Where's Baldi? Bel Rio closes, owner vanishes
Bel Rio, the Downtown Belmont restaurant and music venue that has sparked a passionate debate over noise-levels at night spots–-which led to an amended City noise ordinance–-appears to have disappeared, along with its owner, without a sound.
A sign on Bel Rio’s door last week announced that the venue would be closed for two weeks for vacation and kitchen renovations, but that was news to building owner Jeff Easter.
“I still haven’t heard from him,” says Easter of Bel Rio owner Jim Baldi. “I think he’s gone.”
Easter, a critic of the proposed 55db noise ordinance, which he believes is too low, nonetheless asked Baldi to tone it down following a July 3 incident after a private party at the restaurant during which there were altercations in the street, the police were called, and several people resisted arrest. Indeed, Tomas Rahal at MAS says that customers of his were afraid to leave the restaurant to go to their cars that night.
“When you have people screaming and yelling at 2:30 in the morning,” says Easter, “that’s a nuisance."
Indeed, while musicians, Belmont residents, and City officials earnestly debated the noise ordinance, and whether or not Bel Rio’s late night music scene was a boon or bust for the neighborhood, Baldi seemed to be staking his success, at least in part, on late night parties.
"Jim said he couldn’t make it without the private parties," says Easter. "I told him that’s not my problem.”
Baldi partnered with C&O’s Dave Simpson and Gareth Weldon to open Bel Rio in November 2008, but Simpson sold his interest in the restaurant to Baldi in October of last year after having second thoughts about the partnership.
Weldon, too, parted ways with Baldi, but he did not immediately respond to Dish’s call for comment by press time.
Meanwhile, no one seems to know where Baldi is–- or when he'll be back. Indeed, Dish spent most of last week trying to locate him with no success.
Local realtor Roger Voisinet, whom Baldi hired to sell his house at 900 Elliott Avenue, says Baldi contacted him last Tuesday via text message, saying he was going to Chicago and giving him his ex-wife’s phone number if anything came up concerning the house.
“I texted him back,” says Voisinet, “but I haven’t heard from him.”
When Dish called Baldi’s ex-wife, a family member answered the phone, but he refused to comment on Baldi’s whereabouts. “We’re not really speaking to anyone now,” he said.
Lex Gibson, who recently bought the assets of Baldi's other restaurant, L7 (formerly Cantina) on Elliewood Avenue, says she's also curious to know where her former boss might have gone.
“I started managing here a month and a half ago,” says Gibson, 24, who also worked at Bel Rio for a time. “And then Jim offered me the restaurant for sale. It was very sudden.”
Gibson says Alcoholic Beverage Control agents showed up last week and asked her to surrender her liquor license, which was in Baldi’s name. Easter, too, was asked by ABC agents to surrender Baldi’s license for Bel Rio. Agents told him it was being suspended for “inactivity.”
Area ABC spokesperson Roger Stevens says that agents were responding to complaints from neighbors about noise at Bel Rio, and that Gibson and Easter surrendered the licenses “voluntarily.” Unprompted, Stevens said he couldn’t comment on any “pending investigation.”
Baldi, who was also a local accountant who did the books for many area restaurants, appears to have faced business difficulties before.
According to records from the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, he was barred last August from performing financial services for failing to provide information requested by the Authority.
An authority spokesperson could not immediately offer further details, but says such barring is permanent, although it can be appealed for up to 30 days.
Baldi also appears to have vanished with one of Bel Rio’s bartenders, Kristian Throckmorton, who sources say had been seen frequently with Baldi in recent weeks. Voisinet says he's heard from several people also concerned about the young woman, who is 25, according to her myspace page. Dish was unable to reach Throckmorton, and her mother declined comment on her whereabouts.
While Simpson says he has no idea why Baldi has disappeared, he’s not surprised that Bel Rio had its difficulties.
“Bel Rio was a terrible misstep for me,” says Simpson, pointing out that it violated several cornerstones of his own business principals: don’t work in partnerships, own rather than rent real estate, and stay away from music clubs.
In the 1980’s Simpson launched the popular C&O Night Club, and while he says it was “an enormous amount of fun and was a center for warmth, fellowship, swinging nights of dancing and music,” it could have hardly been considered a sound business model.
Against his better judgment, Simpson says he thought the Belmont neighborhood was poised and willing to embrace a music venue. Plus, Weldon and Baldi worked him hard. Back in 2008, Weldon said he used what he called "gentle pressure continuously applied" to convince Simpson it could work.
But after a short time, says Simpson, it became clear that the concept was not being welcomed.
“After 30 years at the C&O feeling like everybody’s darling, I found the bad guy role I was suddenly cast in untenable,” says Simpson. “And I’ll take the time to apologize to the people in Belmont who found this enterprise a nuisance while I was involved.”
Meanwhile, with Baldi and Throckmorton unreachable, Easter says there’s been plenty of interest in the Bel Rio space. Since there’s a working kitchen, he says, the most likely new tenant–- if Baldi doesn't soon return–- will be a restaurant.
“But they’re family restaurant concepts,” he says, “So I don’t think the noise will be an issue anymore.”