Baltimore has received a significant amount of national foodie recognition recently. Anthony Bourdain included stops at The Roost and Mo’s Seafood in his (misguidedly named) “Rust Belt” episode of the Food Network show “No Reservations.” Former Red Maple chef Jill Snyder and Abacrombie chef Jesse Sandlin enjoyed their 15 minutes of “Top Chef” fame, and Duff Goldman and crew continue to charm on “Ace of Cakes.” And, in the past few months, three very different Baltimore restaurants have been singled out for recognition by three very different media outlets. We asked the owners of each what the awards have really meant to their business. Was it like winning the lottery or, well, more like winning the election for student council president?
Seeing stars at Charleston
Initially, Tony Foreman seems blasé when I ask about the effect of the four stars awarded by “Mobil Travel Guide” to his and wife Cindy Wolf’s restaurant, Charleston. “It’s nice to get mentioned,” says Foreman. “But it doesn’t do a tremendous amount directly. Clients are what boost you.” It would seem to be a rather humble attitude from Baltimore’s only four-star restaurant, one of 150 across the nation, a designation Charleston earned and has maintained since its dining room renovation approximately four years ago. But then Foreman reveals that he wants all the stars.
“We’re about a year engaged in what we would do to get five stars [from Mobil],” he admits. “And I will be pissed off every single day until we’re on that list.”
It won’t be easy. There are only 20 five-star restaurants in the U.S., none of which, it probably goes without saying, are in Baltimore. And Mobil, which bills itself as “the gold standard of travel ratings and reviews,” is notoriously picky. According to Mobil president and CEO Shane O’Flaherty, four- and five-star level restaurants are inspected twice— once to evaluate the facility of the restaurant, and once for service, which includes the food and staff comportment.
During an anonymous visit, one of Mobil’s 18 full-time independent contractors will (mentally) respond to 125 criteria meant to gauge the quality of their experience and measure it against similarly ranked four-star restaurants across the country. (Foreman says the restaurant staff have never been aware of a Mobil reviewer in the restaurant.) They will time staff to see if a cocktail is offered within a minute of being seated, make note that glasses are refilled within 30 seconds of being empty and notice if a diner has to signal staff to come to the table.
The differences between four stars and five stars is very slight, explains O’Flaherty, and often have little to do with a difference in quality of food— some even seem pretty obtuse. In a four-star restaurant, an amuse bouche is “offered;” in a five-star restaurant, “the amuse bouche is of exceptional quality and presentation.” Tables in a four-star restaurant are padded, have napkins that are all-cotton or linen, varied china patterns and high-quality, heavy flatware. Five-star table linens are “of exceptional quality and design,” are set with “exquisite china” and the highest quality glassware “specifically matched to individual wine or spirit.”
“The main difference,” says O’Flaherty, “is that the execution is closer to flawless. There are more things right, more consistency. A complete wow experience.” Restaurants can be upgraded from four to five stars, he says, but it usually requires more investment in the property and staff.
Although Foreman is tight-lipped about exactly how he is going about earning his fifth star, some of the Mobil requirements, like the use of solid, rather than hollow ice cubes, the inclusion of a cheese course on the menu and a table being available immediately when guests arrive, seem easier to accomplish than others. For instance, how does one evaluate that a “guest’s name is used effectively as a signal of recognition, but discreetly,” or that “food is flawless, a delightful and interesting experience”?
Still, as Foreman points out, in a city like Baltimore where tourism, conventioneers and hometown business expense accounts are modest in comparison with other cities, four-star recognition is still an honor, as is other recognition from The New York Times to Zagat guides. Zagat, in particular, Foreman points out, is “reflective of the marketplace” because the reviews come from actual diners rather than critics. Mobil, he says, “is more pure.” Both bring people to the restaurants, Foreman concedes, but he still relies on word of mouth rather than national recognition. “The media does not pay the bills,” Foreman says adamantly. “The people in the seats do. If you ever lose focus of that, you’re a fool.”
Foodies around town agree with Foreman’s sentiment. “National publicity doesn’t affect how I eat out at all,” explains Baltimore Foodies founder Lars Rusins. “Personally and professionally I think it’s great that Baltimore gets that recognition,” he adds, but he says he finds guides like Mobil and Zagat useful in eating in other cities, not his own.
Of the seven still-open three-star Baltimore restaurants listed on Mobil’s Web site, two— Pazo and Cinghiale— are also owned by Foreman and Wolf. Foreman would like to see Cinghiale earn a fourth star. To that end, staff there and at Charleston are competing to see which restaurant can earn another star first when the rankings are announced again in January. May the best restaurant win.
