Donna's owners prepare for next steps

Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch reflect on their losses in last week's fire

  • A week after a devastating five-alarm fire at the Park Plaza building, Donna Crivello, left, and Alan Hirsch, the owners of Donna's, survey the damage to their Mount Vernon restaurant. Donna picked up an evergreen bough that she said she could use for outside decoration at her other restaurant.
A week after a devastating five-alarm fire at the Park Plaza… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
December 14, 2010|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

How many Donna's were there?

In the days following the Park Plaza fire that closed the flagship location, I tried to piece together all of various Donna's cafes, coffee bars, kiosks and full-service restaurants that have come and gone over the past 18 years. Somewhere in the mid-1990s, though, when there were cafes and kiosks in bookstores and malls stretching from Bel Air to Columbia, the timeline unravels, and not even principal owners Donna Crivello and Alan Hirsch have been able to produce a full and detailed timeline.

"Believe me, we've tried," says Hirsch.

The one thing everyone knows is that the Mount Vernon location, which opened in the fall of 1992 as Donna's Coffee Bar, was the first. It was always less of a coffee bar than cafe, inspired by Crivello's trips to Italy and with a menu (originally, six sandwiches and six salads) reflecting a fresh approach to cafe cuisine. Entering the Baltimore dining scene there: tapenade, roasted vegetables and bread dipped in oil, commonplace now but not so then.

And almost from the start, Hirsch and Crivello knew the Mount Vernon location was awkwardly laid out and too small. Their cafes to come would have bigger, better-equipped kitchens, where cooks could do essential work — like grilling a hamburger.

Hirsch acknowledges what many observers, including myself, had been thinking: that the original Donna's had begun to lose some of the urgency of those early years. "We had been looking to update to this location, turn it into something more of a wine bar," he says. But if the Donna's in Mount Vernon was no longer the company's jewel, it had remained indisputably a neighborhood fixture. "We live a life with our customers and our employees," Crivello says, "and we've lost that."

On Friday, Hirsch and Crivello had just arrived from the Donna's location in Charles Village, where in a meeting they both described as "very emotional," they effectively parted company with most of their Mount Vernon staff. Now, standing inside the dimly lit cafe space, just days after the fire that ravaged the historic Park Plaza building, Hirsch says, "On the way down here, I was thinking we'd be able to sit down at Donna's and have a cup of coffee."

The space that was Donna's looks soggy and dirty and miserable, but it doesn't look devastated. A glance inside Indigma, across the hall, reveals what looks like considerable fire damage, and My Thai, on the level below, has more serious water damage. Most of the damage to Donna's itself was from water, and even that is not extensive. Paintings on display by the local artist Kelly Walker, at first thought to have been destroyed, were discovered later to have suffered only minimal damage.

Donna's still looks like itself. Certainly every table, chair, coffee cup, pot, pan and iced tea spoon inside Donna's will have to be removed, some of it to be cleaned, most of it to be junked. But the walls and floors, the basic bones, of the cafe are intact. Running her hands over the marble coffee counter, Crivello points out the embedded pieces of colored glass, meant to reflect the glasphalt of Madison Street. "My friend Michel Pratka gathered this glass." The counter is salvageable, too.

"If we weren't attached to this building," Hirsch says, "we could probably be open in a couple of months."

But Donna's is very much part of a shattered building, and the time frame for a reopening is for the moment anybody's guess. Hirsch says it will be months before a thorough analysis of the Park Plaza building is complete. Offering his estimate, though, he says a reopening could happen in nine months — but it could be much longer.

Hirsch remembers the months leading up to the early November 1992 opening, when he and Crivello were spending long days planning and supervising on the construction site. At some point almost every day, one of them would say, "Wouldn't it be nice if there was a place around here to sit down and have a cup of coffee?" Then they'd realize: "That's what we're doing."

There just wasn't any place to sit down and have a nice cup of coffee in Mount Vernon, or anywhere else for that matter, at the time. There were greasy spoons like the Buttery, but American coffeehouse culture, as we know it, was in its infancy. (I put the birth year at 1987, when the first Starbucks locations outside of Seattle opened in Vancouver and Chicago).

Eighteen years later, if we had wanted to, we could have walked a few blocks in any direction and found a coffeehouse or cafe — City Cafe, Red Emma's bookstore and the new Milk & Honey are nearby — places where folks can sit and linger without committing to a full meal.

"I was living there," Crivello said, remembering weeks on end without a day off.

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