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One Café to Rule Them All

Bilbo Baggins restaurant offers eclectic variety on the menu, behind the bar.

It may not be open for breakfast — but it has an array of menu items for second breakfast, elevenses, and the four other daily Hobbit meals depicted in director Peter Jackson’s cinematic adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings.”

When Michael Armellino opened Bilbo Baggins Global Wine Café and Restaurant just over 24 years ago, he envisioned the cozy Queen Street eatery as “a great place for a Hobbit to hang out,” and infused his food and drink selections with a whimsy worthy of Mr. Baggins himself.

“He loves to eat, drink and be merry. That’s pretty much the being of [The hobbits’] existence,” said Armellino.

“The biggest thing [about the restaurant] is the name,” he said. “If you know that name Bilbo Baggins, and you walk through these doors as a customer just one time, you’re going to think, ‘What a cute, rustic restaurant.’ It is very different from your sterile places today. This is real.”

The name was suggested by a friend who, like Armellino, was reading “The Hobbit” at the time. Something a bit more traditional, like “Mike’s,” was in the running — but that’s wasn’t the trend back when Bilbo Baggins opened.

“In the 1980s, you didn’t open up a restaurant and call it ‘Mike’s Café’; name it after yourself, try and be a celebrity. Today, you get restaurants like that. What you tended to do in was have a theme in your restaurant, and the buildings depict that theme for us,” said Armellino of the wooden, rustic space that was built in 1860.

The theme paid off when Jackson’s Oscar-winning trilogy arrived in theaters. In fact, Armellino found out that Tolkien’s saga would be filmed three years before it debuted, and from an unlikely source — director Steven Spielberg.

ARMELLINO SAID Spielberg came to Bilbo Baggins café and told his young son that he was going to help make a movie about the restaurant’s namesake. The news was, as expected, met with overwhelming enthusiasm from Armellino and family.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” debuted in Dec. 2001, and Bilbo Baggins café was ready. “The first day that the movie came out, we went full staff. It was a Wednesday. They said, ‘No, Mike, it’s not going to be busy.’ I said, ‘You’re out of your mind. We are going full staff,’” said Armellino.

That night, business boomed. Some patrons came barefoot, like hobbits; others came in more elaborate costumes. The trend, and the crowds, would last for the next week.

The restaurant continued to attract fans of the books and films for the duration of the cinematic trilogy. Groups like The District of Dark Whispers, which celebrated “Baggins Birthday” at the café in 2003. According to a posting on the “Lord of the Rings” fan site Theonering.net, 30 people showed up for the party: “We raised our glasses (pints!) to 'The Baggins.' Following that we pulled four names to compeat (sic) in a game of LoTR password.”

Armellino said he had customers who thought his restaurant was named to capitalize on the films’ success. He’d tell them, “Bilbo Baggins was already a movie. It just wasn’t as popular because it was animated. Pretty poorly done, actually.”

Now that Jackson’s films have a permanent home on the DVD shelf, Armellino is faced with even more dedicated and discerning collection of die-hards:

Beer aficionados.

“IT’S UNBELIEVABLE. Beer has become tremendous over the years,” said Armellino.

The restaurant opened with the intention of being an eclectic beer and wine destination, and has carried on that tradition for years. But as more competitors go beyond domestic fare and the usual import suspects, Armellino has had to work harder to bring true variety to his bar.

“The biggest problem is availability in this particular area. Before we were the only ones having it; now everybody else does,” he said.

The café exploits its geographic advantages, featuring Ashburn’s Dominion lager ($4.25, renamed “Bilbo Baggins Dominion”) and Delaware’s Dogfish Head Brewery, featuring its 60- and 90-minute 750ml IPA. The 90-minute — where seven different types of hops are added every 90 minutes — retails for $17.95. Belgium also figures prominently, with Liefman’s Cherry ($10) and Tappistes Rochefort #10 ($10) offering some amber options.

Although the wine is in the café’s name, Armellino said he spends more time tweaking the beer list.

ALSO IN THE name of the restaurant is “global.” Armellino said it was added about 10 years ago, right after the term “continental” was no longer in vogue.

The chef/owner takes an international approach to cuisine. He trained in Switzerland, learning French cooking while honing the fundamentals. “What you do is learn the basics well, and then you develop a palette. You develop a passion for food. If you like to go home and cook, you try out things. If you don’t have a particular ingredient, then you throw something else in,” said Armellino.

The slogan “Think Globally, Eat Locally” applies to Bilbo Baggins’ varied and experimental menu. It’s a lineup where Wasabi Salmon Filet ($16.95), served in a pool of miso broth, is at home next to Emu Fan Filets ($19.95), with black mission figs, grilled asparagus in a pool of thyme demi-glace. Where Calamari — delivered fresh every day — is served with a Thai chili aioli and sour papaya relish ($12.95).

Armellino said his kitchen must be prepared to whip up any of the menu’s items. “Our inventory of food in this house is about $12,000. That’s a lot of food. If you go in our refrigerators here, they’re down to, like, 31 degrees to keep everything as fresh for as long as possible,” he said.

Armellino said his menu will soon be significantly changing for the first time in five years, adding lighter fare and some Asian-influenced items.

“You’ve got a lot of Asian influence now,” he said. “But for the last 10, 15 years the restaurant industry has been kind of on a bump because there are no new influences in food. We used them all up.”

ARMELLINO’S INSPIRATION? “We love to make food for people with good spirits: happy, healthy food,” he said.

It all goes back to Bilbo Baggins, the café’s culinary muse. The chef said he asked for and was given permission from the Tolkien foundation to use one of the author’s most cherished creations as his eatery’s namesake “as long as we don’t hurt the name,” he said. And like a spell from the wizard Gandalf, that permission has a time limit: the restaurant can use the name as long as Armellino owns the joint.

And how much longer will that be?

“Put it this way: I’ve got about 18 more months before my last kid will go to college,” said Armellino, 53, who already has two children in college.

Should the time come, he already has some successors in mind.

“We have four people in the kitchen that have been with me for 17 years. They came to this country and couldn’t speak English. [Now] they have their green cards, they have their own cars, they have their own homes, they have their children here. They have rental properties. That’s basically me teaching them how to live in America. They deserve to take this place over,” he said.

In other words: Frodos to his Bilbo, ready to grab the ring.