Restaurants don’t just die. More often, they get rebranded.

A host of local taverns and restaurants that closed during the pandemic are on the cusp of reopening under new ownership — and with new identities to match.

Other restaurants have undergone major shifts, emerging from their pandemic cocoons with new business models.

This week we’ll look at one local pub’s new identity in Station North, and stop by Woodberry Kitchen, which became an event space during the pandemic. And we’ll check out a new salad spot in Harford County and a bakery pop-up in the former Crust by Mack space.

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The Station North bar is a "palace of fun," according to its founder.
The Station North bar is a “palace of fun,” according to its founder. (Christina Tkacik/The Baltimore Banner)

Royal Blue is a ‘palace of fun’ in Station North

I don’t remember when restaurateurs started referring to their businesses as “concepts.” Still, I admire those, like the team behind Station North’s Royal Blue, who resist the lure of self-importance.

It’s not a concept. “We’re just a bar with good food,” said Randy Coffren of his new establishment, which serves a menu of bar food done right, including smashburgers, Brussels sprouts and a very respectable Cobb salad. A downstairs lounge hosts weekly dance parties. The decor, sourced from Facebook Marketplace, conjures a distinctly retro vibe. The name is an homage to the B&O train line — and wink at nearby Penn Station.

Okay, maybe there is a concept. Coffren calls it a “palace of fun.” “I feel like we’re appealing to anyone that would walk in the door.”

For four decades before it was Royal Blue, the space was Gallery, a bar that catered to a Black and LGBTQ clientele. A mural from the Gallery days depicting the club’s regulars hangs over the bar at Royal Blue. Coffren said he’s enjoyed hearing from Gallery regulars who recognize their friends in the painting.

The mural at Royal Blue dates back to its days as Gallery One Bar. (Christina Tkacik)

Coffren, who also co-owns Snake Hill in Highlandtown and Johnny Rad’s Pizzeria Tavern on Eastern Avenue, opened Royal Blue this fall with business partner Rich Pugh and a third partner, Jimmy Crawford. (Pugh also co-owns Snake Hill and Johnny Rad’s). After finding success on Baltimore’s east side, Coffren said he was interested in exploring opportunities in Station North. “It feels a little more ‘city’ up here,” he said.

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When your favorite restaurant becomes an event space

Last weekend, I headed to Woodberry Kitchen for the first time in years.

In case you missed it: Woodberry Kitchen is no longer a restaurant, but an event space. It’s a pandemic-era pivot its James Beard Award winning founder, Spike Gjerde, announced would be a permanent rebrand for the company.

At the insistence of Gjerde’s landlord, there will be a small restaurant on premises — but with just 30 seats, it will be much smaller than the old Woodberry Kitchen. Called Woodberry Tavern, it’s set to open in December.

At the Saturday event, a burger and oyster pop-up to mark the company’s 15th anniversary, I only glimpsed the future tavern through a window, but from what I saw, the former Woodberry Kitchen now feels minimalist and open.

Once Baltimore’s hottest restaurant, Woodberry Kitchen is now an event space. (Christina Tkacik)

Small children played outside; friends sipped wine by fire pits. As I shivered outside and slurped oysters, I was reminded of how the pandemic has changed Baltimore’s dining scene in ways both subtle and obvious.

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Woodberry Kitchen wasn’t the only Baltimore restaurant to become an event space during the pandemic. The Rye Street Tavern, a tony restaurant in Port Covington, has also been converted into an event space, according to its website. For a time, downtown’s Ida B’s Table functioned as an event space after shutting down its restaurant. Its former chef, David Thomas, together with wife, Tonya, founded catering company H3irloom Food Group, partnering with a wedding venue in the city.

Those changes reflect “businesses adapting to what the market needs,” said Chu, cofounder of bun and bowl shop Ekiben. During the pandemic, Chu has seen “a huge uptick” in requests for private events catering. After a lockdown period when large gatherings like weddings were off-limits, he says, “There’s a lot of pent-up positive energy,” and demand for such service.

Ekiben is preparing to open its third location soon in Locust Point, and Chu sees a new generation of business owners bringing fresh perspectives to the local dining scene. “It’s the best time ever to eat in Baltimore,” he said.

Woodberry Kitchen held a burger and oysters event to mark its 15th anniversary. It’s now an event space with a small tavern and is set to launch in December. (Christina Tkacik)

honeygrow opens in Bel Air Plaza

Looking for something lighter to snack on during the indulgent holiday season? Philadelphia chain honeygrow is expanding with a new spot in Bel Air Plaza at 513 Baltimore Pike. It’s the third in the Baltimore area, which has locations in Harbor Point and Charles Village.

The Cobb salad at honeygrow’s Harbor Point Location. The chain opened a new location in Bel Air. (Christina Tkacik)

On the menu: five stir-fries under 800 calories and six salads under 700 calories. Customers can pick from noodles, rice or greens and add a protein and garnishes. A Lifestyle menu offers dishes that are paleo, keto, vegan, high protein, or even Whole 30-compliant.

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Treats4Eats tests the waters at Whitehall Mill

Crust by Mack’s departure from the Whitehall Mill food hall left a vacancy that seemed bigger than just one stall. Owner Amanda Mack’s signature crab pies had attracted crazy long lines and attention from national media.

But baker Saschane Stephenson was up for the challenge of taking Mack’s place. The Treats4Eats founder has been selling her sweets, which include gluten-free cinnamon buns, cheddar biscuits, and pies for five years. As a wholesale business, her customers have included cafes at MICA as well as area restaurants and coffee shops. She wants her business to channel the “sheer, stupid bliss that you have” eating something amazing on the couch.

Gluten-free cinnamon bun from Treats4Eats at Whitehall Mill. (Christina Tkacik)

Stephenson, a former federal policy and communications expert, says baking is her passion. She has had gluten allergies for years, and said dining out can make “you feel like an outsider.” She started Treats4Eats to allow everyone to enjoy delicious food. “When I travel … it can be really hard to find something really great to eat, or something that doesn’t taste like cardboard or sand.”

The biggest compliment, she says, is when customers don’t even realize that her food is gluten-free.

Stephenson is selling her goods at the former Crust by Mack stall through December and possibly into January. Look for her Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. If it goes well, expect to see Treats4Eats at the market long-term.

christina.tkacik@thebaltimorebanner.com

Christina Tkacik is the food reporter for The Baltimore Banner.

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