New restaurant rising at site of Fat Cat Cafe

Crews work to restore historic spot in downtown Westminster

January 21, 2007|By David P. Greisman | David P. Greisman,Special to The Sun

Nearly a year ago, an early-morning fire caused an estimated $1 million in damage to a popular downtown Westminster restaurant, but the site of the Fat Cat Cafe is making its way back.

In place of the shattered windows, caution tape, piles of debris and the destroyed third floor, there are tarps and glass, a construction crew and a turret extending from the roof of the rebuilt top level.

The building is being restored by its new owner, Sykesville Mayor Jonathan S. Herman.

Herman, who fell in love with 172 E. Main St. years ago, said the building will keep its historic look and will reopen with a new restaurant and apartment units inside.

"It's kind of a win-win situation for everybody," Herman said. "It would be unfortunate to see that building disappear from the corner and have a modern structure replace it. It suits me well ... and it suits the people of Westminster."

After opening about a decade ago in the century-old building, the Fat Cat Cafe brought a stream of customers for breakfast, lunch and weekend dinners until a fire Feb. 19 snuffed out business at the southeast corner of Center and Main streets.

Just after 5 a.m., firefighters were called out to extinguish a blaze that officials said began with faulty wiring above the ceiling of a third-floor attic apartment.

More than 100 firefighters from 10 companies had the fire under control about two hours later, but the building's interior was heavily damaged. The fire burned through the third-story apartments, while lower levels suffered water damage.

Much of the original woodwork remains intact, said Herman, who owns a construction company that specializes in historic preservation and renovation. Herman said he hopes to have the work done by summer.

"I was sad to see that it had burned in a fire, and I had wondered what they were going to do with the building. I figured if nobody wanted to fix it up, I would be a good candidate to do so," he said.

It was the restaurant's architecture that captivated Herman four years ago as he drove by.

While Herman said he is not sure whether the restaurant will be a reopened Fat Cat Cafe, he said he is looking to have something similar.

"It seemed like it was a good use for the building," he said. "It was a successful business. The Fat Cat had done quite well; it was very well known.

"I'm pleased to be working in Westminster. It's a lovely city," Herman said. "I have a lot of support from the neighbors and from the community, and I look forward to a prosperous venture."

The former owners of the restaurant, meanwhile, have chosen to move in different directions.

John DiNatale, the Fat Cat Cafe's minority owner who was also the manager and one of the chefs, said that the loss of the restaurant was devastating but that it opened up an opportunity for him to do catering for a larger clientele.

"I deeply miss the customers, many of whom became my friends, [and] people who worked for me were like a part of my family," he said.

Mary Palmer, who owned the building and was a majority owner of the restaurant, sold 172 E. Main St. to Herman in the fall for $120,000.

Palmer, a commercial pilot, spoke fondly of her time with the Fat Cat Cafe and said she is eager to see how the restoration is going.

"I'm sure it's going to be warmly received by the community," she said. "It was a beautiful building. It was a great experience."

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