A family member got a nasty case of COVID last week, right in time for the World Health Organization to declare the global health emergency over.
In a way, it reminds me of the bifurcated reality of Baltimore’s dining scene, which is simultaneously seeing major red flags and signs of recovery. While some neighborhoods, particularly suburban areas, are undergoing a restaurant boom, other eateries continue to suffer from the effects of the pandemic, whether from a drop in demand, the labor crisis, rising burnout or out-of-control food prices.
Just ask Farid Salloum. On Sunday, he is closing down Baba’s Mediterranean Kitchen, his charming Locust Point restaurant, for good. It’s a huge loss to the neighborhood, which has relied on Baba’s for healthy, homestyle food for more than 14 years. But Salloum said it was a necessary decision amid increased operating costs coupled with reduced demand.
The restaurant pivoted to carryout service with an attached marketplace during the pandemic, and customers initially rushed to support the operation. Three years later, that momentum has faded. Meanwhile, “costs are continuing to increase and I think people’s buying habits are changing,” Salloum said. Small, independent shops like his, which have less capital on hand, are most vulnerable to these financial headwinds, he said: “The bigger the business, usually the more capital there is behind it to handle the fluctuations.”
Salloum thinks we may be on the verge of a “post-COVID wave” of restaurant shutdowns as businesses like his are feeling the pinch. “Personally I think there’s still going to be a little bit of a shake-up,” he said. A few recent closures give that argument some weight.
Last week, two popular Italian spots in the heart of the city announced closures. Joseph Gardella announced Thursday the decision to close his popular Joe Benny’s restaurant in a heartfelt video shared to Instagram. Though the business is doing well, after nine years, the demands of being an owner and operator had taken a physical and mental toll, he said. Forno owner Ricky Johnson was nearing eviction for his downtown Italian spot after being unable to make rent since the coronavirus started. He’s facing financial ruin.
The list of local spots to shutter just in the past six months goes on. There’s The Civil and Let’s Brunch Cafe. The Red Star in Fells Point, Barley’s Backyard and HalfSmoke. The Hanover, which shared an address with the Smoking Swine and Diablo Doughnuts (the doughnut shop moved to Baltimore County). Full Tilt Brewing is gone, too, as is Five and Dime Ale House. And every vendor at Whitehall Market, an upscale food hall that opened during the pandemic, has announced its intention to leave. True, each business owner has their own unique reasons for leaving. But it’s hard not to look at the closures and feel a pit in your stomach.
In January, I reported that Marshall Weston of the Restaurant Association of Maryland was concerned that restaurants in Baltimore are closing faster than they are opening.
It might give readers emotional whiplash to read about the booming dining scene in neighborhoods like Hampden, which has so many new restaurants coming to the Avenue that it’s hard to keep up. In Fells Point, chefs Jesse Sandlin and Ashish Alfred are both on the verge of launching two very exciting (completely separate) concepts in Fells Point: Bunny’s, in the former Wharf Rat, and Osteria Pirata, in the former Points South Latin Kitchen. On Greenmount Avenue, foodies are thrilled to be welcoming Toki Underground. A new Peter Chang concept is coming to East Baltimore, as is the Rize + Rest Cafe. This week, developers announced that Clyde’s Restaurant Group will take over the Rye Street Tavern, reinvigorating a primo piece of waterfront real estate in the neighborhood formerly known as Port Covington.
Weston said those developments can’t be dismissed. Referring to Clyde’s takeover of Rye Street, he wrote in an email that “Baltimore continues to be an attractive market for restaurants and worthy of an effort from business owners, even during these difficult economic times.”
Still, I wouldn’t mistake all the “coming soon” signs to mean that everything is well. Restaurateurs I’ve interviewed lately want people to know that just because the pandemic is no longer at the front of everyone’s minds — with so many of us slouching toward “the new normal” — doesn’t mean the local dining scene has recovered.
“It’s just a very different industry than it was before the pandemic and much more challenging,” True Chesapeake Oyster Co. co-owner Patrick Hudson told me earlier this year as he explained the delays in opening Lagniappe in Remington. After announcing that his restaurant would relocate to Fells Point, La Calle co-owner Luis Sandoval told me he spent years waiting for office workers to come back to the city center, but ultimately determined that “I don’t think they’re going to come back.” And Danae Schrock told me she considered closing her Charmed eatery in Mount Vernon when she couldn’t keep up with the price of food. She reviewed at an invoice from her supplier and thought: “Oh my God, how?”
Fortunately, my relative emerged from a COVID fog after a few dreary days. If only it were that simple for the city’s dining scene.