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At the back of “Atlas Quarter” — a Fleet Street courtyard already shared by three Atlas Restaurant Group concepts — the marquee for a fourth bar and restaurant is on its way.
The sign for Monarque, set to be installed later this month, is one of the last remaining preparations before the French-inspired brasserie and dinner theater opens. The entrance is fashioned after an old-time movie theater or cabaret — a preview of what’s to come inside the space, a “hidden and sexy French spot,” as Atlas CEO Alex Smith describes it, with moody lighting, a marble bar, leather banquettes and brass accents.
The restaurant and bar, which took over an office that used to belong to the marketing firm Ainsley in the Bagby Furniture Co. building, has been sitting empty, with construction complete, for the last 60 days. Smith said his restaurant group was waiting for the right time to unveil the concept, which was planned before the Covid-19 outbreak.
Atlas, along with the rest of the dining industry, had to deal with the pandemic’s blow to business this spring. Over the summer, the restaurant group also faced public backlash and a lawsuit alleging racism at one of its properties, Ouzo Bay. But with sales on an upswing in recent weeks, Smith decided to set an opening date for Atlas’ newest concept. Monarque will pull back the curtain Oct. 26.
Smith sees the new addition as a “good omen” for the city’s dining scene, which has been battered by closures related to the pandemic.
“We’ve run the numbers and we think it’s worth getting the operation going,” he said. “We believe in this city.”
Inside Monarque, a stage lined with red velvet curtains is the focal point. All 200-plus seats in the house have a view of the performance area, which will host acts ranging from burlesque shows and cabaret concerts to Django Reinhardt-style jazz and sideshow spectacles featuring sword-swallowers and contortionists.
“Not having expectations is the best way to approach the restaurant here,” says Barrett Johnson, the venue’s entertainment manager. Tributes to performers of the past — black-and-white images of legendary French entertainer Josephine Baker as well as circus performers and cabaret acts — hang on Monarque’s walls. But Johnson said she wants the programming to have a 2020 flair, as well.
“We wanted to strike a balance of transporting people to another time and place while being rooted in the present,” she said.
The project, designed by Patrick Sutton, was inspired by Restaurant Hubert, an underground French restaurant in Sydney that Smith and his brother, Eric Smith, visited on a trip to Australia three years ago.
At the Hubert, “you walk down a set of stairs into a basement. It’s an underground, French cellar-type place,” Alex Smith said. “I liked the whole idea of not being out on the street corner, but being a hidden and sexy French spot.”
The cuisine, meanwhile, is inspired by classic French fare. Executive chef Marc Hennessy, most recently of Rare Steakhouse and Tavern in Washington, D.C., has planned a menu centered on dishes like whole-roasted turbot, dry-aged steak, truffle chicken, and staples like French onion soup, country paté and escargots. For dessert, there’s swirled bittersweet chocolate-and-caramel pots de creme and passionfruit crepe soufflé.
The bar will carry between 550 and 600 French wine labels as well as an extensive collection of cognac and armagnac. Bartender Rob Vogel, formerly of the Elk Room next door, is crafting the cocktail program.
Monarque will share a kitchen with the speakeasy. And in-the-know patrons can hop between the Elk Room and Monarque using a secret entrance that Smith had built between the two buildings. Pick up the phone inside a booth in a corridor in the back of Monarque — the vestibule’s 1940s-era door comes from the Oklahoma City Courthouse — and staff will let you into the speakeasy.
The dinner theater caps off an “upscale entertainment and dining district” at the Bagby building, Smith said. The property also is home to Atlas’ Italian restaurant Tagliata and pizzeria Italian Disco.
Monarque will be Atlas’ fourteenth Baltimore concept. The restaurant group’s portfolio of properties includes the Bygone, Loch Bar, Azumi and the recently opened Choptank. A new crab house in Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market is slated to open next year.
Amanda Yeager | Baltimore Buisness Journal