Mallory Staley remembers how they came up with the name. On one of the “discovery”—or maybe it was a “rediscovery”—walks through the restaurant, the group stopped on the ground floor to consider the stair rails. Thick-tarnished balustrades led a couple of steps down to a sunken space with large windows where furniture had once been displayed to passersby. This was in the days when the 1861 building was a furniture showroom. The brass railing had been installed when the place became a restaurant, sometime in the 1970s. “We all said, ‘this has to go,’” Staley recalls.
Getting rid of that bulky brass, reminiscent of potted ferns and glasses of over-oaked Chardonnay, seemed like an obvious move. But discarding the “Brass” in the restaurant’s name seemed a stroke of genius. “We fell right into that one,” says Staley, who will be general manager of The Elephant, at 924 N. Charles, when it opens sometime in early 2016 (or sooner).
A few days later, Steven Rivelis, co-owner of The Elephant with his wife, Linda Brown Rivelis, ran into their friend Richard Gorelick on the street and told him about the new name. “It’s perfect,” says the former Baltimore Sun restaurant critic.
For Rivelis, shedding the brass means shedding perceptions of “the fusty old place, heavy dishes with brown sauces served by people in tuxedos,” he says. “Nobody wants to be served by someone in a tuxedo anymore.”
At the same time, he says, “everyone knows where the Brass Elephant is. Most people spend a fortune on advertising for that.” The new name, says Rivelis, “is both unique—and still the same.”
The Elephant taking shape in Steven and Linda Rivelis’ imaginations is driven by their love of design—sometimes whimsical and unexpected; their interest in food and love of entertaining; and their attachment to the community. In the 35 years they have worked together in Baltimore, the Rivelises have been active in the revitalization of their Charles Village neighborhood, and are enlisting their friends and neighbors to help them realize their dream restaurant in Mt. Vernon. On top of that, owning a restaurant has been a fantasy for a long time. “My grandfather owned a restaurant in New York,” says Steven. “It’s built into my cellular memory, my DNA. I believe in gravitational pull.”
Waiting until the time was right
Back in the late ’80s, the couple toyed with opening a restaurant, but a close friend, Tom McDonald, coincidentally general manager of the Brass Elephant, gave them some valuable advice. “He said, ‘to be successful, you need three people on your team whom you know, trust and love: the front of the house, the chef and the person who does the books.’ We realized we didn’t have those three people,” Steven recalls.
Instead, they started Campaign Consultation, Inc. in 1988, parlaying the experience they had gained working at Planned Parenthood (where they’d met in the 1970s) and other nonprofits. Now the agency creates social mobilization campaigns for clients from AmeriCorps to Baltimore’s Arabbers to an aid agency helping the citizens of Benin in West Africa. It has been recognized as “one of the top privately-owned companies in America” by Inc. Magazine.
The Rivelises also own Eye Byte Solutions, a design, print and web development company, and a small enterprise called VSOP, LLC, which stands, not for very superior old cognac, but for “very special old properties.” The Elephant is surely one. Another special property is their nearby corporate headquarters, a 9,000-square-foot mansion of the same era as 924 N. Charles, which the couple purchased in 2012 for about $630,000 and spent a year restoring. The interior of 1001 Calvert, with its chartreuse walls that seem oblivious to ruptures in the original plaster, and eclectic furniture—including white leather Barcelona chairs à la Mies van der Rohe—may be a hint of what to expect at the new restaurant.
Then again, maybe it isn’t. The couple’s home on Saint Paul Street, the center of three adjoining row houses they own on a block of “painted ladies,” is decidedly more retro. There’s a decommissioned bumper car in the living room, filled with art books and magazines, and a custom-built diner counter in the kitchen with ’50s-style boomerang Formica and a chrome edge. “It was very important to have five grooves,” Linda says as she points to the edging. “Not three, not four. But five, like the authentic railroad car diners in the 1920s.” The couple frequently invites friends to sit at the counter while they cook. On a black wall above the steel shelving, oversized refrigerator and commercial Viking stove hangs a red scrawl that reads “Rivelis,” Steven’s signature realized in neon by a MICA student. “I had it made up for him and he cried,” Linda says.
The neon sign was Linda’s way of telling Steven that she supported his dream of a restaurant.
With Campaign Consultation and other affiliated enterprises running smoothly, the Rivelises decided to revisit that dream deferred. They were friends with Lenny and Gail Kaplan, the one-time power couple of the Baltimore dining scene, and former owners of the Pimlico Restaurant (which they took over from Gail’s father, Leon Shavitz), and the Polo Grill at the Colonnade Hotel. Back in the 1990s, the young Rivelises would sit at the Polo bar, nursing drinks and ordering snacks that fit their budget, Lenny remembers. “She’s so great-looking and he’s such a sweetheart, you just wanted them to feel good,” he says. Soon the two couples—separated in age by about 15 years—became friends.
Steven saw the stars begin to align when a year or so ago he had lunch with Lenny who told him, he says, “If you open a restaurant, I will do whatever it takes to make sure you’re successful.” Unbeknownst to Steven, Linda lunched with Gail that very day, and Gail said the same thing. The Rivelises took it as a sign and began to look around for a space.
Last winter, driving up Charles Street, the couple noticed a “For Sale” sign in the window of the old Brass Elephant, the spot where they’d been married in 1986. Steven and Linda had eaten many meals with clients at the posh restaurant, and had bought out the place for their special event. Last January, nearly 30 years later, they bought the place for good. “When the universe speaks to you, if you don’t listen, you’re an idiot,” says Steven.
