As the matriarch-in-charge of Faidley’s Seafood, Damye Devine Hahn, is a natural expert on Maryland crabs, and an expert, by necessity, of bureaucracy and logistics.
“It’s more than complicated,” she said of the odyssey of opening their new restaurant. “It’s ridiculous.”
On a recent afternoon, Hahn, who studied marine biology in college, stood at one of Faidley’s 1950s-era counters a few strides from her makeshift office, which is crammed into a corner by the entrance next to a pallet of saltine crackers used to make her restaurant’s famous crab cakes. Tapping her inquisitor’s elbow to emphasize her points, she tried to explain why Faidley’s has yet to take its place as the anchor tenant of the new Lexington Market, one year after its ballyhooed grand opening.
She summed it up: “There’s a lot of hands in the pot.”
Those hands, she said, belong to the city that owns the market, the developer who designed it, the builder who executed the design, and the merchants. There are also architects, engineers, subcontractors, equipment suppliers, and various consultants and vendors who are fingers on those hands.
What it boils down to is this: When Hahn makes a simple request, like moving a badly placed electrical outlet, the electrician gives her a puzzled look, shrugs his shoulders, and says “it’s on the plan.” That requires Hahn, who incidentally can do a cinema-quality impression of an electrician, to talk to each of the other hands, and follow the chain of command back to the flummoxed electrician, who finally moves the outlet — a 30-minute task now extended to a few weeks.
The hand-filled pot, combined with Hahn’s exacting demands for the new space, has meant an opening plagued by delays. She recently pushed the date deeper into the year, from sometime in January to March 1.
“We’re close. We’re really close,” she said. “I’m getting excited.”
Faidley’s, one of Baltimore’s most famous and fabled brands, was started as an outdoor seafood market in 1886 by Hahn’s great grandfather John W. Faidley. His youngest son, also John W., continued to run the business. His daughter Nancy Faidley Devine and her husband Bill Devine (alive and well in their 90s and actively involved in the business until the start of the pandemic) were the obvious choice to take the baton. Their daughter Damye emerged as the honcho in the fourth generation.
Her sister Eve Devine and sister-in-law Laurie Mozina are also involved in daily operations, as is her niece (Mozina’s daughter) Alicia Mozina-Sidhu. She and Damye’s son Will Hahn, 37, the best oyster shucker in the family by unanimous decree, are the most active members of the fifth generation. The kids in the sixth generation are younger than 10 but are already being indoctrinated into the industry, so the future of family biz is promising. (The clan was featured last year on an episode of Andrew Zimmern’s television show “Family Dinner.”)
Faidley’s Seafood has been part of the Lexington Market since its inception, following it as it moved and transformed from a traditional market to what it is now. Faidley’s added cooked food to its offerings in the 1950s when it moved into the space it currently occupies at 203 N. Paca Street. The place has a kind of nostalgic charm that enchants visitors, but its owners could do without: electric heaters that barely keep up, the spaghetti of wires, drains that constantly clog, the dim light and the aging equipment.
Perhaps the most idiosyncratic component of the old Faidley’s is the office occupied by Bill Devine until he was well into his 80s. It’s suspended off the ceiling, accessible only by ladder, and more like a space capsule or a bathysphere, suited for an astronaut, deep-sea oceanographer, or, in Bill’s case, a sailor. Mozina-Sidhu does her work in there; the boss, Hahn , prefers the ground level.
We toured the family’s new restaurant and market, almost ready but still hidden from public view by plywood. The last major hurdle to opening is the arrival of four refrigerated glass cases that will display the raw seafood.
“Those cases are on the slow boat from Portugal,” Hahn said. “They’re drifting across the Atlantic, and now I’m being told they need to go through customs in New York and be sent to Iowa, before they’re sent here.”
She purchased them from a company in Iowa, thinking they were made in the U.S., explaining she splurged on the cases to maximize visual appeal.
“The Europeans are really good for making things look like they’re not there,” she said.
Faidley’s will be the largest merchant in the market, which is arguably still finding its footing. The quality of the prepared food varies, but is more typical of a food court than a food hall, which have been sprouting up in cities around the country. While Lexington Market touts itself as one of the oldest public markets in the country, its grocery offerings are limited. Only a few merchants are able to accept food stamps. Faidley’s no longer can. Some of the merchants have struggled to thrive and gave mixed reviews of the new market space.
Faidley’s and the market have suffered from its prolonged absence, which has confused customers, Hahn said.
Anchor tenancy comes with privileges. Faidley’s has magnitudes more space for refrigeration, food preparation, storage and customers. The new restaurant will have 10 beer taps, and also wine. New top-of-the-line fryers, steamers and ovens are going in. So is a large shucking station. And outdoor dining. And the new office, with no ladder to climb, will have a door and a powder room. The family is cleaning up all the old relics from the old place and moving them over: taxidermy terrapins, signs, menu boards, the original tables and raw bar counter.
About that counter — it’s exactly 14 feet long, as it has been for decades. But for some reason the space the subcontractors created for it was 16 feet, 9 inches.
“It had to be modified to make it work,” Hahn said, “which again, takes time, more effort, more challenges. But it’s up and it’s working and it’s the old original raw bar.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified Damye Hahn's sister-in-law. Her sister-in-law is Laurie Mozina.