For Sammy Davis Jr., opening a restaurant in the space formerly known as Church bar feels like a religious parable.

“It’s like the story of the prodigal son,” he said with a laugh. “Baltimore has always been my love. I hated to leave. I left on good terms and always wanted to return.”

But that’s where the comparisons to the controversial, now-shuttered space end.

“I didn’t want to delve into it. I didn’t want to go into the past. I wanted to think about what impact I could have,” Davis said of the building’s past troubles. “It was kind of like a blank canvas. It didn’t have any type of personality. It was a dope space, but I could inject part of me into the space.”

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Davis, 48, plans to debut Yebo Kitchen, an African-Asian concept, on April 14. The restaurant, open Thursday through Monday, will serve brunch and dinner on weekends; on weekdays, it will offer dinner service and eventually expand to lunch.

Davis has experience with Asian cuisine, working early in his career as a chef at Roy’s in Atlanta and Nobu in New York.

Expect plenty of tapas and dishes such as ahi tuna tacos, Chinese-style spiced oxtails cooked in African wine, low-country style shrimp and grits, and flaming French toast — a flambéed dish prepared tableside. The bar menu, which is being fine-tuned, will also feature Asian nods in the form of lychee.

This type of creativity helped Davis win a Season 10 episode of Food Network’s “Chopped,” as well as opening and operating restaurant concepts in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Baltimore.

Once Davis’ noncompete clause ended after the 2020 sale of his popular Milk & Honey restaurants to Thompson Hospitality, the restaurateur could return to Charm City, where he lives in the Fells Point neighborhood.

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In nearly 12 years away from the city, he’s observed a greatly improved culinary landscape — especially among its Black-owned restaurants.

“They have some great eating establishments. I think Baltimore is slept on as a food town,” he said.

Chef Sammy Davis Jr. preps food in the former Church bar space. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Davis’ dish of jerk lamb chops and seaweed salad. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Kelly Cross, president of the Old Goucher Community Association, is excited by what Davis — and his concept — can do for the neighborhood.

“Sammy brings a vital energy and vibrancy to Old Goucher,” he said. “I always envisioned that space to be one that celebrates the diversity and openness of our neighborhood. And, while I was deeply disappointed in how the Church story ended, I’m thrilled about the next chapter with Yebo Kitchen.”

Cross talked to several potential restaurateurs for the space but said he wanted to “hold for the right talent.” In December, Cross found that in Davis.

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The two were introduced by a group of Washingtonians who knew Cross from one of his walking tours of Old Goucher.

“They said they thought he’d be a good fit in the neighborhood,” Cross recalled. “Then, Sammy and I hit it off.”

Davis is pouring his soul into the project and has taken a special interest in the design. He painted the interior of the restaurant matte blue and black and “woke up” the space with flowers and African décor on the walls.

“It was immaculate. It felt that someone built the restaurant and then left it,” he said.

The 2219 Maryland Ave. space, which features front and back patios, has a capacity of 80 guests. (Davis plans to cover one of the patios so it can be used year round.) He also hopes to use the restaurant to teach and train kids from underserved communities about the skills of cooking and serving — something he also did in Richmond, Virginia.

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He will share many of the service lessons he learned while working for Ritz-Carlton properties early in his career. Even the design of the restaurant will focus on that mission: A neon sign that reads “Yes is the answer” will hang in Yebo Kitchen as a reminder to Davis’ employees.

In 90 days, Davis also plans to open a champagne-themed speakeasy in the building’s basement.

Champagne and Lobster will have room for 30 guests, its own entrance, gold walls, “high-end” champagnes and a $65 per-person prix fixe menu, according to Davis.

“I’m looking at very exotic champagnes,” he said. “The space will be different all to itself.”

Surprisingly, Davis admitted he isn’t interested in pursuing James Beard Awards for either concept.

“I just want to be a good-owned restaurant,” he said. “This is just for the people. If the people vote us ‘Best Of,’ I’ll be appreciative of that.”

John-John Williams IV is a diversity, equity and inclusion reporter at The Baltimore Banner. A native of Syracuse, N.Y. and a graduate of Howard University, he has lived in Baltimore for the past 17 years.

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