Philip R. Forrester

A former salesman who established several area restaurants

May 16, 2010|By Frederick N. Rasmussen, The Baltimore Sun

Philip Reece "Mr. Phil" Forrester, a former paper company salesman-turned-restaurateur, died May 6 of lung cancer at his Timonium home. He was 68.

Mr. Forrester was born and raised in Indiana, Pa. After graduating from Indiana Joint High School in 1959, he earned a bachelor's degree in economics in 1963 from Gettysburg College.

He began his business career with Scott Paper Co. in Chester, Pa., and, after a month, left to join the Army, where he worked in military intelligence.

Mr. Forrester served in Washington in top-secret satellite reconnaissance command and later was deployed to Vietnam, where he was assigned to the Military Assistance Command-J2 Army Intelligence.

He was discharged in 1965 and was an active reservist, where he attained the rank of captain.

After completing his military service, Mr. Forrester returned to Scott Paper and worked in sales and human relations for the next 15 years, before retiring in 1980.

Mr. Forrester began in the restaurant business in 1979 when he purchased a Mr. Donut franchise on Ritchie Highway in Brooklyn Park. He owned and operated it for a decade.

"My father couldn't boil water but he was great at running the front of the house," said his son, James Reece Forrester of Timonium.

In 1985, Mr. Forrester purchased the Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant in the 4800 block of Belair Road, from its original owner, Ray Gaskins.

Critics praised both the quality of its food and its South of the Border tourist decor.

"If like many Baltimoreans, you have been waiting for a Mexican restaurant that offers truly authentic cuisine, your wait has ended," wrote an Evening Sun restaurant critic.

The late Carleton Jones, who was restaurant critic for the Sunday Sun Magazine during the 1980s, said that when diners walked into the Hacienda there was nothing "mixed about the theme — it's all Mexican."

"Hacienda is resolutely south of the border, with folk designs romping across painted archways, wicker peacock chairs, painted wooden bowls, big dried plants in patio jars, cute little squares pierced in tin lamps, wooden mobiles in one corner, a donkey accompanied by a sleeping ceramic hombre in sombrero," he wrote.

"It's all done in full color, too — all the colors — and one wonders how this joyous festoonery is going to go over with the solid citizens of neighboring Hamilton, the very middle of the heart of middle America, Baltimore style," Mr. Jones wrote.

"At the Hacienda, he became known as 'Mr. Phil,' a moniker that would remain with him for the rest of his life," his son said.

"The Hacienda was a perennial award winner and family favorite. He enjoyed entertaining family and friends as he distributed fake mustaches and straw sombreros, capturing it all on his Polaroid camera," he said.

After selling the Hacienda in 1996, Mr. Forrester's next restaurant venture was Rothwells on Padonia Road in Timonium, which he opened with chef Mark Hofmann.

"I was 32 years old, green, and Phil let me know that. He ran the front of the house and I ran the back. It was a good marriage," Mr. Hofmann, now executive chef at Tark's Grill in Lutherville, said with a laugh.

"He showed me the ropes, that the restaurant business was all about service. He explained to me the definition of hospitality. He gave me confidence," Mr. Hofmann said.

"Phil really was 'Mr. Hospitality,' and the lessons he taught me I preach to my staff today," he said. "One of Phil's great lines was, 'It's not about the steak, it's the sizzle.'"

Mr. Hofmann also credited his former partner with helping him understand the financial aspects of running a restaurant from making budgets, and sticking to them, and balancing the books.

As he had at the Hacienda, Mr. Forrester enjoyed table hopping with the restaurant's guests, and in order to keep children happy, he had a back room fitted out with a tank of helium and an ample supply of balloons.

"When Phil marched out with a balloon for a child, the smile on their faces was just priceless," recalled Mr. Hofmann.

In 2001, the partners, in an amiable separation, sold the restaurant to the Pivec family, which reopened the restaurant as the Courtney Cafe, where Mr. Forrester worked as general manager and chief financial officer.

Three years later, the site of Courtney's was sold to Chris Ellis, who had been sous chef at the former Rothwells.

Mr. Ellis renamed the restaurant Christopher Daniel, where Mr. Forrester continued working as general manager and chief financial officer until retiring last November.

"Phil had great restaurant business knowledge and he knew how to keep people happy. He got to know the customers' names and their birthdays. He was the perfect front-of-the-house guy and treated his employees the same way," Mr. Ellis said.

Mr. Forrester also made it a point not to interfere with his chefs.

"He'd come to me and bring a menu if he had something he really liked in another restaurant," Mr. Ellis said. "He never tried to influence me and had a good knowledge of food and wine."

Mr. Forrester's lack of kitchen expertise did not preclude a critical eye.

"He could look at a dish and tell if something was wrong with it," Mr. Hofmann said.

"Phil's idea of cooking was ordering out," said his wife of 44 years, the former Judith Ann Armstrong.

If people wanted to remember him, Mr. Forrester's admonition was to "take an old friend to dinner."

Graveside services will be held at 11 a.m. May 22 at Oakland Cemetery, 845 Rose St., Indiana, Pa.

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Forrester is survived by his daughter, Susan Lee Forrester of Arlington, Va.; a brother, Ralph E. Forrester III of McIntyre, Pa.; and two granddaughters.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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