Phillips Seafood, the last of the original Harborplace tenants, is leaving Baltimore’s waterfront mall.
But it appears the restaurant — once one of the nation’s busiest eateries — won’t be going far when it closes on Sept. 30.
According to a city government source, Phillips is close to signing a deal that would keep the restaurant in the Inner Harbor. Under the plan, Phillips would move less than 1/2 mile away to the site of the old ESPN Zone restaurant, which closed abruptly last June.
Cordish Co., which owns the building, did not respond to requests for comment. The city source declined to be identified because the deal was not yet complete.
Phillips company officials would only say that they were “exploring other options” in the city. But Honey Konicoff, the company’s vice president of marketing, confirmed the main restaurant would leave Harborplace, along with its companion outlets in the Light Street Pavilion, Phillips Seafood Express and Phillips Seafood Buffet.
M.J. “Jay” Brodie, president of the Baltimore Development Corp., called the loss of what had once been an anchor “a challenge and an opportunity” for Harborplace.
“It means that there are some major spaces that need to be rethought,” Brodie said. “What happens at Harborplace is very important to the Inner Harbor and the city at large.”
Brodie was the city’s housing commissioner more than 30 years ago when city officials were scrambling to find tenants for the risky, revolutionary venture that was to become Harborplace.
He recalls a meeting in which Mayor William Donald Schaefer personally appealed to Phillips Seafood owners Brice and Shirley Phillips to consider bringing their popular Ocean City eatery to the fledgling project.
Harborplace’s founders desperately needed to bring a tenant on board with the name recognition and cachet Phillips boasted.
“It would be like an anchor department store in a mall,” Brodie said. “Schaefer asked them, and I don’t remember if was Brice or Shirley who said, ‘Leave Ocean City? Why? For Baltimore? Who else is going to be there?’
“Phillips was one of the great coups.”
In fact, Schaefer, who died in April, remembered Brice Phillips in his will. The restaurateur got $2,500 and the lone sentence-length tribute in an otherwise straightforward legal document: “He is one of the nicest men I have ever met.”
In 1981, about two years after it opened, Phillips’ Harborplace location was one of the nation’s top-selling restaurants, serving more than $13 million of crab imperial, raw oysters and fried clams. Only New York City’s famous Tavern on the Green and the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, Windows on the World, did more business.
At the time, the Harborplace restaurant was serving several thousand people a day, both locals and the tourists who poured into Baltimore’s biggest attraction.
Twenty-five years earlier, in 1957, the Phillipses had opened their first restaurant in Ocean City.
It was a four-table crab house on 21st Street, specializing in simple steamed crabs. The couple expanded bit by bit, dining room by dining room, every year as its popularity blossomed.
The Phillips family tried its hand at fast food, opening an outlet in Virginia Beach in 1985.
In 2004, the company announced a goal of opening as many as 500 fast-food crab-cake restaurants in airports and other high-traffic locations over the decade.
The company now has locations nationwide, selling Maryland-style crab cakes with seafood imported from Asia.
“It’s a wholly different company now,” Brodie said.
Harborplace has experience changes of its own.
The mall struggled to hold on to nonfood tenants, locally owned boutiques and gift shops, to the point where people began referring to Harborplace as “the food court of the Inner Harbor.”
And by the early 2000s, besides Phillips and a few other sit-down restaurants, most of the Harborplace eateries were, indeed, more appropriate for snacking than dining.
Hoping to lure back the locals, General Growth Properties — which emerged from bankruptcy protection last year — attempted to give the mall something of a culinary makeover. In 2005, the company introduced four new restaurants to the Pratt Street Pavilion. They included Tir Na Nog, a white-tablecloth Irish pub; La Tasca, a Spanish tapas restaurant; Edo Sushi; and a Five Guys hamburger joint.
Several merchants in the Light Street Pavilion said Friday they had just heard the news about Phillips. None was pleased.
Harold Simms, longtime manager of The Flag Shop, said he was especially sorry to see the departure of a Harborplace fixture — one of the few in business longer than he has been. “For 22 years, they’ve been my neighbors,” he said. “Any closed door here is not good for business.”
Recently, Harborplace managers seemed to have decided the mall’s future is in retail, not food. They trumpeted the recent opening of Swedish retailer H&M and the 2006 addition of Urban Outfitters in the Light Street Pavilion.
Brodie says Harborplace would be smart to go after a tenant like that to fill the 20,000-square-foot hole Phillips will leave.
“I don’t think more food is necessarily needed,” he said. “Food is not necessarily an awful thing, but it’s a less interesting thing for a consumer.”