Any restaurant opening is a big deal: a hopeful, creative and occasionally chaotic attempt to invent a place that nourishes the community. But the stakes feel higher for the team behind the Light House Bistro, the newest arrival to Annapolis’ downtown dining scene. The launch of the 50-seat eatery at 202 West Street is a bold brick-and-mortar commitment to both second chances and second helpings.
The Bistro, which opened in February, is more than a restaurant. It’s a visionary social enterprise operated by the city’s Light House shelter for the homeless, which provides culinary training and job opportunities for those who need them most. Its goal is to break the cycle of poverty by giving clients the skills they need for employment, enabling them to support themselves and their families.
That backstory isn’t apparent from the front of the house. The space, set in the midst of the capital’s Arts District, features tables fashioned out of old barn wood, Navy Academy plebe chairs from the 1950s and pendulum lights from an old Pepco plant, all chosen to reflect this second-chance theme. In one corner, a coffee bar proffers grab-and-go pastries and sandwiches; a sleek open kitchen serves lunch, brunch and dinner for those with time to sit. Though it fits seamlessly among the neighborhood’s art galleries, oyster bar and hotel, the Bistro’s beginnings were far humbler; the 1889 building was the site of an earlier Light House shelter, which moved to a larger facility in 2012.
As the organization considered possibilities for its West Street property, the concept of a restaurant and training center emerged. Elizabeth Kinney, then executive director of the shelter, championed the project, believing it presented a novel way to expand an existing job-training program while creating a sustainable funding source. “Nonprofits are looking at models like this that can provide opportunity and create a revenue stream,” she notes. “What sets us apart is that our bottom line isn’t profit—it’s employment. We’re hiring people to change their lives.”
When a survey showed that 98 percent said they’d willingly support such a venture, Kinney plunged into a three-year $2.4 million capital campaign and persuaded businesses and food industry leaders to donate their expertise. Baltimore’s Cho Benn Holback and Associates contributed preconstruction plans and project oversight. Next Step Design worked provided pro bono oversight on design and installation. And TriMark Gill Group arranged deep discounts so Light House could purchase equipment. The state’s Department of Housing and Community Development restructured an existing loan for transitional housing and transferred it to the new entity, which also features low-income residential units.
The last remaining hurdle was finding the right person to run the Bistro. “We needed someone special who was motivated to work with our people,” Kinney explains. Enter chef Beth Rocca, an Annapolis émigré who was living in San Diego when she learned of the venture. Intrigued, she sent a resume, met with Kinney and signed on in August of 2016. She began by heading the shelter’s catering program and two satellite enterprises: a cafe at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts and an omelet station at Anne Arundel Medical Center. Soon, she assumed responsibility for the Bistro, too.
The L’Academie de Cuisine grad now manages a staff of 47, including managers, alumni of the shelter’s culinary training program and other shelter grads. “There’s a lot of patience required,” Kinney observes. “Beth makes it all work.”
Rocca, who comes from a family of teachers, deems it “a perfect job for me.” The menu of “American with a twist,” she says, complements the West Street dining scene. “We fit in so nicely with what’s available nearby—Asian, oysters, hotel restaurants.” Sandwiches are served on ciabatta, challah or pretzel rolls, for example, and desserts, like the chocolate meringue brownies with sea salt, are made from scratch. There are a handful of seafood options on the menu, including a crab cake, says Rocca. After all, “it’s Annapolis!”
Bistro designer and creative consultant David Iatesta has assembled a style that bridges traditional and contemporary. Iatesta says he was in the process of reinventing himself after the sale of his furniture business last year when Kinney asked for his help. She reeled him in with a cherished find: a wooden pew salvaged from the city’s historic St. Anne’s Church. “It was in so many pieces that it was like a puzzle. It took four people half an hour to bring it all in,” he says. The pew is now fastened to one wall of the restaurant. Iatesta also installed two of his original chandeliers, and is especially proud of another only-in-Annapolis touch: dining chairs from the U.S. Naval Academy.
Staff members, too, embody the sense of renewal. Only last fall, sous chef Dylan McMillion, 42, was living in the Light House Shelter and struggling to make a fresh start. “I didn’t realize places like this existed,” he says. McMillion, who says he’d needed help for a long time, learned of the Light House project from a friend who told him, “These people will hold you up.” Sure enough, “Everyone bent over backwards to get me back up on my feet.” McMillion, who’d worked in restaurants before, was hired by the Bistro team in December and now lives in an apartment on the building’s upper level. “It’s an opportunity I probably never would have gotten on my own,” he says. “So I want to give back as much as they’ve given me.” He plans to help train other employees, and “help them with their issues.”
Personal transformations like McMillion’s are the heart of the bistro’s mission. Kinney, who now serves as president of the Light House Social Enterprises board, is optimistic about the future. “We like to say everyone will come in for our story, and come back for our food,” she says. After all, she wonders, “Who doesn’t want to give someone a chance for a better life?”