"Let's face it," the promotional packet reads, "the public needs to indulge their undeniable fascination with the destructive, erotic nature of crashing, colliding and exploding objects."
Maybe so. What Patrick Turner hopes is that the public needs to indulge that fascination during dinner.
In January, local real estate developer Turner will open Crash Cafe, a $4.5 million restaurant on Key Highway, just south of the Inner Harbor. The building will be skewered by an incoming DC-3, its smoking tail jutting out above the entrance; giant projection screens inside will show staged train wrecks and building implosions; the inevitable T-shirts in the gift shop will read "Accidents Will Happen."
Fog will accentuate the frozen-in-time plane crash, the burning motor will serve as a fireplace for the outdoor deck, and sudden bursts of noise will erupt as people dine. (The plan for pratfalling stunt waiters will have to wait for Turner's desired expansion to Disney World and Times Square, as the site here is not zoned for live entertainment.)
In the world of theme restaurants--which tend to celebrate more upbeat concepts, such as eras in history, celebrities or vehicles that haven't been broken apart--destruction is a new concept. Naturally, there are many Americans who love to rubberneck their way through disaster movies, demolition derbies and "World's Scariest Explosions Caught on Tape" on Fox. But it's no sure bet that those are the same people who yearn for tapas of Scottish quail egg with lemon thyme mayonnaise--or if they are, that they want them served up together.
Yes, tapas. The menu will offer dozens of the small-portion hot and cold items and a raw bar--"totally unrelated" to the theme, Turner says. He has hired John Walsh, a French American chef who lives in York, Pa., to conjure up the pear polenta triangles with grilled quail morsels and insists that "we will never forget we are a restaurant first."
But to say Crash Cafe is about the food is like saying "Rambo" is about Cold War foreign policy. It isn't the menu that gets Turner talking at nearly incomprehensible speed.
Turner, 48, has opened restaurants before, fine French and nouvelle cuisine, but this time he wanted to feed people entertainment. He wanted timeless. He wanted edgy. He wanted national chain. He wanted never been done before. Which brings us to this 17,000-square-foot vacant brew pub that will become the disaster zone of the Crash Cafe, where Turner paces, talking giddily about Homo sapiens' historical fascination with collisions and calamity.
He giggles when he talks about the huge lines for the "Twister" ride at Universal Studios, or the tens of thousands of people who gathered to watch the Connolly family crash trains at the turn of the century, or the way that sportscasters show replays of race cars spinning out and crashing.
"You go back to read any of Shakespeare's stuff--they're all tragedies!" (Except for, presumably, the comedies.)
Turner saw no reason why havoc and cuisine couldn't be combined. "It's not real," he emphasizes over and over again. The crashes in his restaurant will be no more ghoulish than the oopsies seen on "America's Funniest Home Videos," he says, where toddlers tumble and conk themselves on the head and everybody laughs.
"If someone came to me and said, 'Do you want to have dinner next to a crash on the Beltway?' I'd say no," Turner says. "But if they said, 'Do you want to have dinner on the scene of an action movie?'--that's something different."
For prospective collaborators who don't share his enthusiasm for the project--such as the architect who suggested "Smash Cafe" might be a tamer, more acceptable name--Turner, who's paying for this all himself, has one word: "Goodbye."
For potential customers who think that dining amid hunks of fuselage is offensive, that the DC-3 that theoretically smashed into the joint evokes actual tragedy, Turner has two things to say: One, "it's sick" to think there's something real about it--that never crossed his mind. Two, the DC-3 is an old, nostalgic plane, a cargo plane--so no fictional passengers die in the fictional crash. (No word, though, on the fictional pilot.)
C'mon, he continues, people eat popcorn while they watch "Lethal Weapon." "Okay," says Bill Weddle, 53, of Richmond, considering the analogy, "I'll eat popcorn at an action movie, but not tapas and chateaubriand."
Turner says that anyone who understands the concept thinks it's a great idea. When he canvassed the neighborhood for his liquor license petition, nearly nine in 10 people signed, he said, and he has already started booking huge parties.
In an unscientific survey, however, The Washington Post pitched the concept to 30 people as Turner had explained it and couldn't come close to matching his results.
Near Crash Cafe's future home at the foot of Federal Hill, which is a combination of working-class and yuppie residents--and, soon, half-million-dollar condos--neighbors are concerned first about possible parking problems, secondarily about possible creepiness.
"If a plane's hanging out over Key Highway, that's not very attractive," said Ed Fuhr, 60, who runs the Antique Warehouse at 1300 across the street. "How would you like to come out of your garage and see an airplane's [fanny]?"
Carol Thompson, 41, who works at the antique market and lives blocks away, asked: "Why would I want to eat at a disaster scene? It's the negative side of America, and I don't want it in my neighborhood."
In addition to the people who think even sanitized wreckage is a step down a slippery slope to the truly grisly, there are those frequent fliers who say a crashed plane (even a cargo plane) is the last thing they want to see, those who shrink at sudden noises, and those for whom the concept just doesn't sit right.
Dave Rayboen, 29, who lives in Bel Air, said the action is "good stuff, but while you're eating? That's different. It gives you a, a feeling of suspense." Patricia Mondshour, 47, who lives nearby, is more blunt: "I'd lose my appetite."
Yet three of the 30 people randomly interviewed say they might want to try the Crash Cafe. Two are 30-year-old men who say they'd check it out once but probably wouldn't go back. The third is Mondshour's 14-year-old daughter, Wendy, who thinks eating amid smoke and sparks would be cool and "if it had blood in it, I wouldn't care either."
What remains to be seen is what she and her fellow action-adventurers might think of the grilled monkfish morsels in Moroccan barbecue sauce.
CAPTION: A drawing of the proposed Crash Cafe shows the tail of a plane hanging out of the front.
CAPTION: From inside the Baltimore building where he hopes to open a restaurant, Patrick Turner explains the design and the concept of Crash Cafe.