By PAT CARROLL
In the beginning, there was The Spot, and The Spot was good.
It got a little funky at 3 a.m., but The Spot always had decent coffee and a great chili dog with mustard and onions.
Beyond that, there weren’t a lot of places to eat in downtown Harrisburg in the 1980s and ’90s.
Now there are dozens on Restaurant Row and five more opening momentarily.
And along with a significant increase in convention traffic next year, some planners and developers see that elusive retail renaissance ahead.
Two of the new entries will be downtown Harrisburg versions of existing restaurants:
* Haydn’s on Pine, a version of Lancaster County’s Haydn Zug’s, a white-napkin place, will take over the Parev restaurant space on Locust Street.
* Cafe Fresco, which has a cozy format of espresso and wrap sandwiches near the Harrisburg Mall, will go bistro with a liquor license and open next to Stock’s on 2nd, the investment that launched Restaurant Row in 1998.
Three of the five are new concepts:
* Max’s will serve traditional Italian on the street level of the new Market Square Plaza building.
* The Quarter will bring the beads and balconies of New Orleans’ French Quarter to the 300 block of Second Street.
* Rock of Erin, across the street from The Quarter, is an Irish bar to be done in the modern Dublin style. (That’s a world away from Molly Brannigans down the street, which is working with the warm tones of a old Galway pub.)
Is there no end to the trendy concepts? To the onslaught of interesting menus and sidewalk seating?
The answer from city hall is “no.”
“The mayor has no limit as to the number of restaurants and night spots,” said Randy King, Mayor Stephen R. Reed’s spokesman. “Additional attractions only serve to add to the mix and keep Restaurant Row fresh and different.”
For sheer power to draw people into the city, food works, and it will continue to work, Russ Ford said. He’s the president and CEO of Harristown Development Corp., which finances and influences much of the city’s economic makeover, and is the chairman of the Harrisburg Regional Chamber.
His take: Around here, eating out equals entertainment.
“I think the food-and-beverage phenomenon is real,” Ford said. “There’s no end. Basically, people have stopped learning how to cook at home.”
Above street level, Harristown has added to the city’s menu count by connecting the Hilton Harrisburg & Towers with 9,000 square feet of new banquet space in the Market Square Plaza building. From the day the carpet was laid and the doors opened, Hilton general manager Joe Massaro said, social bookings and local meetings have kept the new space at 100 percent occupancy.
By 2006, the additional banquet rooms will pay off in out-of-town business, the major conventions that book a year ahead, Massaro said.
Since it opened, the Hilton has hovered around 70 percent occupancy, a little above the national average. Now occupancy at the Hilton is around 75 percent.
Restaurant Row is a factor. Guests are always looking for things to do, Massaro said, and the street activity helps sell convention bookers on the city.
“A lot of managers and employees of the restaurants on Second Street know what groups are in house,” Massaro said, and staff accordingly. “You’ll see groups of people walking down Second Street on any given convention night. They’ve had their meetings all day. They want to get out for a while.”
And spend some money.
So where is the retail renaissance? Where are the shopkeepers?
They’re coming, said commercial real estate broker Greg Rothman.
“It’s critical mass, it’s the number of rooftops, household income, buying power, the number of employees coming into the city during the day. Right now, we need a full-service large grocery. We need more dry cleaners. I think those will happen, and I think that’s the next phase.”
It might be, if Harristown’s current thinking proves out.
Previous thinking brought the city a block-size behemoth named Strawberry Square, an office and retail complex that turned its back on the street and gave the impression of a protected space. It was the 1970s idea of what shoppers wanted.
It hasn’t worked so well.
“Strawberry Square is a snapshot of the thought process of creating a suburban mall in the downtown,” Ford said. “The good news is there’s small-scale retail that wants to be here. The bad news is that we didn’t build the buildings to house it right in the middle of downtown.” Now Harristown is focused on creating opportunities for small-space retail on South Third Street.
But that’s not all.
The renovation of a dilapidated half-block at Chestnut will also bring a new restaurant. It will be a continuing lesson in fine food prep and presentation for students in the culinary program at Harrisburg Area Community College, under the direction of the Hilton Harrisburg & Towers. It will open to the public in January.