The first thing you notice when you walk into Gunther & Co.—the 7,600 square foot Brewers Hill restaurant that opened last Friday—is how massive the undertaking must have been for owners Nancy Mola and Jerry Trice to whip the place into shape. It's huge.
Located in the old boiler rooms of the original Gunther Brewing Company building, the space consists of a small bar area with a low ceiling and a restaurant with sweeping ceilings and a grand mezzanine. This helps split up the room into manageable sections, but when you include the extensive outdoor patio that will be open soon—a garden environment that includes a bar, Gunther's original brick stable wall, and seating for 70—the ambitious scale becomes evident.
For Mola and Trice (who's also the head chef) this is the culmination of a combined 50 years in the restaurant business—most of it spent under someone else's watch. Trice was executive chef at Annapolis' Yin Yankee Café and then ran the D.C.-based food truck Chef Driven (awarded top food truck by the Washingtonian in 2012). Mola designed and operated Silver Spring's 8407 Kitchen Bar (included in the Washingtonian's top 100 restaurants in 2013 and 2014). Two years ago, the couple started scoping out spots to finally open something of their own. Then they saw the long-vacant Gunther building.
"We said, 'we need to close on this place now!'" Trice said during a recent interview and tour of the restaurant. Despite spending so much time in D.C., they chose Baltimore for their venture. "D.C. is overpriced and already has too many places," Trice said. "And the rustic grit that D.C. tries to re-create is inherent in Baltimore, which is what we love about this city."
After taking over the space in August 2015, they spent months converting the derelict brewery from two empty brick-walled rooms into what it is today: a seamless blend of the building's original industrial skeleton with sleek new light fixtures, modern banquette seating, and a 24-foot open kitchen. "We said to ourselves, let's make the new stuff look new and old stuff look old and original," Trice said.
The bar has a large L-shaped design with an oyster bar near the front doors and seating for 24. Nine beers are available on tap with the addition of three taps dedicated to cocktails—one of which is the cheekily named Rye'n Gosling, an Overholt rye and (you guessed it) Goslings dark rum mixed with amaro and black lemon bitters. There's also a full to-order cocktail menu, all of which is being led by Shaun Stewart, previously of Locust Point's Bar Liquorice.
"We met Shaun at the Rye's Up Against Cystic Fibrosis event, and as soon as he made us a Fernet cocktail where [the liquor] enhanced the drink instead of overwhelming it, we were interested in him," said Mola. "And as soon as we brought him into the space, he seemed just as excited about it as we were."
Table seating is also available in the bar, with that entire area meant as the more casual side to Gunther & Co. "We wanted to compartmentalize the space to offer options for whatever our customers want, whether it be lunch, a place to do some work during the day, a coffee, a date, or a full-blown celebratory meal. So we've designed different areas to accommodate that without it feeling disjointed or like one massive space," said Mola.
Moving from the intimate bar into the sweeping restaurant with its 34-foot ceilings, designed to accommodate massive industrial equipment, is like stepping into a new world. The room retains its original exposed-brick walls, its white, still-rusted steel beams, and its window-topped cathedral ceiling. But similarities to its previous era end there. Contemporary tan and blue banquette seating splits up the middle of the room, with modern wooden tables lining the east walls' large windows and an extensive open kitchen making up the entire length of the western side of the room.
A grand, two-tiered steel staircase leads up, past a lush green living wall that's attached to the brick façade. Here there is a brand new balcony where private parties or diners can peer down onto the dining room. A private room is also available upstairs, closed off from the rest of the balcony, with one wall made up entirely of windows looking out toward the restaurant.
Below is the open kitchen's bar seating. Featuring white marble that runs the length of the kitchen, this is specifically designed for diners who want to be closer to the action. "We want there to be a level of transparency between the kitchen and our customers and to better humanize the cooking that's happening," Trice said. "We definitely want people to sit and interact with the kitchen." And indeed, it looked close enough for diners to put the finishing garnishes on their dishes, were they allowed.
The meals coming out of that kitchen will include a little bit of everything, Trice said. In keeping with their plan to be a space that's adaptable to different occasions, they're starting with three menus: a "Gunther menu" that will be available all day and which features lighter fare, such as wood-roasted oysters, salads, shrimp and lemongrass pot stickers, and other sandwiches and flatbreads; a more extensive lunch menu (I've got my eye on the fried oyster tacos a server tipped me off to); and a dinner menu made up of more composed and sophisticated appetizers and entrees. Prices range from $12-$18 for lunch and $20-$28 for entrees, while also offering brunch on Saturdays and Sundays.
Trice said diners could expect New American cuisine with global and Asian influences, sourced locally whenever possible. More important, he said, is his unpretentious attitude toward their food. "Baltimore will really enjoy our humble approach to ingredient-driven cuisine," he said.
Included in that approach is utilizing a scratch kitchen. They are making everything but the bread in-house, and Trice said he's particularly stoked to be incorporating their smoker and a duel-burning, wood-fired oven into the creation of their dishes.
The menu will change, Trice said, as new seasons, ingredients, and ideas arise. For now, there are more casual plates such as a smoked and pulled pork pressed Cuban sandwich, grilled celery root "steak," and a Thai noodle dish that includes shrimp, Thai basil, and a sweet-sour tamarind sauce. There are also swankier entrees like wood-oven-roasted shrimp and Andouille sausage with grits, shaved fennel, and a smoked corn broth; a Thai hot pot featuring mussels, shrimp, clams, scallop, fish, coconut, lemongrass and rice; and a tea-smoked duck breast with grilled oyster mushrooms, Pernod-roasted fennel, and an orange-ginger sauce.
But, as Mola said, their focus is on a lot more than just the food. They aim to provide "a unique experience that's both personable and a way to build relationships here in our community."