The hot chat Saturday night during our bike bar crawl was that the “Wet Willie’s Consortium” is buying the Baltimore Grill—Atlantic City’s iconic, much beloved and completely miraculous spaghetti-and-pizza restaurant—from the Tarsitanos and Riches, who have owned it for decades.
The Baltimore Grill is impossible to describe (for me anyway) objectively. It’s like a scene from Mean Streets (this one) has been lifted out of 1973 and carried forward through time to be dropped down across the street from the school where you went to kindergarten.
It’s an institution.
Wet Willie’s sells slushies spiked with high-octane rum out of big swirly vats, like you see on Spring Break. Which makes it a kind of institution as well, I guess. Their actual menu features a disclaimer noting, “190° proof Grain Alcohol may be substituted with 153° proof Grain Alcohol as required by certain state laws.”
By rights, the sound of this potential merger should have filled us with dread. Yet it did not.
Between you and me, the Route 40 editorial crew has lived around the world in a number of global alpha cities: New York City, Buenos Aires, London, Mexico City, Beijing, Boston, Alston, Ventnor etc. Atlantic City is the one place I never worry the hipsters are going to discover my favorite dive bar. The Baltimore Grill is the ultimate dive restaurant. The more people who discover it, the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.
Baltimore Grill, Inc. declared bankruptcy in January 2016. In the filing, the owners listed among their assets—right there next to the 150 lbs. of meatballs, six cases of granulated garlic, 40 lbs. of sliced mozzarella and 30 lbs. of cooked spaghetti—the “goodwill generated by operation in Atlantic City for approximately 89 years.” Amen to that.
My parents went to the Baltimore Grill in the 60s when it was an Atlantic High-Holy Spirit hangout. My uncle used to have a regular lunch date with some of the Atlantic City veterans until he died in 2006. When I got married in 2009, we had a pre-wedding dinner at the Baltimore Grill.
I first had takeout from the Baltimore Grill (ravioli, probably) when I was eight or nine. My dad was an assistant football coach at Holy Spirit in Absecon. On Monday nights, after the JV games, the coaches would stay on to watch game film of the upcoming opponent and someone would drive over the White Horse Pike to pick up pizzas and takeout pasta in the little white plastic canisters, so the families could all eat together in the teachers’ lounge.
Thirty-five years later, the quality of the plastic has changed (maybe) but they still sell spaghetti in white plastic canisters that look like they were developed by the space program. I really don’t care what the foodies think about the quality of the meatballs they contain. I love them.
I love that the lady behind the cashier is sometimes missing teeth. Or sometimes wearing sparkly eyeshadow. Sometimes wearing missing teeth and sparkly eyeshadow. I like that the kitchen’s open until three a.m., so if you get off the casino bus at 11:30 pm on your way home to see your family for Thanksgiving, you can still get a to-go order before heading out to the suburbs.
I love that you see the same faces—the same amazing faces—every time you go in there.
Last year when news of the bankruptcy broke, Chris Tarsitano, one of the owners, told the Press of Atlantic City (the tireless Reuben Kramer) the restaurant incurred a $715,000 bill when they withdrew from a pension plan that was only 70% funded. “We really got screwed by Local 54,” he was reported saying. He did not immediately respond to a phone call on Wednesday.
In fact the owners had been fighting for years. In 2013, Cheryll Rich Huffnagle filed a lawsuit to appoint Michael Fusco as provisional director to the company’s board, citing “mismanagement” by the Tarsitanos. The Tarsitanos said this was unnecessary and a waste of company resources. Cheryll Rich Huffnagle, in court papers, said it was essential to end mismanagement and stave off bankruptcy.
“The company is being bled dry, week by week.”
This past summer, a few changes were visible at the Grill (Elinor noticed them. I blocked them out). A new cash register appeared (any change is scary, but this seemed minor enough) along with some signage alterations. But apparently deeper movements were underway.
On November 8, the bankruptcy trustee filed a motion to sell the restaurant free and clear of liens. Then on December 21, Judge Jerrold Poslusny of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court granted a motion to sell the restaurant to Boulevard Capital, whose managing member (per the court documents) is Brian Pugh, who is also the ceo of Velocity Management, whose portfolio includes Wet Willie’s in the Playground Pier, along with Monkey Bar, Tag and Purdy.
In an interview, Brian Pugh, who grew up in Ventnor, said his dad has been an employee at the Baltimore Grill for 48 years (and a manager in the kitchen for 30-some of those years).
“Nobody knows that place better than my family. My dad’s been there forty-eight years,” he said.
He stressed his group does not yet own the Baltimore Grill but did acknowledge they are involved. “The motion is to sell it to us, but it’s still got to go through a process.”
A hearing is being held today in Camden. Pugh said he wasn’t expecting to hear today that the sale was final.
The bankruptcy trustee could not be reached for comment. The sale could be challenged as part of the bankruptcy process.
What of their plans for the Grill?
“No, we don’t want to change it,” Pugh said. “We really want to keep it the Baltimore Grill. And make sure the customers feel that. But the problem is, we get 26 million tourists into Atlantic City and if we weren’t from the area you wouldn’t be comfortable walking in there…That’s kind of the challenge.”