For the first time in years, I walked inside the courtyard at the Village of Cross Keys.

I planned to have brunch at Easy Like Sunday, a restaurant that opened inside the former Village Square Cafe space four months ago. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with that bright idea: The courtyard was packed with a diverse cross section of Baltimore diners, and a hostess at the restaurant informed me there was an hourlong wait for a table.

Crowds? At Cross Keys? It was a scene that visionary developer James Rouse likely had in mind when he first designed the North Baltimore property on a former golf course on Falls Road, but one that might have been hard to imagine just a few years ago.

Until recently, Cross Keys has felt more like a dying mall than Rouse’s groundbreaking project of the 1960s. By the time Towson’s Caves Valley Partners purchased the property for $27 million in 2020, it had been in decline for decades. When the 2021 closure of the Village Square left the shopping center without a single place to eat, Arsh Mirmiran, principal of Caves Valley, seemed to be struggling to secure a replacement. Efforts to bring the storied Prime Rib from its longtime Mount Vernon digs to Cross Keys never materialized.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But that’s all changing now, thanks in large part to the arrival of Easy Like Sunday. Diners who’ve come to the restaurant for lunch or breakfast often stick around to scope out some of the other shops and have “sort of re-found their love of Cross Keys,” Mirmiran said.

After all, there was a time when Cross Keys, “was the place to be, it was not one of the places to be,” Mirmiran said. Oprah Winfrey called the development home when she worked for WJZ and was a regular at the Cross Keys Deli. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, actress Katharine Hepburn and singer Ella Fitzgerald all stopped by, too, according a 1994 article in The Baltimore Sun. Local business leaders started their day with meetings there.

Sean MacCuish, Easy Like Sunday’s executive chef and co-owner, said hearing about Cross Keys’ illustrious past helped motivated him and his wife and business partner, Anna, to take the leap. “Anna’s grandparents tell stories that they would take her parents there when they were kids,” he said. “We had to really see the vision … to believe that this place was going to turn around.”

The restaurateurs first launched their mid-priced brunch concept in North Carolina in 2020, but decided to relocate to Maryland as they were preparing to start a family. Fun fact: Anna’s parents are Andy and Alexia Farantos, whose G&A Restaurant was a Highlandtown institution from 1927 until it relocated to White Marsh. Let’s just say they know a thing or two about the long game of the Baltimore restaurant business.

The new eatery’s customers are “a pretty good mix” of the regulars who live in condos right behind Cross Keys or come in from the different office buildings on site, MacCuish said. Others are tourists staying in the center’s hotel, while some are newly discovering the restaurant on social media. Saturdays and Sundays, as my long wait proved, are especially busy, when the 152-seat eatery can serve 5-to-600 covers inside or on its spacious outdoor patio for the day. “That’s 500 or 600 people that are newly coming to Cross Keys,” he said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Mirmiran said the launch of Easy Like Sunday has created “a pretty noticeable difference” in traffic levels at the property. “I didn’t expect it to happen this quickly.”

Cordish’s Cece’s Roland Park is one of several new restaurants planned for Cross Keys in 2024. (Christina Tkacik)

On my way in to Easy Like Sunday, signs pointed to the future location of Cece’s Roland Park, an upscale eatery from The Cordish Companies that will open in the spring. There are also plans for an Italian deli, ice cream shop and a Mexican restaurant. Nearby, construction will soon begin on the future home of Atlas Restaurant Group’s first Chinese concept, set to arrive next year.

“We have the two most sophisticated and well-capitalized restaurant groups in Baltimore coming” to Cross Keys, Mirmiran said, calling the willingness of Cordish and Atlas to invest in restaurants there “validators of the quality of the real estate,” which in turn has helped pick up the pace of retail leasing. The number of residents should increase in coming years, too. Questar Properties, the developer behind 414 Light, is working on a 330-unit luxury apartment building on the premises, though Mirmiran said construction has faced delays.

Atlas founder Alex Smith recalled memories of having lunch at Cross Keys with his mom and grandmother decades ago. But General Growth Properties Inc., which purchased the property from Rouse along with Harborplace and Towson Town Center in 2004, “just destroyed” the North Baltimore development, Smith said, comparing the center’s decline to the long slide of Harborplace. (Ashkenazy Acquisition Corp. acquired both Harborplace and Cross Keys in 2012). He thinks Mirmian is just the person to bring it back. “He’s super creative, he’s very detail-oriented,” Smith said. Mirmiran is “more than just a developer. Arsh has vision.”

The two have been friends for years and previously teamed up at Cross Street Market, where Smith’s company handles marketing and operations in addition to running a restaurant and several stalls. “We work really well together,” Smith said.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Atlas is opening a Chinese restaurant at Cross Keys next year. (Handout)

But when it comes to Cross Keys, Mirmiran stressed that he had good bones to work with. The property’s developers “kind of had it nailed” in designing a shopping center and courtyard that could be a gathering place for everyone, whether families or office workers. “If you look at Cross Keys today, we didn’t do some massive reconfiguration. That courtyard is a really cool, mature space,” he said.

A former Disney employee recently sent Caves Valley a photo of Rouse at Cross Keys. He’s standing with Walt Disney, surveying a model of downtown Columbia, which would become the centerpiece of Rouse’s legacy. “The dude,” he said of Rouse, “was way ahead of his time and was a legit genius.”

For Mirmiran, the revitalization of Cross Keys is about a return to Rouse’s original project more than anything else. “I do think that we’re on the cusp of having Cross Keys be a major gathering place for Baltimore again after almost two decades of not being that.”

More From The Banner