The old Alexander Brown bank building was one of the few downtown structures to survive Baltimore’s Great Fire of 1904. It’s a marvel of Gilded Age architecture inside, with marble columns, tufted couches and a Tiffany-style stained glass dome that takes up most of the ceiling. Prior to COVID, it underwent a massively expensive renovation and became a restaurant, which in turn shuttered in the early days of the pandemic.

Near the bar, restaurateurs Brendon Hudson and David Monteagudo sat across from me as they explained how they plan to use the space. “I just love that it has that underdog feel to it,” Hudson said. “It just feels like a spot that we can relate to.”

For months, the duo, who are business as well as romantic partners, have faced intensifying bad press as their former workers have alleged mistreatment and a former landlord and others have hit them with lawsuits. It’s been a dramatic fall from grace for a pair seen as rising stars in the local dining scene.

The couple, who met at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, opened tiny Mount Vernon cafe Allora in 2021. The eatery was catnip for gourmands, serving fancy toasts and Roman-style cacio e pepe on mismatched china.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Soon after, they said, developers came calling. The duo hatched ambitious plans for new restaurants, including Velleggia’s, an Italian place in Cross Street Market. It was a revival of the bistro of the same name that Hudson’s family had run for years in Little Italy, and a tribute to the ancestors who helped inspire his interest in hospitality. Last year, Hudson and Monteagudo opened Piccola Allora, a café on the campus of Johns Hopkins University.

But that wasn’t all. Before Velleggia’s even opened, the couple teased that they would be taking over the Alexander Brown building to launch Zander’s, an “old-school American steakhouse” with a “Great Gatsby” theme.

Their new landlord, Alex Griswold, said he was impressed by Hudson and Monteagudo’s vision for the historic landmark. Griswold, who is a descendant of the original Alexander Brown, founder of the nation’s first investment bank, helped operate the former restaurant. He had been searching for a new operator with grand ambitions to match the grand building since shutting it down, and the restaurateurs “were young and entrepreneurial and they had other businesses. … They had a track record.”

Finally, this spring, they announced plans to relocate Allora to a glitzy space next door on the ground floor of the City House building at East Eager and North Charles streets, formerly home to Grand Central. “It’s pretty chaotic for sure but it’s a controlled chaos,” Hudson told me at the time. The couple didn’t have any investors, preferring to protect their concepts from what they saw as outside interference.

But their meteoric rise didn’t last.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

A dining room in Baltimore’s Alexander Brown building that was home to an eponymous restaurant that closed during the pandemic. (Christina Tkacik)

In May, The Baltimore Business Journal reported that several former employees of Allora had alleged a pattern of late or insufficient paychecks. In July, Velleggia’s shut down after less than a year in operation; Hudson says the revenue at the restaurant fell far short of what landlord Caves Valley Partners, which has a long-term lease on the city-owned market, had projected.

He and Velleggia’s are now being sued by a subsidiary of Caves Valley to the tune of six figures for unpaid rent. (Caves Valley principal Arsh Mirmiran declined to comment because of the pending litigation.) Hudson owes nearly $60,000 plus interest to PeoplesBank, which lent him the money to open Velleggia’s; the bank obtained a judgment against him and the restaurant. According to online records, Hudson also owes nearly $19,000 to a local flooring company that did work on the restaurant.

Late last month, Allora’s move to the former Grand Central space was called off for reasons Hudson would not disclose. A spokesman for the City House developers declined to comment.

Griswold, who lives in Florida, said he wasn’t familiar with the details of his tenants’ recent legal and financial problems, but he was sympathetic to their situation. “Restaurants are difficult businesses to run,” he said. “Each circumstance creates opportunities for failure and opportunities for success.”

Two former Allora employees told The Baltimore Banner they were routinely paid late or insufficiently while working at the restaurant. “I had line cooks that worked for me that weren’t able to make rent” because of payment issues, said former chef Nathanial Rought, who took to Reddit to blast the owners.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Ex-server Kayla Pope said she believes she did not get paid fully for tips when she worked at Allora from March through July of 2023. She said she was able to use an app to track how much she’d earned in gratuities and claimed the amount she earned from the restaurant was typically hundreds of dollars less than that projection. Though she left the restaurant this past summer, it took until October for her to receive her final paycheck.

Hudson disputed both of the workers’ accounts and said any past issues with paying employees late were isolated mistakes of just a few days, the sort common in the restaurant world. “This happens all over the place,” he said. Hudson insisted that all employees were eventually paid in full and the experiences of those employees wasn’t a reflection of a larger issue. “We don’t have a history in Baltimore of screwing people over,” he said.

Allora Cacio e Pepe

1005 N. Charles St

Baltimore’s Roman bistro serves pastries and espresso drinks for breakfast and paninis and pasta for lunch
The cacio e pepe from Allora.

During an interview, Hudson didn’t dispute the debts owed to Caves Valley and others related to Velleggia’s closure, and said he is working to pay them back. While shutting down the restaurant, Hudson and Monteagudo began working closely with a financial advisor who they said is helping get their businesses back on track and pay what they owe. The advisor encouraged them to keep rigorous track of their business expenses and to reduce labor costs through better scheduling.

Facing mounting financial pressures, the couple has focused on a steadier, more familiar revenue stream: events catering, through Liliahna Luxury Catering, a company they co-founded in 2015. They began using the Alexander Brown building to host events such as weddings, birthday and corporate dinners. “It’s just like riding a bike for us,” Hudson said of the operations. “The predictability of it makes it a lot less of a headache” than running a restaurant.

As they’ve watched their reputations take a hit, the couple said they’ve leaned on the support of friends and fellow restaurant owners, like Steve Chu of Ekiben, who have encouraged them to keep going even in the face of bad press. “Baltimore is extremely lucky to have their talents in this city,” Chu said. In the wake of Velleggia’s closure, Chu said he urged them to “keep their heads up, and keep slinging that good pasta.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As a business owner, Chu said he can empathize with some of the duo’s missteps. But he contrasted their fast growth with his own slow journey with Ekiben, now one of the city’s most recognizable chains. “It took us 10 years to go from hot dog carts to three restaurants,” he said. It’s a “part of fast expansion — oftentimes, mistakes are made.”

Griswold said he is hopeful his new tenant will be successful, especially because downtown Baltimore “deserves more great dining options.” His building comes with its own quirks given its storied history.

Hudson and Monteagudo showed me how they have to use a butter knife to unlock a secret door that leads to what may be one of the nation’s oldest toilets. A book bound in leather revealed financial transactions from the 1800s. Framed engravings show the busy intersection of Calvert and Baltimore streets from years ago.

There’s something soothing about all this well-preserved history. If only there’s a future, too.