Phillips Restaurant is one of the few features of Harborplace… (Barbara Haddock, Baltimore…)
When Harborplace celebrates its 30th anniversary next month, Phillips will be featured exclusively among all of the attraction's restaurants in the festivities. Phillips deserves to hog as much of the stage as it wants. Only a tough, well-run business could have weathered 30 years of the changing tastes and trends that have blown through Harborplace. I raise my crab mallet to them.
Among the other original restaurant tenants, Pronto was a very early casualty, lasting only a year before being closed (the owners blamed "rising maintenance fees"), and the Black Pearl didn't last much longer. Jean-Claude's, Taverna Athena and Tandoor had respectable runs. The American Cafe burned brightly for years but vanished, it feels like, overnight. Wayne Brokke's Soup Kitchen, which had a successful run in Federal Hill before opening in Harborplace, eventually morphed into Wayne's Barbeque before closing in 2002. The spectral City Lights lasted until early 2006. The Big Cheese opened later that first summer but had a short stay.
Of note between then and now: Gianni's, if only for bringing Anthony Bourdain to Baltimore; Paolo's, which was about as sexy as Harborplace ever got; and my all-time favorite Harborplace spot, the Bun Penny Market Bar, which I was amazed to see closed all the way back in 1990
Contrary to myth, not all of the original tenants were home-grown. Tandoor and American Cafe were Georgetown-based. The Black Pearl was out of Nantucket. But they were, more or less, hand-selected. Should anyone care, then, whether Harborplace's restaurants mean anything, whether they etch a portrait of Baltimore? I don't. My first concern is that the restaurants of Harborplace gainfully employ as many Baltimoreans as possible, and second is that visitors leave with a better impression of the city than when they came. Seeing after the former will do much to ensure that the latter happens, up to a point.
Far more troubling is the dismantling of Benjamin Thompson's original design for the pavilions, particularly the Light Street Pavilion's original design, which was orchestrated along the lines of a Food Hall, the Colonnade Market, a Trading Hall and the Sam Smith Market. Granted, this division was not always apparent, but it meant something to the original developers. Harborplace directories now designate all these areas as "Zone C."
In what was then a rare dissension, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger noted what he felt was an overly controlled environment: "Harborplace asserts that it is about spontaneity and variety, as real cities are; it is, in fact, about order and conformity."
It's up for discussion, and I think a good one, whether it was the Rouse Co.'s iron-fisted control over its tenants, or the eventual loosening of that grip (long before the acquistion of Rouse by General Growth Properties in 2004), that has led Light Street Pavilion to its current state.
The retail dream faded first. By the fifth anniversary, some of the original tenants were pulling out as their initial leases were ending: "Baltimoreans used to shop here, but most of them just come down here for ice cream," one such merchant lamented in a 1985 Evening Sun article. It took longer for the food concepts to break down, but the Colonnade Market, which was composed of packaged-food shops and with a handful of market-style stalls, went first. The remnants of the original Food Hall, which had 25 tenants when it opened, now houses about five.
My fix for the Harborplace pavilions: Gut them and start over. Short of that, work with the existing restaurants to create more outside bars, like the one J. Paul's operates seasonally.
Let's at least show people a good time.