Linda wants to talk about toast. We’re in a third-floor conference room at 1001, as the Rivelises refer to their corporate headquarters. Steven stands before a white board with an array of colored markers on a low table in front of him. I’ve been invited to observe the team—Linda and Steven, Staley, and Chef Andy Thomas—for a planning meeting. This one is called “T3X” for “Tasting Team Techniques Experience.”
We talk about molecular gastronomy, what Thomas calls “liquid olives,” after a dish he had at José Andrés’ restaurant Jaleo in D.C. a couple of years ago. “It was the most amazing olive I ever had,” he says. “But it was liquid.”
We talk about honesty in ingredients, about street food, the bánh tét—or new rice wrapped in banana leaf—the Rivelises ate in Vietnam on a recent 60-day trip around the world for Linda’s 60th birthday. Should the Elephant prepare street food tableside? Or in the upstairs lounge near the raw bar? (The raw bar seems to be the one element all agree on.)
Steven wants to talk about tagine, the traditional North African dish simmered in an earthen pot with a cone-shaped lid. What about a flatbread that can be used to pick up the saffron chicken and dates slow-cooked in the tagine? “I love the idea of picking up food with other foods,” says Thomas. “Like tacos,” says Linda, circling back to street food.
Steven has a thought. “I understand why we do small plates; we want to eat lots of things,” he says. “I think it would be interesting to experiment with spoons.”
And Linda wants to talk toast. “Delicious bread, toasted perfectly. With different butters, or herbs, some dry,” she offers. Would toast be available every day? A toaster at the bar?
Discovering and dreaming
Steven has resolutely refused to discuss menu specifics with me over the weeks I’ve been working on this story. Instead, he’s tried to explain his and Linda’s approach to their business, which always begins with learning how to communicate. “If you use words and ask someone to draw what you said, everyone will come up with something different.” For example, he wonders, “what do we mean by a ‘wok dish?’”
The four gathered here today are a newly formed team, he tells me. “We need to start working together, talking together, tripping over each other, doing the things that make a team a team.” And no, “that does not mean talking about The Menu,” he adds, implying import with his voice.
They follow a management strategy developed at Case Western University involving six Ds: discover, dream, re-discover, design, develop and deliver.
Once the couple had purchased 924 N. Charles, they discovered that the building had once been home to Charles Morton Stewart, a coffee importer, and later to George Wroth Knapp, a trader who sailed to India and China. Knapp’s wife hired woodworker Lockwood De Forest and his friend and business partner Louis, a glassmaker, to decorate. (Later, DeForest sold Louis his portion of their company, Tiffany & De Forest, and Louis Tiffany began operating solo.)
The Rivelises are carefully preserving the teak carved paneling and stained glass windows from that partnership, as well as glittering Waterford crystal chandeliers, green porcelain tiles surrounding a fireplace, brass sconces shaped like gryphons—even as plaster molding is painted in black lacquer, walls become bright colors and communal tables are installed along the walls. (“Millennials love communal tables,” says Steven.)
In 1924, the Potthast Company, makers of fine furniture—including the Mayor’s desk at City Hall—purchased the property. Stiles Colwill, a BMA trustee and interior designer, once told the Baltimore Sun, “It was de rigueur for mid-20th-century Baltimore brides to be taken to Potthast’s showrooms by their mothers to select dining room furniture.” The Elephant’s demolition crew discovered drawers and drawers of printing plates, each embossed with the name of a Mrs. So-and-So. These address plates, and matching printed cards, paper a hallway in the back of the restaurant. Customers will enjoy scanning names.
The kitchen, though yet to be outfitted at the time of my tour, is large, and will have a chef’s table (inspired by the Rivelis’ chrome-edged counter at home) where diners can watch the chef at work, as well as various stations and ovens to accommodate the cravings of the chef and owners (grills and woks for street food? Personal tagine pots?). “I want to roast large things in the oven,” says chef Thomas. “I love making beef stock; that takes four days…I want to make our own puff pastry at some point.”
Thomas grew up dividing his time between his mother’s home in Prince George’s County and summers on his father’s West Virginia farm, where they raised chickens and ducks. He butchered a pig there, and entered tomatoes in the Hampshire County fair. As a senior in high school, Thomas worked at La Fiore at the Holiday Inn in Greenbelt, and then attended the Baltimore International College for culinary arts. He’s worked for Michel Richard, Spike and Charlie Gjerde, and Donna Crivello—for the past decade or so at Donna’s in Charles Village. He’s known the Rivelises since he worked for Donna’s at the Baltimore Museum of Art. Thomas’ wife, Halle Van der Gaag, now executive director of Blue Water Baltimore, was Campaign Consultation’s first employee. The couples are neighbors in Charles Village. Thomas even worked for a short time at The Brass Elephant in the 1980s.
It takes a village
The discovery phase satisfied. “We did a dream session,” says Steven. This involved inviting people the couple considered influential—“tastemakers, influencers, people who if they talk, others will listen”—to stroll through the building, “just dreaming of the ideal restaurant.”
The process of planning this restaurant, says Gail Kaplan, may be a bit unorthodox, but when the Rivelises consulted her husband Lenny, he told them, “This could work.” Even so, says Gail, Lenny asked the tough questions: “’Where will people wait? How do the phones work? How are you going to get the coffee to the table?’ He asks the questions about how the rubber hits the road,” says Gail.
For his part, Lenny describes the Elephant planning process as “visceral,” but he adds: “One thing I’ll tell you, Linda and Steve have their finger on the pulse of what they think the community wants. And I think they’re right.”
Gail, too, has faith in The Elephant’s success. “Linda and Steve are very unusual people,” she says. “They seem to get under your skin.”