Atlas Restaurant Group — the Baltimore-based, 15-unit fine dining group with a focus on hotel restaurants — is moving forward with expansion plans despite the challenges of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. The group, headed by CEO Alex Smith, plans to open five more restaurants in the Washington, D.C. and Baltimore areas by the first quarter of 2021, pending any changes in local dining room regulations and the status of the coronavirus vaccine.
The first soon-to-be-opened restaurant, Monarque Steakhouse in Baltimore, began construction in November 2019 and although it was slated to open in May, was put on hold due to the pandemic. If all goes well, Monarque —a French brasserie and dinner theater featuring live musicians, poets, and other performers — will be finally opening its doors in November, pending any futher delays due to the pandemic.
The other Baltimore restaurants in the wings include classic Maryland seafood house Watershed and Atlas Fish Market, a wholesale fish market with an attached oyster bar to serve the surrounding community that has a dearth of wholesale fresh seafood options, Smith said. Both are scheduled to open in March 2021, though that could change again due to the pandemic.
The restaurants coming to Washington, D.C. include the Parlour Victoria, a seafood/oyster parlor that is an “homage to a bygone era” and will have an “extensive library of whiskey and frequent live music” and international cocktail bar, the Spruce Goose, which will have spirits and liquors from all over the world. Currently, the restaurant group owns four restaurants in the Four Seasons, while both Washington, D.C. restaurants will open either in December or spring 2021 in the Marriot Moxy Hotel about one mile from the National Mall.
Although the upcoming project portfolio for Atlas is ambitious, plans for all five restaurants are dotted with question marks due to the stop and start nature of the ongoing crisis. For example, although Monarque (average entrée price $35 and 3,500 square feet) has announced that chef Marc Hennessy (previously at Rare Steakhouse and Del Campo in Washington, D.C.) will be on board as executive chef, the other restaurants don’t have menus set or executive chefs on board yet.
But despite the uncertainties, Smith strongly believes in investing in hotel restaurants even now with travel bans and vacation plans on hold for most Americans and believes that the business of hotel restaurants – even when not in the middle of a pandemic — is not specifically geared toward travelers.
“When we go into a market, we target the local clientele first,” Smith said. “You have to build your business around the locals. If you’re just surviving off of hotel guest traffic, you’re in trouble. We gear our marketing toward the local market and then supplement with business travelers.”
This is not to say that the past five months have not been challenging for Atlas Restaurant Group’s restaurants.
As many fine dining restaurants lean into COVID-era plans like offering takeout, meal kits, or private events to supplement their socially distanced dining rooms, Smith does not plan to go that route with either his new or already existing restaurants. Although most of his restaurants had to close and temporarily lay off more than a thousand employees, he said that Atlas-style fine dining can only be done in-person.
“You won’t be able to get our product to-go, so it is what it is,” Smith said. “We space people out and make the guest feel comfortable. You go above and beyond safety protocols and put out a quality product. […] We won’t reopen fully until it’s safe to have [that whole experience] again.”
Currently the restaurant group’s revenue is down by about 30-40%, although that has improved since it’s 50% drop last quarter. For their restaurants in states where they are allowed to have 50% occupancy like Ouzo Bay and Loch Bar in Houston, Texas, the company is doing about 85% of its normal revenue because they are seeing customers come in at all times of the day. Slower times are no longer slow, despite the occupancy restrictions because cautious customers might feel more comfortable dining at 4:00 or 9:00 pm.
Right now, all 14 restaurants are now open — though most have capacity limitations — and Smith plans to get back to what he calls “layered, experience-based dining” as soon as possible.
In each of the hotels that they’ve opened up in, Atlas Restaurants has created an “entertainment district” of multiple restaurants, bars and nightclubs. The Four Seasons in Baltimore, for example, has four different venues, each with a different vibe.
“Our restaurants are all about the experience,” Smith said. “You can’t get that eating out of a box sitting in front of your TV.”