Raising the Bar

Mad River, a new Federal Hill nightspot, is banking on drawing young professionals with high energy and swanky decor.

December 08, 2003|By Sarah Schaffer and John Woestendiek | Sarah Schaffer and John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

Michael Mastellone was standing on a noisy street corner in New York City when the idea for a new bar - strapped across the top of an SUV - passed before his eyes.

"MAD RIVER," read the manufacturer's name on the side of an upside-down canoe.

With that, Mastellone, 25 at the time, began planning the Mad River Bar & Grille, which opened six years ago on New York's Upper East Side. Four years later, he opened a second branch of the river-themed bar in Albany. And last week beer officially began to flow at Mad River's newest location in Baltimore.

Mastellone, now 31 and president of River Partners, teamed up with a group of local investors - most of them even younger than him - to open Federal Hill's newest nightspot, located in a cavernous old Provident Bank building at 1110 S. Charles St.

"We're all between 22 and 32," said Toby Mink, 24, a commercial real estate broker in Baltimore who brought the other local investors together and is making his first venture into the bar business. "That's what my dad said, `You need a little more gray hair in there."

Owned and operated by the young and enthusiastic, the bar and restaurant is also aimed at them - professionals in their 20s and 30s, drawn by the bar's high-energy ambience, the "attractive" crowd it touts, 10 television screens, a menu of bar food favorites with a health-conscious twist and the opportunity to view photos of their night out on Mad River's Web site.

At its grand opening Thursday night, the faint scent of wood stain and paint still in the air, hundreds crowded the bar's first floor and the candlelit, lounge-style balcony, their voices competing with blaring '80s tunes that bounced off the stained-glass skylight and new tin ceiling.

As Eric Tucker negotiated his way through the crowd, the bar's 25-year-old general manager could hardly make it five feet before he was stopped to chest-bump, hug, cheek-smooch or shake hands with another partygoer, many of whom were friends, employees and business associates.

Those included commercial real estate broker Emily Rose, who said she invested in the bar because she has seen, first-hand, the kind of success that the group is capable of achieving.

The Roland Park native and former Manhattanite said she met Tucker, Mastellone and business partner John Durkin while frequenting the inaugural Mad River location.

"These guys do a great job. Their big thing is making it a family atmosphere - it's a place where people can just come and hang out," said the 27-year-old.

In Mastellone's opinion, that family atmosphere should include lots of attractive women.

"We want a young, attractive staff. A lot of the girls [who work at Mad River] want to be actresses, so they can put on a good show and show people a good time," he said.

Sarah Hendrickson, 28, found the scene to her liking. She'd already booked Mad River's party room for a New Year's Eve Party. "This is exactly what Baltimore needs," she said, "a place for professionals in their late 20s to mid-30s who are looking for a social environment where they can meet decent people who are on the same wavelength."

Starting this week, patrons will be able to relive their evening at Mad River by visiting the bar's Web site (madriverbaltimore.com), where photos of customers will be posted, alongside listings of daily and weekly specials.

"It's fun for people the next day to look on the Web site," Tucker said. "People love to see pictures of themselves."

Displaying customer photos - done at the other Mad River bars as well - helps draw people to the Web site, which in turn brings new customers to the bar, the managers said.

River Partners operates three Mad River bars, and two other establishments in New York: Tavaru, named after an island in Fiji known for its surfing, and Bar Harbour, whose name comes from the summer resort in Maine.

"We like the water theme because it appeals to a lot of people, and the idea of always flowing, always changing, appealed to us," Mastellone said.

The Mad River itself - so named because it flows north instead of south - runs through Vermont, where the Mad River Canoe company is located, as well as Mad River Glen, a ski area known for its challenging slopes.

Mastellone, who skis, snowboards and sportfishes, went straight into the bar business after graduating from Iona College, where he majored in business management and worked as a bartender.

The decision to open a bar in Baltimore was made after Mastellone and other River Partners investors attended a wedding here. One of the investors, Adam Kohart, was marrying a woman from Baltimore.

At the wedding, Mastellone met Toby Mink, a Baltimore native who works for Mackenzie Commercial Real Estate Services.

After discussing the idea that day, Mastellone stayed a few days and went home thinking Baltimore had potential. Mink, meanwhile, began going to friends and colleagues in hopes of lining up local investors.

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