Old Town steakhouse grilled by neighbors over proposed outdoor seating plan

The lobster roll at 1799 Prime Steak & Seafood in Old Town. (Courtesy photo)

(Updated 10:23 p.m.) Residents adjacent to 1799 Prime Steak and Seafood (110 S. Pitt Street) urged the Planning Commission to strike down a proposed outdoor seating expansion, but the Planning Commission ultimately voted unanimously to recommend approval of the special use permit.

The Planning Commission recommended approval of the permit at a meeting on March 30. The proposal now goes to the City Council on Saturday, April 15, though city staff noted that may not be the end of the restaurant owners’ fight to get more outdoor seating at the frequently crowded location.

The expansion would give the restaurant permission to increase its outdoor seating from 40 to 104 seats with an expansion into a courtyard behind the restaurant.

Among the concerns raised by the neighbors is that the plans would corral diners into an area without sufficient egress in the event of an emergency. Isin Ludlow, a neighbor, noted that there is no other access to the street other than through the restaurant, meaning there would be no way to evacuate diners if there was a fire.

Others said this concern is already very present in a restaurant they say is regularly overcrowded.

Wesley Jefferies said that when he visited the restaurant recently he was told that his reservation would not be honored because the restaurant was too crowded. Where they were eventually seated, Jefferies said they were close enough to other tables that he could have reached down and stolen a neighbor’s appetizer.

“The layout of the restaurant is awkward and bizarre,” Jefferies said. “If there were an emergency it would be very difficult for us to have come out… If there had been a fire or some sort of panic, I think all of us would have been trampled to death. I’m deeply concerned that this same practice would be applied to another awkward space for outdoor dining… I feel like we’re a step away from disaster.”

But founder and CEO Jahmond Quander said it’s frustrating that building layout wasn’t a concern ever raised when 110 S. Pitt Street was Restaurant Eve.

“The main entranceway coming in, the fire marshall told me he was concerned about this,” Quander said. “I expressed to him: I don’t understand how Restaurant Eve operated for 13 years and no one said anything about their entrance, then I buy the building and now there’s a concern about guests getting in and out?”

Quander said the experience with zoning and 1799 Prime Steak and Seafood has been a frustrating one.

“It’s very frustrating as a new business owner coming in: part of the reason is because of my family history,” Quander said. “I said ‘I want the first location to be in Old Town because this was where my family came, we arrived in slave ships here in the United States.’ It’s been a challenge from day one. Each encounter I’ve had with the neighbors, it has not been pleasant, because they come to me irate.”

Staff said there are ongoing discussions about improving safety at the restaurant that could come up again as the building seeks an occupancy permit, for which staff said Quander will need to make modifications to the alleyway to allow more egress.

Overall, Planning Commission Chair Nathan Macek said the restaurant owners and nearby residents should both do more to get along and keep that fight out of the city’s Planning Commission. According to Macek:

We’re not here to be the neighborhood mediation service, but we’re here to monitor issues related to implementation of zoning ordinance. Some of this starts to touch that but not quite. I would advise any efforts that can be made between you and the adjacent neighbors to find common ground on some of the issues each of you has with your adjacent properties would serve all of you well in the long run. They are, from staff’s report to us, private issues to be resolved between private, adjacent landowners. There’s clearly a need to address some of these issues and that’s as far as we as a Planning Commission have the authority to comment.

The Planning Commission voted 6-0 to recommend approval of a special use permit for 1799 Prime Steak and Seafood.