The high-ceilinged property at 518 N. Charles Street—which most notably operated as Louie’s Bookstore Cafe in the ’80s—changed hands earlier this week, as Ware House 518 owners Ezra Tilaye and Tegist Ayalew said goodbye to the space after seven years.
The duo sold the business to new owners Joshua Persing and Robert Gay, who plan to unveil a rebranded lounge concept at the end of April. Tilaye cites Ayalew’s impending retirement as one of the main reasons behind the closure, saying that he will now focus his efforts on the duo’s D.C. restaurant, Creme.
“Given the circumstances, we knew that it was on the horizon,” Tilaye says. “We had to consolidate what we were doing as far as location.”
The partners first opened a second location of Creme in the storied space in 2010, but three years later opted to rebrand into Ware House 518—a concept that emphasized seasonal fare and next-level cocktails—to better reflect the uniqueness of Mt. Vernon.
Being a part of the historic neighborhood is one thing that Tilaye says he enjoyed most, sharing memories like getting to know regulars, partnering with local bartenders and breweries, and hosting community events.
In particular, he mentions a recent fundraiser with Wild Kombucha to benefit Planned Parenthood, as well as a gathering for the Mt. Vernon Historic Charles Street Association in 2015 that supported neighboring businesses that were damaged during the Baltimore Uprising.
“That, to me, was just a preview of what the city can do,” Tilaye says of the event. “Our connection to the community was a big part of our business. We always understood that a stronger city builds a stronger community.”
Though he will now be commuting back and forth to his native D.C., Tilaye says he plans to maintain strong ties to Charm City with culinary and community outreach work: “The city needs good entrepreneurs and creatives,” he says. “I’m going to continue to fight for it.”
As Tilaye moves on, the new owners are getting to work to quickly transform the space into G.A.Y., a West Coast-inspired concept which is slated to debut on April 28.
Persing, a local industry veteran who previously worked for Boordy Vineyards, says that the new spot was largely influenced by The Hippo, Mt. Vernon’s stalwart gay club, which closed in 2015.
“We felt that it left a void in the community,” he says of closure. “So that’s what fueled us. It was the perfect time to bring something chic and elegant with a different feel.”
The 70-seat lounge will feature sleek furniture, a menu of small plates from 4-9 p.m. nightly, brunch service on weekends, and a lineup of live entertainment including frequent drag brunches.
Though the concept is modern, Persing is adamant about maintaining the historic charm of the early 20th-century building, which includes 17-foot ceilings, gilded columns, and a vintage fireplace mantle.
“It speaks elegance, and the mezzanine level up top really overlooks all of that beauty,” he says. “The new look will really drive it home for Baltimore.”
With the building in good hands, Tilaye is content moving on to the next chapter.
“The Baltimore food scene is forever growing, especially with the young scrappy restaurateurs that are coming into the game,” he says. “I’m excited that I could have been a part of that growth, and I’m excited to see it go further as a guest.”