The autumnal tablescape in the private dining room at BLK Swan was peppered with miniature cream-colored pumpkins, baby’s breath and bouquets of pink and beige flowers. Milk-chocolate brown napkins popped against the white linen.
Conversations about current events and work life quickly revealed that most of the 16 guests graduated from historically Black colleges and universities. The dinner-mates soon broke into a chorus of ’90s R&B songs, followed by a robust discussion about the night’s menu, which consisted of a salmon meuniere tart and sous vide duck with sweet potato mousseline, rosemary potato Anna and apricot velouté.
Attendee Kim Wiggins said the night felt like home.
“I liked how everyone talked about what they are doing,” said the Patterson Park resident, a graduate of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU. “My favorite was the duck. I love duck and sweet potato together.”
This is what executive chef Saon Brice envisioned when he launched the Rare Bird Supper Club at BLK Swan.
“If you were skeptical to dine in any restaurant, it’s a great introduction to people who were on the fence,” said Brice, who is also a part owner of the Harbor East restaurant. “It’s allowing them to get a piece of the experience. It’s very intimate, private, and exclusive. We’re going for something that you could not probably get on a daily basis.”
Although Milwaukee native Lawrence Frank is credited with opening the first supper club in Beverly Hills, California, in the 1930s, the tradition of serving dazzling meats with some form of libation and a generous portion of warm hospitality has found a contemporary home with Black chefs in the finer dining space, according to food historian and chef Tonya Thomas.
“People are realizing this is a space we belong in. This is who we are,” Thomas said.
Black chefs are working to create these welcoming experiences through supper clubs and recurring dinners at a time when Black diners are voicing their complaints about discriminatory practices, such as dress codes, automatic gratuities specifically applied to them and overall poor service — negative experiences intensified in the finer dining spaces.
The cruel irony is that although fine dining originated with and was shaped by Black people in this country, they have historically been shut out from current conversations around it, whether that be from awards and accolades or the noticeable absence of Black chefs and guests in the fine dining scene.
“So many things have been said or done to us that we feel like we do not belong here,” Thomas said. “But this is something that we started.
Tonya Thomas, who curates “A Story to Tell: An Ode to Hip-Hop,” a recurring dinner series with her husband David Thomas through their company H3irloom Food Group, is expecting to host 90 guests this Saturday at the Baltimore Visitor Center for an evening of multicourse dining and wine pairings all inspired by hip-hop, the genre that celebrated its the 50th anniversary this year.
Even though the couple started out using their hip-hop-inspired dinners as a way to market their newly formed company during the pandemic, they quickly realized it had become a highly sought-after bonding experience for their largely Black attendees. The $325-per-person dinners, which have attracted the likes of celebrity chef Carla Hall and James Beard Award-winning author Toni Tipton Martin, regularly sell out within minutes of tickets being made available.
“It gives you a high-level experience. But it is not stuffy. It’s very welcoming,” Thomas said. “We wanted people to walk out with friendship and connects. People walked in and didn’t know each other and wound up conversing like they knew each other for years.”
Regular attendee Charisse Paige said that the dinners epitomize Black excellence.
“It is curated by us, for us. It recognizes that we are deserving of quality experiences where we can be our authentic selves,” said Paige, a 44-year-old nonprofit professional who lives in Ashburton.
Although she enjoys the menu, entertainment, ambience and setting of the dinners, she said the “sense of community” was her favorite aspect.
“Having attended over the years, you aren’t just sharing an experience, you build a camaraderie,” said Paige, who is known for attending the dinners in eye-catching gowns and cocktail dresses. “You meet strangers, but they become your people, and you look forward to seeing them at the next event.”
Like a supper club, Thomas said she wanted guests to feel like they were walking into her home for a classic dinner party.
“We have people feeling comfortable in this space and comfortable being there,” she said.
For chef Catina Smith, starting 3 Petals dinners was an opportunity to bring Black people together while celebrating artists and fine food. As co-owner of Our Time Kitchen, a shared kitchen and events space in Old Goucher where she has held her most recent dinners, Smith typically chooses a Black female artist or musician to showcase through the multicourse meals she cooks.
