Time was, Louie’s The Bookstore Café was a Mt. Vernon fixture, known for its coffee, confections, literary works, and artsy atmosphere with live music and exhibits. Although the iconic spot is long gone (it closed while Bill Clinton was still president), to me, that space will always be Louie’s The Bookstore Café. Through the years, it has had several transformations, but none have lived up to Louie’s.
The latest concept for the onetime Ware & Co. furniture store is the Mason-Dixon-driven Ware House 518. The space is still wow-worthy, invoking Southern gentility with its soaring 17-foot ceilings, gilded Corinthian columns, and fireplace mantel in bas-relief. While a ladies’ “slenderizing salon” also was once located on this site, this menu highlights stick-to-your-ribs, Southern and New American-inflected cuisine, from seared pork belly with garlic purée and pork jus to beer-battered catfish and chips, and Delta-style gumbo. Ware House’s Ezra Tilaye and his mother, Tegist Ayalew, actually have owned this restaurant space since 2010, back when it was called Créme Restaurant & Lounge. But in October of 2014, Tilaye realized that he needed to retool the concept and give it, in his words, “something that was a little more Baltimore cool.” So Créme was closed and Ware House 518 was born. Part of the rebranding effort includes a restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept, when the bar area turns into Louie Bar (a nod to the beloved bookstore) with a separate menu on Friday and Saturday nights.
Maybe it will take more time to get things going, or maybe this is the pressure of opening a spot on hallowed ground, but on our visits, it was the vibe that was most missing. On the first go, a weeknight after work, my companion and I settled into a dining room with so few patrons that, by the end of the evening, we had the spot to ourselves. Even so, Tilaye did his best to create a sense of intimacy, as he eagerly expounded on the history of the place. He also took great care to learn our names, which he used throughout our meal.
The cool factor did run high on the libations, as head bartender Perez Klebahn (the former co-owner of Mr. Rain’s Fun House) turned out playful renditions of vintage cocktails that included house-made cordials, bitters, and syrups. I went wild for the French 75 featuring basil-infused gin, lemon, and champagne. A Bloody Mary with smoked tomatoes was also a terrific tipple.
While the drinks are the draw, the food is more hit-and-miss. To quell our hunger, we dug in to the Ware House Spreads and Pickles. The board included pimento cheese, a scant serving of house-pickled vegetables, soppressata, and several pieces of rubbery mortadella. A more successful starter was a steaming bowl of sweet Prince Edward Island mussels soaked in a heady elixir of butter sauce and herbs.
For entrees, we ordered a lusty Low-Country example of Dixie Shrimp ’n Grits. Grits thickened with cream cheese and flecked with andouille sausage were swimming in a smooth and smoky tomato cream sauce and topped with four plump shrimp, sourced from the Texas Gulf. My companion, who went to college in South Carolina, proclaimed the plate “excellent.” Her entree, a bowl of house-made gnocchi served in a lemon beurre blanc sauce, wasn’t memorable, but it was particularly pretty with brightly colored seasonal vegetables. For dessert, I highly recommend the bananas Foster bread (think banana bread drizzled with house-made caramel), which was dense and delicious.
On a subsequent visit, we stopped by for Sunday brunch. After a 15-minute wait, we languished way too long before our coffee was served and had to flag down a waiter for refills throughout our meal. Hungry from our wait, we decided to go for the gusto with the Caprese-style eggs Benedict with mozzarella and tomato, topped with a tangy house-made hollandaise. Instead of the usual potatoes, the eggs were accompanied by a lovely side of greens tossed with house-made honey mustard vinaigrette. Rockfish tacos, dressed with smoked-tomato aioli and cucumber pico de gallo, were another good choice, though we could have used more fish in the filling. The burger with pimento cheese on brioche beckoned, but when one of my dining companions ordered it, he was told they’d run out. He settled instead on a heavily fried chicken and waffle plate. Despite dousing the dish with a heap of syrup, it was dry and bland.
On both of our visits, the servers seemed to be running on Southern time, and the waitstaff was harried and disorganized. That said, I still think this spot has potential thanks to a top-flight beverage program, several signature dishes, and the beauty of the space. This Louie lover hopes Ware House can turn the page.
Ware House 518 518 N. Charles St., 443-869-3381.
HOURS Tues.-Thurs. 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
PRICES Appetizers: $7-14; entrees: $15-26; desserts: $6-7.
ATMOSPHERE Gilded Age meets modernity.