A new restaurant for Harborplace

Comfort food: McCormick & Schmick is putting its M&S Grill at the site of the closed Planet Hollywood.

October 07, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The owners of McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurant will open their second restaurant in Baltimore Sunday, filling prime real estate in Harborplace that has sat vacant for more than two years.

The restaurant, to be called M&S Grill, will anchor the Pratt Street Pavilion in one floor of the space previously occupied by the movie-themed restaurant Planet Hollywood.

"Our grill concept is made to order for Baltimore," said Doug Schmick, president of the Portland, Ore.-based restaurant chain. "The community really does embrace a wide range of foods."

The M&S Grill, which will feature "comfort foods," is the seafood chain's third grill-style restaurant. The owners opened a similar restaurant under the name Jake's Grill in Portland in 1994, followed by an M&S Grill in the District of Columbia four years later.

M&S Grill is patterned after the legendary eateries that became the touchstone for restaurant dining in early 20th-century urban America. Menu items will include chicken pot pie, slow-cooked pot roast, mashed potatoes and prime steaks, and Baltimore specialties such as crabcakes.

"It does celebrate a lot of the traditional cuisine that's been around for a lot of years, and it really is making a comeback," Schmick said.

The recent economic downturn, coupled with the terrorism attacks of Sept. 11, have caused people to widely reprioritize their consumption - including food choices, he said.

"We've seen more traditional items in our restaurants sell increasingly strong," he said. "People are appreciating simplicity in presentation more than ever."

Schmick said he's seen similar changes in people's tastes other times during the 31 years he's been in the restaurant business. During slow economic times in the 1970s and 1980s, for instance, mashed potatoes suddenly became popular in Los Angeles, he said.

He promised that the new Baltimore restaurant would have the chain's hallmark daily changing menu. Patrons also will see familiar white tablecloths, dark wood-paneled walls and a large mahogany bar.

"I just think it's a great addition," said Dennis M. Castleman, the state's assistant secretary for tourism, film and the arts. "I'm used to the M&S Grill in Washington. I like that little more emphasis on casual and a little quicker service. It's a different feel. And what a great location. That's a marquis spot in the pavilion."

Schmick said he had expressed interest in the space shortly after Planet Hollywood closed in September 2001. But the Rouse Co., at first, was not interested in breaking up what had been a two-level space, he said.

"We just didn't feel comfortable with a two-level space," Schmick said. "They made the decision to let us build on the ground level independently a year ago."

Rouse has several prospects for a restaurant tenant to lease the upper level, said Kent S. Digby, vice president and general manager of Harborplace and the Gallery.

The lease with McCormick & Schmick brings Harborplace's occupancy to about 90 percent, not including vacancies in the Light Street Pavilion's food court because of remodeling that is under way, Digby said.

M&S will occupy 7,000 square feet and will have a seating capacity of 220, with the ability to expand to include outdoor seating in warmer weather. It will employ 120 full-time, year-round staff, with plans to hire an additional 80 people during the spring, summer and fall months to accommodate heavier business.

Renovations to the pavilion cost about $3 million, Schmick said. Although Tropical Storm Isabel brought water to within six inches of the front door, the site of the new restaurant suffered no damage, he said.

Susan B. Anthony, a retail real estate broker and vice president of H&R Retail Inc., which has offices in Timonium and Chevy Chase, said it is not surprising that the prime space has been vacant for two years given the lengthy lease process, complicated further when there is a bankruptcy filing as in the case of Planet Hollywood.

"It's a billboard location," she said. "You will see the restaurant every time you turn that corner. It's right in your face. The location is spectacular."

Even more than McCormick & Schmick's, which is on Pier 5, this new restaurant anchoring the Pratt Street Pavilion will be in prime tourist territory, Schmick said. It also is positioned on the edge of the downtown business district.

"What's interesting about the location is it has all the dynamics of what makes a successful market: proximity to major office population and tourism," he said.

Schmick said he is not intimidated by having the Cheesecake Factory in the same building and considers his menu noncompetitive.

"They're a one-of-a-kind success story," he said. "They're just awesome. We look at the success at the other end as just letting us know there are plenty of customers out there."

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