OCEAN CITY – In staying true to its old-fashioned roots, restaurateur John Fager has restored Berlin’s greatest landmark into something that can be truly deemed as both new and improved.
The town of Berlin has been on the cusp of some sort of renaissance for several years, and its re-emergence into the forefront of nostalgic tourism on the Eastern Shore could be kick started once again with the rebirth of the Atlantic Hotel into Fager’s new presentation and direction of the historic structure.
Since taking over the day-to-day operations of the hotel six weeks ago, Fager and his crew have given the century-plus-old hotel (built in 1895 to be exact) a face lift of sorts, and brought back some of the intricate details that essentially create a time capsule-like atmosphere reminiscent of the early 1900’s.
“Everything that is old is new again …,” said Fager. “With the building, we wanted to maintain its integrity as it has a tremendous historic precedence and we wanted to do it justice and have it treated with the respect and with the classical style that it deserves.”
Fager said that he and his wife Michelle did their homework on the restoration project, looking at old photographs of the hotel and studying books about the period in history that they were trying to capture as well as making a big deal out of the small and perhaps idiosyncratic accents in the décor.
“It’s not strictly decorated in a Victorian sense, but more so a classic look,” said Fager. “From the design standpoint to the standpoint of the ambiance and the feeling of the place, there are a lot of little things. The color of the walls, to the color of the floor, the softness of the drapes, the warmth of the fireplace, the sofas, and the artwork all go into making this building a working piece of history.”
After Solstice Bar and Grille, which previously had operated out of the hotel, closed at the beginning of the year, Fager said that his daily drive past the dark and vacant hotel while taking his children to school compelled him to approach the group of local businessmen who own the hotel to try to help get it up and running again.
“With everyday that it was closed, it was like a knife in the heart of the town, so I offered initially to come in with my crew and get the café open and get the rooms open,” said Fager, “and said when they find an operator to run it, I’d step aside, but that evolved into us being here permanently.”
Fager said that “bringing the hotel back to its former glory” was part restoration of antiques, part new vision and part adding modern amenities to the vintage building.
“To give all due credit and respect to the rooms, they were all filled with hundred-year-old antiques and furniture, so that was all here, and that was really done years ago by the guys who remodeled and brought this property back to life in 1986,” said Fager. “So we went in and did a deep cleaning. We restored the antiques, put in flat screen televisions, new top-of-the-line bedding and linens, resurfaced old fixtures and polished everything.”
Fager said that much of the old artwork, such as the portraits that line the walls on the stairway leading up to the hotel rooms, were “tragically” cast aside in boxes in a storage warehouse and that part of the process was to merely put all the pieces back together in regard to the classic décor, including the vintage piano that once again sits in the “Drummer’s Cafe.”
“We wanted to take the classic and put a modern twist on things, from the rooms to the food,” said Fager. “If you look in the books, these 17 hotel rooms are exactly what they would look like at the turn of the century, so essentially the rooms are like stepping back into time.”
The menu will also feature fresh products and modern choices for customers, according to Fager, including organic products and a vegetarian section, as chef Leo D’Aleo will present a menu that Fager calls “a bit cutting edge, but not radical by any means.”
Although Fager realizes that his resort business, Fager’s Island, and his new venture in Berlin are going to be two different entities, he says that some of the same formulas used for success in Ocean City will be brought over to Berlin.
“With only 70 seats and 17 rooms, here it’s a different volume, and a different atmosphere in the sense that (Fager’s) is in the resort with a lot of emphasis on the nightclub and the outside bars, but here it’s a different story,” Fager said. “I will say that we will bring the same attention to detail, consistency and quality of product and our servers will serve as we always have since 1975 with a great attitude.”
Though he is pleased with the public’s reaction thus far, Fager says that helping to market the town as a destination is a priority as well.
“Berlin is almost like a town that time forgot, and if people want to have that experience of coming to a town and walking around in an area that almost feels like it did 100 years ago, it’s right here,” said Fager. “So marketing the town as a whole is the key, not just the Atlantic Hotel. It has to do with the Globe Theatre, Rayne’s Reef, the antique shops, the museum, the Holland House, and the fact that where else can you stay where you can hear a railroad whistle blow in the morning and the train is coming right through town? We want to sell that sense of history to people.”
Fager is planning weekly ghost tours of the town, carriage rides, seasonal outdoor seating, a versatile ballroom area inside the restaurant for special events and formal dinners, and an outdoor “beer garden” as time progresses into the season. He realizes that winning over the locals in Berlin may have been the first step in success for his new venture.
“The whole town is a tight little village and the support we’ve received before we opened and since we opened from all the locals, almost without exception, has been phenomenal,” said Fager. “People are so aware of this property and so interested in what happens here, I think everyone is just so happy that there is life here again.”
In a cyclical sense, the Atlantic Hotel under the direction of Fager and his loyal staff has gone back as close to what it was when Horace F. Hormanson built the hotel in 1895 than perhaps it ever has before, and that turning back of the proverbial clock has happened in merely six weeks.
“We’ve been under some pressure to get it open because everyday that there weren’t rockers on the porch and the hotel was closed was a dismal day for the town, so we wanted to get open as soon as possible and we did,” said Fager, “but already, we’ve got a few weekends where we are sold out in the hotel already, so I guess that’s a good start.”