Hipp Cafe: a quick bite, then it's show time for some

March 03, 2004|By ROB KASPER

YOU CAN LEAD the culture-starved masses to the revived Hippodrome Theatre, but once you get them there you had better have something for them to nosh on.

With that in mind, I ate lunch last week at the newly opened Hipp Cafe, a handsome, hustling, quick-bite kind of place that cozies up to the theater lobby. Sitting under spotlights and surrounded by black-and-white photos of the stars of stage and screen, I got a buzz on.

The charge didn't come from my beverage - a glass of club soda - but from the room. It is an intimate, electric space. The wood floor is painted black, just like the Hippodrome stage. The curved bar and winding banquettes are framed with a rich cherry wood.

Shimmering on the wall are neon signs from the old theater, which opened in 1914 as a vaudeville venue and movie house, then closed in 1990 before reopening last month. Spotlights, like ones that shine down on the cast of The Producers, the touring Broadway musical that opened the renovated theater, hang from the ceiling.

In such surroundings, it was easy to get swept up in the drama that is lunch. And I did. I started off ordering something sensible - a bowl of crab-and-corn chowder swimming with flavor.

Then something came over me and I jumped at the John Waters. That would be a sandwich (shaved Virginia ham and melted brie with raspberry preserves on thick-cut French toast sprinkled with powdered sugar) named in honor of Baltimore's homegrown, if often offbeat, filmmaker. The sandwich, like its namesake, was colorful and exotic, but a bit over the top. It was the first time in my life I had had powdered sugar on my sandwich.

A tamer choice would have been to go with the sardonic Neil Simon (roast beef, cheddar and horseradish on a roll), the old reliable Rodgers & Hammerstein (corned beef, melted Swiss on rye) or even the slightly cheeky Andrew Lloyd Webber (roast turkey, sprouts on a whole-wheat wrap). But as Leo Bloom, the timid accountant-turned-mogul in The Producers, proves, there is something about showbiz that encourages flamboyance, even in sandwich selection.

The cafe sits on the south end of the block of Eutaw Street between Baltimore and Fayette streets. It is part of a block-long complex known officially as the France-Merrick Performing Arts Center that contains the renovated Hippodrome, as well as four adjoining buildings.

John Sadler, the general manager of Spectrum, the company that runs the restaurant and catering operations at the complex, told me the cafe is aimed both at hungry theatergoers and the eating public. It has two entrances, one from the theater lobby, another from Baltimore Street.

It will serve light breakfast fare, he said, soups, salads and sandwiches for lunch, and quick dishes such as tapas, a flatbread pizza and a chicken quesadilla for supper.

Because the cafe has room for only about 60, no reservations are taken. The theater holds about 2,000, creating a pre-theater rush. "It gets a little hectic here about an hour before show time," said Lynne Clavin, catering director and cafe supervisor.

Accordingly, Sadler and his executive chef, Paul Lever, have come up with a supplemental eating plan, a pre-theater buffet to cope with the hungry crowds. This Broadway Buffet, at $29.95 per person, was set to begin this week and serve only theatergoers in a soaring space at the north end of the Hippodrome complex in the building that once was Eutaw Savings Bank.

The buffet can feed about 200 folks quickly, but reservations are recommended, Sadler said. Because theater ticket holders can also go online and purchase parking spots in the adjacent garage, it would be possible for a person to experience a "totally reserved" evening - parking, buffet and theater - without setting foot outside the Hippodrome complex.

As its name implies, the Hipp Cafe appeals to a more spontaneous set. It, too, is set up for speed. It has a limited menu - eight items in the evening, four sandwiches and salads for lunch, wine, beer, cocktails - and a bare-bones ordering system.

The other day, for instance, I scanned the menu, then walked to the cash register and gave my order to Cindy Fortune. She rang up my $4.35 soup and $8.45 sandwich, gave me change and handed me a metal contraption that looked like a candlestick. Instead of a candle, it held a numbered tag. I carried this device with me to a seat at the bar. A few minutes later, a runner, Krystyn Schmerbeck, hurried out of the kitchen with my food, spotted my number and delivered the goods.

If I were in a rush - if I had to make a curtain or catch a fast train - I could have bolted, because the bill was paid.

But the other afternoon, instead of being a man in a hurry, I was a guy going nowhere. So I lingered over my lunch and shot the breeze with "hippsters," some of the Hipp Cafe staff.

Lever, the executive chef, said he got started in the restaurant business at the age of 15 when his parents moved from London to Los Angeles and bought a restaurant, the Village Inn, in the Westwood section.

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