A few weeks ago, Robbie Tutlewski went to The New York Times’ website. He clicked on a feature titled “The Restaurant List 2023: The 50 places in the United States that we’re most excited about right now.”

Among them was his own intimate Fells Point spot, Little Donna’s, which he opened last year and named for his grandmother.

“We’re screwed,” he thought.

More and more, Baltimore’s funky, quirky, one-in-a-million bars and restaurants are getting national attention, whether from big-name awards like the James Beard Foundation or from publications such as Esquire magazine or The New York Times. For small-business owners like Tutlewski, such acclaim can come with baggage.

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Though the chef has worked for other uber-famous eateries, like Pizzeria Bianco in Arizona, as an owner and operator at Little Donna’s, he felt suddenly exposed. When diners come to Little Donna’s, he said, “you’re in my home.” His wife hand-painted the flowers in the restrooms and helped select the décor, which includes antique photos of train wrecks from the restaurant’s past life as Henninger’s Tavern. He and his family live in an apartment above the restaurant.

And more than ever before, guests want to come. Since the Times piece, email inquiries for reservations at Little Donna’s have gone from about 20 per day to 150. Tables are booked through November, though walk-in customers can always take their chances on scoring a seat by the bar or on the pleasant Bank Street patio. Tutlewski has had to hire additional staff to help cope with the influx of business and is working on a new reservation system.

Tutlewski almost turned down the chance to be featured. Just weeks earlier, a Times staffer had emailed him asking to send a photographer to the restaurant for reasons they wouldn’t disclose. The chef turned to his wife, Kaleigh Schwalbe. “The New York Times wants to take a picture,” he said. “They’re not telling me what it’s about. Should we say no?” He worried that any spotlight would “open the floodgates,” exposing the young restaurant to attention they weren’t ready for.

Other restaurant owners have reported being taken by surprise after receiving national attention. Back in January, Chris Amendola of Foraged found out he had been named a James Beard Award semifinalist in the “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic” category through a text message from fellow restaurateur Steve Chu, who was also nominated. “I fully was not expecting that at all,” Amendola said. He hadn’t bothered to submit the video essay to nominate himself because he’d been too busy running his restaurant.

Announced just before Baltimore Restaurant Week and then Valentine’s Day, the Beard news kicked off what Amendola calls “the most intense two to three weeks that the business has ever seen. We were completely not prepared.” He hired more staff to help cope with the demand, only to see bookings return to normal as the summer approached. “It’s a weird game to play, it really really is,” he said.

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Similarly, Le Comptoir du Vin owners Rosemary Liss and Will Mester were blindsided when their tiny Station North restaurant was named to Bon Appétit’s “Hot Ten” list in 2019. The publicity was a mixed blessing. In the aftermath, they felt overstretched and understaffed as customers gobbled up bookings at the bistro far in advance. But the owners attribute the attention to helping their small business survive the pandemic, during which they pivoted to function as a carryout, selling ham sandwiches and bottles of wine to go.

Le Comptoir has since reopened as a sit-down restaurant, but Liss and Mester set limits on how many days a week they would operate (four) and how many days in advance they take reservations (14), which they said has helped them become a more sustainable business.

Four years later, “we’re content to be out of the limelight,” Liss and Mester wrote in an email to The Banner. Such honors “in many ways services more the narrative that whichever publication has decided on,” they said. They called it “unfortunate that many restaurants have to behave so sycophantically to so many organizations, journalists and food critics to make it work.”

Amendola looks at his brush with Beard Award fame as a net positive. “Don’t get me wrong. It’s great for the restaurant, it’s great getting that kind of attention,” he said. And seeing his own name among the honorees was “very validating” to his work as a chef.

Pierogi at Little Donna’s. (Chris Franzoni/for The Baltimore Banner)

At Little Donna’s, perhaps the most challenging aspect of it all has been the change in how guests perceive the restaurant. Tutlewski says he’s noticed new Yelp reviews that reflect expectations of, “It’s in the New York Times, it should be more elevated. It’s in the New York Times, it should be more organized.”

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I’ve also heard comments like that since the Times piece came out, mostly from diners who have gone to Little Donna’s in the past and liked it a lot, but who questioned whether a place known for its pierogi and tavern pies, a.k.a. Midwestern-style pizza, was really worthy of such exalted status. “Sure, it’s good, but is it New York Times Top 50 good?” seems to be the gist.

There’s also a little bit of confusion about what, exactly, The New York Times said about Little Donna’s. As Tutlewski points out, the list doesn’t specify that it’s the nation’s 50 “best” restaurants — rather, ones that Times editors are “most excited about.” But the URL for the website includes “best-restaurants-america,” and a search in Google calls it “America’s Best Restaurants 2023.”

Tutlewski knows the uptick in business may be fleeting and urged customers to “hang tight” and bear with him as his restaurant navigates the surge in demand. But overall, the owner and chef is grateful for the praise from the Times — and for his wife, who encouraged him to agree to the feature. “You don’t say no to The New York Times,” she told him.

The couple posed together for the newspaper’s portrait in the main dining room of Little Donna’s; in it, Schwalbe is visibly pregnant with their first child. Sunlight streams in through a window. “Honestly, it’s beautiful,” Tutlewski said.

Their son arrived just before the piece came out. He is doing just great — a contented, easy baby, utterly oblivious to the fact that he lives above one of the 50 best restaurants in America.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner. A former Baltimore Sun reporter, she has covered the city's dining scene as well as crime and politics. 

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