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Goods and Services

Glory Days

New Yellow Bowl Owner Hopes To Bring Back The Pols--Or At Least The Customers

Sam Holden
Malik Royster

By Randy Leonard | Posted 9/19/2007

Judging by the faded yellow-brick walls and dirty awning on the front of 1234 Greenmount Ave., the Yellow Bowl restaurant has seen better days. One would hardly guess this quiet takeout place was once the regular haunt of city politicians, a place where the city's mayor and City Council members could regularly be found holding meetings over plates of barbecue and greens.

Indeed, over the years, Yellow Bowl's Southern grub developed a reputation among local folks and out-of-towners alike as some of the best soul food in the city--so good, in fact, that the place has grabbed headlines and attracted a handful of celebrities who popped in for chitterlings, hog maws, greens, and ribs. It is said that LL Cool J dropped in on one occasion to taste what all the fuss was about.

The fantastic fare kept the crowds coming for years, but things are not as bustling as they used to be behind that bright-yellow facade.

Situated on a block punctuated by abandoned houses in Baltimore's Johnston Square neighborhood, the Yellow Bowl stands stalwart, an amber bastion resisting the deterioration all around it. A plastic sign tied to the window's black iron grates announces 10 entrées priced under $3. Another sign beckons applicants to staff the once-renowned restaurant. A few locals mill about the sidewalk but don't venture inside.

The Yellow Bowl, which used to be owned by a man named Youman Fullard and his family, has changed hands, and on a recent weeknight the place is quiet. Two women, who appear to be friends of the manager, sit at the counter but they are not eating anything. Several tables with orange plastic benches, situated in the small dining room in the back, are empty. Behind the counter, the deep frier is empty and the grill is quiet.

Manning the counter this day is Tech Mack, who has only worked at the restaurant for a few weeks. He says mornings still bring in some neighborhood residents and city workers looking for breakfast. The Yellow Bowl's breakfast menu offers typical fare, such as egg and cheese sandwiches with scrapple, bacon, or sausage. "We get a lot of the church crowd" on Sundays, as well, Mack says.

But back in its glory days, the Yellow Bowl would be hopping morning, noon, and night. Politicians, including former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, were regulars at the place and the Yellow Bowl was even called on to cater City Hall affairs.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, of the 14th District, perks up at the mention of the Yellow Bowl. "Oh my god," she says. "Kurt Schmoke's favorite restaurant. That was his favorite place to meet."

Clarke, who served as City Council president during much of the Schmoke administration, says she thinks the former mayor's fondness for the Yellow Bowl contributed to the buzz around the place in the late 1980s and into the '90s. "He made it popular," she says. "He was the mayor."

Schmoke says it was his campaign manager, Larry Gibson, who introduced him to the Yellow Bowl during his first bid for mayor in 1987. Gibson had a weakness for the Yellow Bowl's Southern-style biscuits and he invited Schmoke there for a meeting one day. Schmoke recalls with a smile that the biscuits were "just delicious." After that, he made it a regular meeting place.

"It was in an area that some people would have considered a rough neighborhood," Schmoke says. "But for early morning meetings . . . it was very pleasant, and had a lot of regulars, [and] it was busy."

A lot of time has passed, however, since Schmoke, now dean of Howard University Law School, last visited the Yellow Bowl.

"It has to be over--gosh, maybe 10 years now," he says. "I just got so busy that I couldn't frequent the place as much as I liked. Also, it was putting more weight on me than I needed to carry."

The Yellow Bowl was originally opened in 1921 by Greek-Americans who named it after the Yellow Cab company around the corner, from which the Greenmount Avenue eatery drew some of its regular customers. Youman Fullard, owner of an adjacent grocery store and a driver for the cab company, bought the restaurant in 1967. Over several years, Fullard, a South Carolina native, and his wife, Eva, developed the rich soul-food menu that became so well known beyond Johnston Square.

Evidently encouraged by the restaurant's success, the Fullards opened a second Yellow Bowl in Park Heights in 1975, and with the help of their four children they kept flipping pancakes and bringing in customers to both locations. Son Rick Fullard says the kids would start helping at the restaurant around age 9 or 10. "Basically like washing pots, man," he says. By the time they were in their teens, they would be put to work as managers at the restaurants, though the parents maintained ownership.

In May 2000, a grease fire broke out at the Greenmount Yellow Bowl and caused about $70,000 of damage to the uninsured restaurant. With money he had saved for retirement and travel, Youman Fullard rebuilt the Yellow Bowl and reopened the neighborhood institution.

But last year, after nearly 40 years in the business, the Fullards decided it was time to turn the original Yellow Bowl restaurant over to new management. The neighborhood had deteriorated since they'd first opened the Greenmount location, and the Fullards were getting on in years, says Eva Fullard. Most of the Fullard children, she says, moved on to other occupations, although son Rick Fullard, who tried his hand at politics when he ran for City Council in 2003, still manages the Yellow Bowl restaurant in Park Heights.

The Fullards leased the Greenmount location to Malik Royster, a former state building inspector who owns a construction company called Royster Construction (Royster is also a distant relative to Christina Royster-Hemby, a former City Paper staff writer). Royster says he is exercising an option in his contract to buy the restaurant from the Fullards and has already paid the first $100,000 of $500,000 they want for the business.

Standing outside the Yellow Bowl, Troy Johnson, who says he's lived in the neighborhood for years, says he remembers when the place was a late-night hotspot. He says its popularity has declined along with the neighborhood.

"People still come around," Johnson says, but "it ain't like it was before."

Rick Fullard says the neighborhood has changed "quite a bit," but he is optimistic that new development nearby will help things pick up. Likewise, Royster, who grew up in Johnston Square, has high hopes that things can turn around for the Yellow Bowl.

Royster says the history of the restaurant is important to him. He hopes to restore the hubbub that used to surround the now-faded Yellow Bowl, which he says is the oldest minority-owned restaurant in the city and occupies a building that was once a stop on the Underground Railroad.

He intends to keep the menu, fried chicken, ribs, biscuits, and all, but he also plans to create a lounge atmosphere inside. He envisions it not just as a neighborhood takeout joint, but as "someplace you can come for happy hour when you get off work."

"I want to have Monday-night football to Sunday brunch," he says. "There is nothing like that up and down here" on Greenmount. The windowless Avenue Bar is the only drinkery in sight, and it doesn't appear to be the kind of comfortable, welcoming place Royster describes.

Royster says that since he is a contractor, he can do much of the needed renovation work himself. "I can pull my own permits," he says. "I can do my own electrical, my own HVAC, you name it." He is in the process of obtaining a liquor license and a permit for outdoor seating. He adds that he would welcome the return of the City Hall crowd to the Yellow Bowl.

On a recent afternoon inside the restaurant, Mack stands over the grill and cooks up minced barbecue and home fries for a reporter. Takeout bag in hand, the reporter bids farewell to the guys on the corner, who joke that the food won't be worth eating.

They are, however, wrong. The collard greens are salty as seaweed, but the BBQ pork (or is that chicken?) and home fries are good to the last bite.

Time will tell if Royster can revive the Yellow Bowl by serving up beer alongside Southern-style short ribs, but he has high hopes that he can turn it into the busy meeting place and soul-food destination it used to be.

In the meantime, Councilwoman Clarke has a suggestion for giving the business a little jump-start. "Kurt Schmoke and I ought to go back and have breakfast and get things stirring again," she says.

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