Let’s dish: A tale of 2 Hampden restaurants with 1 liquor license and drama to spare

Published on: November 23, 2022 6:00 AM EST|Updated on: November 23, 2022 10:46 AM EST

Bar Fusion, a new restaurant in the place of the former 13.5% Wine Bar in Hampden, has encountered opponents in the neighborhood.

The restaurant world is a magnet for drama. This week, I bring to you news of a dramatic situation unfolding in Hampden, which is fast overtaking Fells Point and Federal Hill as Baltimore’s go-to dining neighborhood.

Plus, find out where you can drink a beer and watch the World Cup at 6 a.m.

Break-ins hit businesses

Business owners in Baltimore’s east side are seeing a spate of break-ins. On Instagram a week ago, Sally O’s in Highlandtown reported a brick thrown through the front door; the cash register was stolen along with several bottles of liquor, according to the post.

Last Friday, Vaccaro’s staff found broken glass at their store in Little Italy. Thieves were in the store “for less than two minutes,” said Vaccaro’s co-owner Maria Vaccaro, whose father-in-law founded the company. Suspects took a cash drawer, but “there was nothing in it.” She’s grateful it happened at 4 a.m. when there was no one behind the counter.

With the holidays approaching, Vaccaro worries stories like this will just keep customers away from her family’s bakery, which is over 65 years old and famous for cannoli.

“One more thing in Little Italy,” she said. The business has locations in Hunt Valley and Canton, but Little Italy is the main location. “It’s an institution.”

Vernon Davis, a spokesman for the Baltimore Police Department, said detectives have not identified suspects in either case.

Bertha's is closing after 50 years of service to Baltimore.

Bertha’s update

What the heck is happening with Fells Point’s favorite mussels joint, Bertha’s Mussels? As I reported last week, the auction for the 50-year-old institution was canceled and the sale put on pause as owner Tony Norris said they failed to reach the desired price. Reached Monday morning, Norris said he had nothing new to report.

Bar Fusion, a new restaurant in the place of the former 13.5% Wine Bar in Hampden, has encountered opponents in the neighborhood.

13.5% Wine Bar shut down this year but lives on — in drama

There is a brouhaha brewing in Hampden over two different restaurant concepts, both of which share the same liquor license.

Let’s go back to earlier this year, when restaurateur Wayne Laing shut down his Hampden restaurant 13.5% Wine Bar without fanfare.

According to state records, Chil Chong took over the former 13.5% space at 117 West 36th St., calling it Bella Italia.

The new concept, an Italian restaurant, didn’t last long, and yet another new sign, Bar Fusion, went up around September as Chong tried another concept. The business, a restaurant and hookah bar, hosts weekend brunch with a DJ and other events.

But not everyone is a fan of the spot — or its owner.

Chef Bernard Dehaene’s beef with Chong goes back to 2018. That year, Dehaene sold his Corner Restaurant and Charcuterie Bar on Hampden’s Avenue to Chong for $200,000. Chong turned it into Nori Sushi before selling the business to a new owner. Now, it’s Mona’s Super Noodle.

Here’s the thing: Dehaene says Chong never finished paying him for the business. He eventually took Chong to court, where Chong, through his attorney, Peter Prevas, argued that he didn’t have to pay because Dehaene never transferred the liquor license to Chong. Dehaene said he sold the liquor license to another buyer after Chong stopped making payments on the business.

Eventually, the court sided with Dehaene, granting him a $130,000 judgment against Chong in July, according to court records. But Dehaene says he received notice that Chong has since filed for bankruptcy. According to a petition filed in October, Chong is seeking to have the claim discharged along with other debts, including approximately $18,000 owed to a seafood purveyor.

“It’s a mess,” Dehaene said.

I contacted Chong and his attorney, Prevas, for comment, but have yet to hear back.

After that experience, Dehaene said he’s against Chong’s taking on a new business in Hampden. So he showed up to a hearing last week where Bar Fusion was set to request a new liquor license of its own.

Along with him: Denise Whiting, the former owner of nearby Cafe Hon, who helped circulate a petition against the restaurant. She declined to comment for this article.

The hearing was postponed after Chong’s attorney requested to amend the application. But that’s not where the drama stops.

Up to this point, Bar Fusion has been operating under the original liquor license held by 13.5% Wine Bar, through an operating agreement a spokesman for Baltimore’s Board of Liquor License Commissioners tells me is fairly common.

Now, Laing, the former owner of 13.5% Wine Bar who owns the liquor license, is applying to transfer it to another establishment, a restaurant that will be behind Red Fish Liquors on Falls Road.

Federal records show Laing’s business received just under $300,000 through the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, a program designed to help restaurants survive the pandemic.

Neighbors have also spoken out against Laing’s new concept on Falls Road, saying that area is too residential to accommodate a karaoke bar that he had planned for the spot. One area homeowner, Lisa Lunt, wrote in an email to the liquor board: “Who wants to live next door to a bar that’s operating until the early hours of the morning six or seven days a week, with no respite?”

Together with the Hampden Community Council, they protested the project before the city’s zoning board, which twice turned down Laing’s request to host live entertainment.

Nevertheless, Laing is moving forward with a restaurant at that location, according to friend Lou Catelli, whose legal name is William Bauer, who is working with him on the project. Laing did not respond to a request for comment from The Baltimore Banner.

Bauer said while they “can’t have microphones plugged in, our hope is after the neighbors realize how great it is for the area, we’re allowed to reapply” to have live entertainment.

All of this should make for an interesting liquor board hearing when Laing and Bauer go before the board Dec. 1. If they get approved, it would leave Bar Fusion without a liquor license once the new concept on Falls Road opens.

Bauer said it will likely be six to nine months before Laing’s new concept on Falls Road opens, so Bar Fusion can keep using the liquor license until then.

Check it out: Christmas World Cup pop-up

While I was interviewing Bauer, he filled me in on another Hampden happening worth putting on your radar.

Bauer, as you may know, is sometimes called the “mayor of Hampden,” although he told me he prefers the title of “ambassador.” He’s the guy you see wearing short shorts even in sub-zero temperatures and riding a large tricycle through the neighborhood.

Now, Bauer is co-hosting a pop-up at Hampden’s Treehouse Cafe and Juice Bar where guests can watch the World Cup games and drink beer right by the “Miracle on 34th Street” Christmas lights display.

I stopped by this week. Bauer, wearing a referee’s shirt with a whistle, sipped sambuca while friends walked in to watch Mexico take on Poland.

“It’s been wild here the past couple days,” said Joey Faiola, who is serving up snacks, pastries and coffee as well as adult beverages at the cafe.

Fun fact: the venue opens at 5 a.m. for the first games — which are being played in Qatar — but you can’t order a beer until 6 a.m., Bauer said. Apparently, only casinos are allowed to serve alcohol before 6 a.m.