Over the clamor of an afternoon lunch rush, “The Wire’s” career politician Tommy Carcetti could be found slouched in a booth at Werner’s, hiding his smile as he tempted a police commissioner with money and power.
The scene at Baltimore’s decades-old eatery has been a sort of calling card for ambitious characters, both real and on television screens, looking to be seen by the who’s who of political society. Everyone from actual state attorneys to fake president Frank Underwood on Netflix’s “House of Cards” has staked their claim at a barstool. But now lunch hours look very different.
Booths sit untouched. A few regulars with an appetite for nostalgia straddle stools and lament crime rates with a server half their age. A “For Sale” sign sticks to the diner and pub’s storefront on East Redwood Street.
General manager Mason Hansen told The Baltimore Banner that Werner’s customers have disappeared less than a year after the restaurant reopened in January 2022. “No one’s coming down here,” he said. And late last year, the Hotel RL across the street from them closed, which owner Ray Crum said practically “sank his ship.”
Crum, who purchased Werner’s out of a love for old-school diners and a good deal, plans to close the spot from Dec. 23 through Jan. 2, as he’s done since taking over ownership about two years ago.
But the restaurateur has fantasized about shutting Werner’s doors for good. For now, he plans on waiting a year to see if someone with a better outlook could turn business around.
“Downtown is going to hell in a handbasket,” Crum said.
His frustration is one other restaurateurs and advocates downtown share. While traffic in the area is up from last year, according to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, businesses are struggling. The cost of parking remains high, ongoing construction projects are rampant, and despite efforts to bring in more residential spaces, many still view a large portion of the blocks from Pratt to Centre Street as too uncomfortable or unsafe to roam on foot.
Lauren Hamilton, a spokeswoman for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, believes the issue is in part due to branding. Her organization has hired a full-time content creator to promote events and new developments downtown.
“When people are visiting here, walking here, we want to make them feel more safe,” she said. Events like Spring Break Skate, Winter in the Garden and even the Christmas Village have helped bring visitors to the area. But they are not staying.
Hamilton believes the dearth in people patronizing restaurants stems from a rise in remote work. Despite there being more employees in the area, they are not driving downtown to have meetings or lunches at local eateries.
Since Werner’s opened in 1950, the eatery has been a watering hole for government employees looking for a Braunschweiger sandwich, breakfast platter or a milkshake. Those employees are not mandated to return to their offices until Jan. 1, according to a statement by Mayor Brandon Scott.
In the meantime, Crum has struggled to find his lunch crowd. He recently put out a call to local churches, asking them to try out Werner’s for brunch. None came.
“They don’t want to come downtown,” he said. “One of the biggest problems is I have a sign outside that says ‘No Parking.’”
Peter Little, a spokesman for the Parking Authority of Baltimore, said the city controls less than 20% of the off-street parking downtown, though he has rarely seen a “garage full” sign.
Along the streets, the city has attempted to use a meter setting program to create more parking availability on crowded blocks. They have also lowered rates on certain blocks to around 50 cents an hour to build demand, Little said.
Brendon Hudson, who opened Zander’s in the historic Alexander Brown building on Dec. 8, said finding parking was the first question thrown at him from friends and family eager to try out his new Calvert Street restaurant. And while the eatery offers free valet to customers every night, he referred to parking as “kind of a nightmare.”
“It’s like New York City levels of rates for parking. Which is insane to me,” he said.
Although Hudson said the restaurant is being booked full every night, he is also anxiously looking to grow his lunch audience.
“Downtown is not known for fine dining,” he said. “We’re trying to change that.”
And as he searches for patrons looking for an elevated lunch experience, he’s become discouraged by the state of downtown: the litter, the lack of parks, streetlights or other amenities that may prompt a Baltimorean to stick around for a few blocks.
During monthly check-ins with restaurants and other retail businesses, the Downtown Partnership receives similar complaints.
“Infrastructure downtown is behind the mark,” Hamilton said. The distance is especially felt when Baltimoreans look to the shiny new offices of Harbor East and apartment complexes of Canton or Port Covington.
When compared to other areas, it’s looked at as a “go-between,” she said, not a destination spot like that of Federal Hill, which has a larger residential density.
Residents say downtown lacks amenities such as grocery stores, public space, dog parks and restaurants. Hamilton said the group is using grants to add more lights and construct more walkable streets. They are also expanding a park near CFG Bank Arena to make it more welcoming for both dogs and humans.
More buildings are being converted to residential spaces, with Chasen Companies building luxury apartments in the center of the business district and the former Hotel RL being turned into an 130-unit apartment complex.
The conversion offers some hope to Crum, but the building will not open before November 2024, a deadline Crum has set to sell the diner.
Werner’s has been through upheaval before. The restaurant shuttered its doors in 2011, seemingly for good, and sat vacant through the height of the pandemic until Crum took over. There was excitement for the legendary spot to return.
Hansen, who manages the business, said that early last year the restaurant would have been packed until closing around 2:30 p.m. Now, Crum has had to close the restaurant hours early on weekdays due to a lack of customers.
“My people are lawyers, judges, and they’re not coming down,” Crum said. “I spent two years of my life on this. … I did everything in my power to make it work.”
This story has been updated to correct the last name of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore's spokeswoman.