It seems like each week there is an exciting new restaurant opening in Baltimore, whether it’s the Ash Bar at the Hotel Ulysses or Ammoora, which just arrived to the Ritz-Carlton Residences.
But all the buzz can make it hard to see that in some ways, Baltimore’s dining scene is in trouble.
That’s according to Marshall Weston, President and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, a trade group. I met Weston in Columbia, near the association’s headquarters, to chat about what’s on his mind ahead of this year’s legislative session.
Among his concerns: The number of restaurants in Baltimore City dropped 5% from 2010 through mid-2022. During the same time period, Baltimore County saw a 26% increase in the number of restaurants, while Howard County saw a 34% increase.
(The decline accelerated during the pandemic. The most recent numbers from the liquor board show there are 1,126 active liquor licenses in Baltimore, down from 1,241 in 2019.)
Statewide, Maryland has seen about 20% growth in the number of restaurants since 2010, Weston said. “Baltimore is the only one [jurisdiction] that continues to go in the wrong direction.”
Those statistics are echoed in the experience of two business owners I spoke to this week: Diablo Doughnuts owner Michael Roslan and Smoking Swine operator L. Drew Pumphrey. Both are closing up their businesses in Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood.
Still, Charm City continues to draw imaginative and passionate chefs and entrepreneurs, such as fine dining chef Randall Jovan Matthews, formerly of Wit & Wisdom. He has traveled the world and returned to Baltimore.
Diablo Doughnuts exits city while The Smoking Swine ends its run
Diablo Doughnuts is closing its location in South Baltimore’s Brooklyn neighborhood and moving to Baltimore County. The new branch at 7698 Belair Road in Nottingham is set to open in February, just in time for Valentine’s Day, one of the biggest days of the year for the business.
Diablo’s current location closes Jan. 22, said owner Michael Roslan. The move was first reported in The Baltimore Sun.
The Brooklyn space was an “emergency shop” where Diablo Doughnuts relocated in 2021 after the roof fell through at the shop’s Federal Hill location. Roslan started the company in 2013.
“We were trying to make the best of” the Brooklyn location, Roslan said. But sales were down. “It’s hard to get people in the city right now.” Customers often tell him they’re afraid of crime in the city.
He’s frustrated by what he sees as failures in local government that have made it hard for small businesses like his to operate. “I hate to say it, but Baltimore City is failing right now.”
But the Baltimore native isn’t ready to call it quits on his hometown forever. “I’d love to see it turn around.”
The new location is slightly larger than Diablo Doughnut’s Brooklyn space. It offers plenty of room for making its Unicorn Farts, aka yeast doughnuts covered in Fruity Pebbles, and other signature offerings. (There is even a beer called Sour Me Unicorn Farts made by DuClaw Brewing Co.)
An expanded menu will include breakfast sandwiches and savory pastries plus chicken hot dogs rolled in doughnut dough. “We’re definitely changing our menu up a little bit.”
You’ll still be able to get coffee from Pfefferkorn’s Coffee, Baltimore’s oldest coffee roastery, which opened more than 100 years ago.
In Nottingham, Roslan said Diablo Doughnuts will also offer expanded operating hours, Wednesday through Sunday 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. The shop will open Tuesday, Feb. 14 for Valentine’s Day. “We’re going to make sure we blow it out this year.”
I wondered what the move meant for Pumphrey and his watering hole, The Hanover, and his Smoking Swine barbecue business. Both are attached to the Diablo Doughnuts shop at 3432 South Hanover Street. Dizzy Cow Pizzeria, a food truck, also uses the building’s kitchen. (Roslan was previously a partner in The Hanover.)
“We’re done,” said Pumphrey, whose Smoking Swine business was featured in Guy Fieri’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” TV show.
It’s not just the bar that’s closing. Pumphrey has also shut down his popular Smoking Swine food truck and placed it up for sale. “Done,” he said. “I’m turning the towel in for everything.”
When he first opened, Pumphrey was full of optimism for the neglected stretch of Hanover Street just a bit south of the bridge. He joked that he would help make “Brooklyn the new Brooklyn.” He thought the location — just off I-895, and bordering Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties — would be ideal for customers driving in from other parts of the region.
That didn’t happen. Pumphrey called the situation “Kind of heartbreaking. Baltimore’s always been so good to me. In this last stretch … it’s really done a 180.”
He blamed Baltimore’s leaders for failing to do more to clean up crime, which kept people away. Leaders played, he said, “an enormous role in the downfall of the dining and entertainment scene in Baltimore City.”
But crime isn’t the only factor. The struggle to find workers has crippled his business, even when he offered wages of $15 an hour plus tips. He was burnt out trying to do everything himself. He was working 80 to 90 hours a week and barely making any money.
As for what comes next: Pumphrey, a former engineer, said he has been interviewing with different restaurant groups. “In a perfect world the guys from Atlas [Restaurant Group] will call me up and say, ‘Hey, we want to open a barbecue restaurant.’”
A while back, Pumphrey had shared on social media about his mental health struggles during the pandemic. Loneliness and stress had taken him to some dark places. He said he’s feeling better since making the decision to end operations. “Things have gotten exponentially better,” he said. Although “it does absolutely crush my soul that I have to walk away from it.”
Former ‘Wit & Wisdom’ chef heads to Patterson Park
While working for celebrity chef Michael Mina, chef Matthews traveled the world opening dozens of restaurants: from Dubai to Los Angeles, from Miami to Vegas.
But when he decided to open a place of his own, there was no better place than Baltimore.
Determined to buy his own building, he found that goal could be a reality in Charm City. In addition to the affordable property, he was attracted to what he called the city’s “culture-first, people first environment,” which he had gotten to know as a chef for Wit & Wisdom, Mina’s restaurant at the Four Seasons Hotel that closed about four years ago.
“People who live in Baltimore or are from Baltimore, they are very proud to be from Baltimore,” said Matthews, a 33-year-old Prince George’s County native and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. “They empower each other to grow the community and make the community better. I don’t think you see that in a lot of cities.”
This spring, Matthews will open the Rize & Rest Café at 3100 East Baltimore Street. The building is a former grocery store near Patterson Park. He purchased the building in 2021; it required extensive renovations, which Matthews called a “very, very trying process,” adding: “the permit process alone took one full year.”
But things are looking up. Matthews, who just got approved for his liquor license last week, is looking to open in mid-March.
The restaurant will offer a coffee shop type atmosphere during the daytime, transforming into a dimly lit space with “crazy cool craft cocktails” at night. On the menu, look for elevated seasonal fare including smoked bone marrow with lamb marmalade.
A strong social mission will be core to Rize & Rest Café's identity, Matthews said. “This restaurant will give back to the community,” he said, adding that he plans to host poetry nights and other events with the neighbors.
The plan: “Rise up together.”