub and cigar lounge, the Havana Club, on its top floor, even some of his employees questioned his judgment.

They changed their minds when his stock of 120 private humidors sold out in a day and the club became the upscale nightspot in the city.

"He makes a success out of whatever he's touched," says Lenny Kaplan, owner of the Polo Grill. "This is not luck. The man does his homework. It takes a kind of genius to do what he's doing."

De Castro's latest openings are typical of his daring approach. Eurasian Harbor is in the Pier 5 Hotel -- the same space where Kaplan's own Lenny's Chop House closed after little more than a year. It features fusion cuisine, a blend of European and Asian flavors and techniques.

Entrees vary from the very Western broiled lamp chops (albeit with a curry coconut sauce) to Hong Kong-style crispy whole fish. The interior features earth tones and natural wood, the lines are cool and sleek.

Compare that to his more raucous style at Babalu Grill, a Cuban-theme restaurant in Power Plant Live, the recently redeveloped space in the former Brokerage building. Its name comes from the Desi Arnaz signature tune and the Cuban bandleader's pictures are scattered throughout -- as are his trademark conga drums.

At night, the main dining room turns into a dance floor where couples can gyrate to Latin rhythms under pulsating lights. From its Cuban menu (featuring some de Castro family recipes) to its hip bar (fake limestone facade and Spanish tile roof), Babalu Grill is the owner's most personal project -- and possibly his most satisfying.

"I knew Baltimore was ready for something like this," says de Castro, whose accent is not unlike Arnaz's (he even thickened it up a bit when he recorded radio commercials for the restaurant).

Friends say de Castro's success comes not only from his indefatigable drive and outgoing personality but from his discriminating tastes and eye for detail. He can walk through a dining room and spot a fork under a table, an empty bread basket or untended water glass in the blink of an eye.

"Some managers walk around all night and never see that stuff," says David Delulio, director of operations for Ruth's Chris on the East Coast.

Started at the bottom

It is an ability born of experience. De Castro started from the very bottom -- as a 14-year-old immigrant looking for work on the streets of New Orleans.

The son of a Cuban farmer and landowner who was stripped of his holdings by the 1959 Castro revolution, de Castro came to the U.S. in 1968 after a year living in Mexico City. His father found a job in New Orleans as a welder; de Castro needed to find work to help support the family, too.

By chance, he met a fellow Cuban immigrant, Rey Arias. Neither teen-ager spoke a word of English, but Arias knew of some possible job openings and together they applied to be busboys at a new restaurant, LaRiviera.

It turned out to be a fortuitous decision. LaRiviera quickly became one of the hottest upscale Italian restaurants in Louisiana. And de Castro rose through the ranks to become maitre d' when he was still a teen -- putting his charm and wit to good use (and pocketing tips of $20 to $50 a pop).

By age 24, he was on top of the world, earning more money than he'd ever dreamed of and getting to know the New Orleans upper crust on a first-name basis.

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