After Lenny Kaplan threw in the towel at the legendary Polo Grill on Dec. 31, 2002, his son-in-law Rob Freeman stepped in with much hoopla to bring the horsey-themed restaurant into the 21st century, promising a bolder, sleeker décor, an American brasserie menu and a much enlarged bar, complete with two plasma-screen TVs. And burn brightly it did. At least for the next six months, before Four West flamed out in an ugly conflagration of bad feelings, bounced checks and burned bridges.
Next up: The Club at the Colonnade.
After Freeman went MIA in November of 2004, the international food service company Aramark, which was managing the hotel property where the restaurant is located, quietly picked up the reins. Trouble was, over the course of the next year, the top-heavy operation managed to finish what Freeman had begun— driving out the remainder of the regulars.
Now, the best restaurant real estate in the city— poised as it is across the street from Johns Hopkins University, between downtown Baltimore and the suburbs— is being resurrected for the third time, this time as The Spice Company. And there is reason to be hopeful.
Presiding over the rebirth are two men who observed the wilderness period firsthand— from directly across the hall, in fact— as well as another, who runs two very successful restaurants right in the neighborhood. Yes, that would be John and Todd Yuhanick, of the 17-year-old marketing firm Yuhanick and Associates, housed in the Colonnade, and Kehar Singh, of The Ambassador Dining Room and The Carlyle Club.
When I drop by the Colonnade one morning in early spring to talk to the Yuhanicks about their plans for the June opening of The Spice Company, it’s déjà vu all over again. Renovations have yet to commence: The cherry framework of the old Polo days is still in place, as are the overwhelming horizontal gray stripes, looming mirrors and gargantuan chandeliers from the restaurant’s incarnation as Four West. You can practically feel the ghosts of proprietors past.
“It will never be the Polo,” says John, as if reading my mind. There’s a lot of history here to overcome, and he knows it. “We won’t be Lenny.” Rather than a grand opening, John muses at one point with a laugh, perhaps they should stage a requiem.
But that isn’t to be the case. The three men would spend the next few months overseeing a major renovation of the space and overhaul of the menu. The goal will be not only to lure back the bold-face name regulars, but to restore the “buzz,” putting it back on the map as a place to see and be seen.
This neighborhood restaurant is also the centerpiece of a food-and-beverage operation that serves the 125 rooms in the hotel, the condos and the nine banquet rooms. One can’t help but wonder: How did these guys— marketing whizzes, notwithstanding— end up with the keys to such a large operation in the first place?
After helping Aramark throw a grand opening for 500 last August, John told the landlord, “We’ll get these people here the first time, but after that, there will be no second chances.”
Less than three months later, he’d become concerned enough about the restaurant’s dwindling traffic that he asked for a meeting with the landlord. “I told Sidney [Bressler], ‘We can’t continue to take your money for marketing the way things are now,’” recalled John. “‘Why don’t you take our fees and the marketing money and hire three seasoned wait staff?’” He also advised Bressler to determine whether the chef was fully capable, and told him that a new rug and other tweaks to the decor were not going to solve all the problems.
“I told him, ‘You need to take care of the basics: good food, good service and reliability.’”
With that, Bressler offered John the keys: “You know how to run a restaurant.”
Back in the office, Todd was skeptical. A couple of days later, though, he turned to his father and mused, “I bet we could do this if we found a real restaurateur. Someone committed. Not just a manager, but someone with ownership.”
Lucky for them, Kehar Singh was ready to take on the challenge. A Punjab native, Singh arrived at BWI in 1986 at age 17. “The ride to Baltimore was $12, and the ride to D.C. was $35. I decided to try Baltimore.” For the next year, he worked as a waiter at Akbar before going to Harbour Court, where he waited tables and served as a banquet manager until 1992. That year, he opened his first restaurant, Banjara, in Federal Hill (which he sold in 2000) and in 1995, he purchased the nightclub The Depot (which he sold in 1998). Meanwhile, he and his brother Binda took over The Ambassador Dining Room in 1997, building it into one of the northern part of the city’s consistently hot dining destinations. The Carlyle Club, featuring upscale Lebanese cuisine, followed in 2003.
“I feel like all my life I’ve been preparing for an operation like this,” he says of running The Spice Company. The menu is a work in progress, but Singh, who will be running the day-to-day operations, promises that it will be completely different than the signature Indian dishes of The Ambassador (which Binda will continue to manage), or the fare at The Carlyle Club, where Chef Nader Binkasim will be in charge.
“I will not be cannibalizing my other places, or any of the neighborhood restaurants,” he says, listing steaks, pastas and a major emphasis on seafood as the centerpiece of the new menu. “It will be a very exciting addition to what’s in the neighborhood now.
“John and I have been great friends for many years,” he continues about the partnership. “To be a good restaurateur, you must be a good people person. You can’t find a better human than John Yuhanick.”
Now, after months of renovations, the three men have breathed new life into the space, starting with the decor. While the cherry wood accents from its former incarnation remain, the rest is gone, including the diagonal-striped ceramic flooring in the bar, the maze-like partitions at the entrance and the wall of curtained mirrors in the dining room. New hardwood floors, a warm neutral palette with finishes by the Valley Craftsmen, and a fireplace surrounded by bookshelves warm up the white-tablecloth dining room, where a customer “should feel as comfortable coming in for a cup of soup and a small plate,” explains Todd, “as he or she would for a rack of lamb.”
Part of making patrons comfortable is the free valet parking, making it an easy in-and-out venue for after-work drinks. Another welcome addition will be outdoor dining, finally making use of the large open-air terrace outside the front doors of the hotel.
“We’re taking it from a contemporary feel to something more intimate,” Todd continues. “It will be friendly and embracing, a place to meet, get a bite to eat, the perfect place to drop by on the way home from work.”
“If we succeed, it should feel like home,” adds John, “like Todd and I were hosting dinner in our own homes.”