Restaurant has links to history in Harford Co.

Bayou: The business started as a sandwich shop in 1949 and has grown and changed under two owners.

May 16, 2004|By Frank Lynch | Frank Lynch,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Lou Ward used his CIA training to launch a successful career. No, not the CIA based in Langley, Va., but the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

That was 32 years ago, and today he owns one of the oldest restaurants in Havre de Grace -- the Bayou (pronounced BAY-u).

The 54-year-old Havre de Grace native purchased the Bayou in 1982 from Al and Jewell DiDomenico. "Al and Jewell established the Bayou as a sandwich shop in 1949," Ward said. "During their ownership, the restaurant continued to change.

"By the time my wife, Terri, and I purchased the Bayou, it had become a diner with a bar. It had quickly become a local favorite and also attracted travelers to its Route 40 location."

Before enrolling at the CIA, Ward worked at the Colonel's Choice in Aberdeen when that now-defunct restaurant was considered the finest in the county.

"Richard Harvey was the owner, and his restaurant attracted people from as far away as Baltimore," Ward said.

Harvey later opened a Holiday Inn near the Aberdeen interchange off Interstate 95. The motel included a restaurant known as the Holly Tree, and Harvey hired Ward as its manager.

"I learned a great deal while working for Richard Harvey," Ward said. "I remained in his employ until the opportunity arose to purchase the Bayou."

During a tour of the restaurant, Ward spoke of those early years. "Al made frequent visits. I'm convinced he was just checking up to make sure we were treating the regulars with respect.

"He also wanted to make sure that we were growing tomatoes and green beans in the garden he established years before," he said. "The garden was eliminated following a severe drought that wiped out the tomato crop. Terri and I decided we would be better served with an expanded parking lot."

Ward said the first change to the restaurant under his ownership was eliminating the automated crab-cake maker. He said the machine would mix shredded crabmeat with filler and stamp them into a shape that resembled a hockey puck. The cakes would then be frozen and served throughout the winter.

"That contraption, when operating, resembled the assembly-line scene from that I Love Lucy episode when Lucy and Ethel were boxing chocolates at a candy factory," Ward said with a chuckle.

"In response to customer requests, we switched to back-fin crab meat with far less filler. They now rank as our favorite dish," he said.

The Wards began to make physical changes to the restaurant in 1986. The booths were removed and replaced with tables.

The main entrance was relocated, and the bar was closed to make room for a banquet room.

"The banquet room accounts for a quarter of our business," Ward said. "We are proud of our reputation for quality service and food."

Service is provided by a staff of 50.

The conversion of the Bayou from diner to restaurant coincided with the revitalization of downtown Havre de Grace and its waterfront.

"Numerous restaurants opened, and each has carved a niche for itself," Ward said, "but I'm pleased with our clientele. They have been extremely loyal."

Ward expects his customer base to grow over the next few years. He says that 3,000 to 4,000 homes are to be constructed within a mile of the Bayou.

When those new customers arrive, they will be able to enjoy a meal in one of the restaurant's three dining rooms, which are decorated with decoys from well-known area water-fowl carvers as well as paintings of local scenes.

Ward is most proud of a mural of the Graw -- Havre de Grace's noted racetrack, which ceased operation in the 1950s. It graces one of the walls in the banquet room.

Ward also has numerous photographs of the Bayou dating to its first year of operation.

The pictures and historical newspaper accounts are housed in a converted telephone booth just off the lobby.

Although Ward and his wife enjoy the restaurant business, their children -- a daughter, Lanell, and a son, Eric, have pursued other professions.

Lanell has a career in marketing, and Eric works as an auto technician.

"Terri and I never insisted that Lanell and Eric enter our business," Ward said. "Although they help when we have huge holiday crowds, we don't expect them to make this a career. One has to really enjoy this line of work. You've got to like the long hours and enjoy meeting people. Not everyone can do that." Ward cited the 11-hour days and six-day weeks.

Asked whether they inherited those hours from the original owners, Ward laughingly replied, "No way. If the diner was empty at 7:30 p.m., Al would lock the doors and go home."

As Ward relaxed on a bench overlooking a fountain and pond adjacent to the main entrance, a longtime customer pulled up in a pickup truck and called out his lunch order. "It'll be ready," Ward replied an hour before the restaurant officially opened.

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