“I think these dinners are a safe refuge. The curators of these dinners want to build community with people to engage with other people they don’t know,” she explained. “It’s not just a dining experience of having dinner. There is a theme at play. Otherwise, people would not be able to meet these local artists. People will make chitchat because of that.”
Since May, Safiyah Baxter has hosted two intimate multicourse dinners with wine pairings as part of her & Friends agency, which focuses on community organization and curation.
“We curate a memory and vibe,” she said, adding that the dinners range between $110 to $135 per person. “When I moved to Baltimore in 2020, I loved how communal Baltimore City was. [But] it’s hard to meet new people so we combined the communal aspect of the city with ways to meet new people.”
Baxter, a 26-year-old Reservoir Hill resident, said she chooses to center the meals — most recently held at Our Time Kitchen — around Black chefs and diners as a way of honoring the Black tradition of bonding through food, such as Sunday dinners.
“The culinary industry is traditionally whitewashed, so it’s wanting to create a space and avenue,” she said. “It’s a way to a create safe space for Black chefs and Black diners.”
Baxter’s dining concept has been a “respite” from white finer dining restaurants for Hess Love, who said she has been ignored at those locations, or experienced staff being unwelcoming.
Love said the treatment she has observed white diners receiving compared to her has been “attitudinal. You notice when other people were met with excitement or glee. Not that I need someone to roll out the red carpet. But [a warm welcome] is not something I can count on,” she explained.
With the & Friends dinner, Love enjoys knowing that she will be able to support Black chefs while rekindling a sense of culture and togetherness with other Black people.
“Both of the dinners [I attended] definitely fit the definition of a sense of nourishment, community and an opportunity to have a good time,” said Love, a conservationist and writer who lives on the Eastern Shore. “It’s traditional, ancestral and shows support for local Black chefs. It allows us the build a type of intimacy of having a good time that we cannot have at other restaurants throughout the city.”
The recurring meals also are a way to expand the palates of diners, according to the chefs.
Thomas’ hip-hop dinner has featured adventurous and creative dishes such as dry age duck tartare with crispy duck skin, cured duck egg, pickled okra seeds and Lambrusco syrup for one course, and cold smoked langoustine and lobster salad with a crispy sweet potato cone, black caviar, and golden mango gastrique for the next.
“This is the menu. If you chose to buy a ticket, there are no substitutes. You have to be willing to try it. Step outside of your comfort zone,” Thomas said. “It’s us being creative. Just trust us. You’ll be surprised by how much you like the dish. Normally, they wouldn’t order it. But they love it.”
Brice said the dinners allow him to showcase his culinary repertoire and fine dining background.
“I can mess around with different things and expand people’s palates and experiences,” he said from his restaurant’s kitchen. On this particular day, he was preparing a duck breast with root vegetables, topped with a merlot demi-glace. The dish was finished with a pink-hued red wine vinegar reduction powder.
“I have formal culinary training in fine dining, and I am able to explore and express myself as a chef. Sometimes as a Black chef, we will create a relatable menu and not really do some of the things that we desire to do,” he said as the flame leapt onto the pan, creating a crispy skin for the medium-cooked duck. “With the supper club dinners, you can walk through this whole story from the first course to last course.”
Brice, whose next $175 supper club experience is this Sunday, said these recurring dinners keep him motivated in an industry that oftentimes does not recognize the work of Black chefs.
“It does bother me a lot that we are not in those conversations and that we have to bring up certain conversations to be in those conversations. It does bother me a lot to see today that we have to deal with the same things,” he said in reference to Black chefs and customers being excluded from the fine dining table. “There are not a lot of Black chefs and restaurants being recognized for Michelin stars. But white chefs are being recognized for serving braised pig feet. For me, I keep pushing.”
Wiggins is grateful for the effort.
“I do plan to attend again. It was great to try new food,” said Wiggins, 53, who works for the Baltimore Public School System. “I suspect tickets will sell out quickly, so while my intent is to attend again, it might not happen because I’m old-lady slow.”