A Great Sign at Woodberry Kitchen
When Spike Gjerde got the call from Bon Appetit magazine in early spring, he was hesitant to tell anyone. The magazine, one of the “Big Three” national food magazines along with Food & Wine and Gourmet, wanted to include Gjerde’s Woodberry Kitchen in its list of the Top 10 best new restaurants in America, all of which, according to writer Andrew Knowlton, offer “the new standard: simple, satisfying, local food— all served with zero pretense.” Gjerde and his staff, however, weren’t convinced it would actually happen. “We didn’t allow ourselves to hope that it was what they said it was, because you never know until you see it,” he says.
When the magazine called to request a recipe and set up a photography shoot, Gjerde felt more confident. “That was a great sign,” he admits.
The Woodberry Kitchen staff members went to work, testing and re-testing their chosen recipe, spiced pear flatbread with goat cheese and mustard cream, trying to make sure that the scaled-down version would work as well in a home kitchen as it did in the restaurant’s signature wood-burning stove. They made sure they could get their hands on a chunk of Firefly Farms’ Black and Blue, a blue goat cheese the Garrett County farm makes in limited quantities. “[That cheese] was really important to that particular recipe,” says Gjerde.
The full-page photo of Gjerde’s hands spooning mustard cream from a small pan onto the puffy browned flatbread appears on page 71 of the September 2009 issue. The brief blurb accompanying the flatbread recipe extols the restaurant’s beautiful Clipper Mill space and notes that Gjerde was local and sustainable long before local and sustainable were cool.
Although Gjerde concedes that the accolade may bring in visitors from out of town, he explains that it’s hard to gauge any economic impact from the mention. Reaction from friends and customers, however, has been overwhelming (though not quite as immediate as when Duff Goldman chose a dessert from the restaurant during a segment of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” earlier this year, and Gjerde received 30 e-mails the night the show ran and had five people at the bar eating dessert the next night). Perhaps most important is the feeling of pride shared by the restaurant staff. “I’ve never gotten any attention like that, and I’ve never worked with such a good group of people before,” says Gjerde. “And it’s great… the way they [Bon Appetit] said what’s happening here is really special.”
Heart Attack at Mother’s Federal Hill Grille
Smack dab between the virtual chalkboard listing the day’s daily specials and the ad for the Purple Patio (“Baltimore’s best tailgate party for Ravens’ home games”) on the Web site for Mother’s Federal Hill Grille, is the banner that reads: “See Mother’s on the ‘Today’ show!” Click the link and there’s Mother’s chef and co-owner Adam Rather showing Matt Lauer how he dips half-pound burgers stuffed with cheddar into beer batter then into a deep fryer. These are Mother’s Heart Attack on a Plate, he explains as the camera cuts to two petite women each chowing down on a half a burger before returning to Lauer who eagerly cuts into one.
As the Mother’s Web site also will tell you, Food Network magazine chose the restaurant’s $10.95 Heart Attack on a Plate as one of the nation’s 50 best burgers, and “the burger you absolutely have to try in Maryland.” “Cardiologists may disagree,” reads a blurb on the Food Network’s website, “but burger lovers think this 8-ounce beef patty— stuffed with cheddar and dipped in ale batter and deep fried— is worth the obvious health risks.” It was the Food Network designation, prompted by a best burger accolade in Food Network magazine, that led to the “Today” show appearance.
If your head is spinning around that chain of events, so is Mother’s co-owner, Dave Rather (brother of Adam). All of this publicity over a burger, Dave Rather acknowledges, is “hard to imagine, but great.” “It makes us feel good,” he says. “It’s a hard business, but this is a validation that we’re doing something right, that we’re making people happy, making people feel good.”
It’s also boosted restaurant revenue considerably. Sales of the Heart Attack on a Plate have quadrupled, Dave Rather reports, and the famous burger has drawn customers from around the city. Recently a party from New Jersey called to get directions to the restaurant after reading about the burger, and the Rather brothers are starting a burger challenge to see who can eat the most Heart Attacks on a Plate in a row (so far the record is two). And, of course, there’s a Heart Attack on a Plate T-shirt.
Dave Rather admits that he’s always wanted Mother’s to be in the Zagat guide for Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and perhaps all the publicity will be enough to get Zagat voters, food-avid Baltimoreans who generally eat out an average of four times a week, to notice. On the other hand, the Rather brothers are more than pleased with local publicity and the business built by word of mouth.
“Just the sales of those burgers is great,” Rather enthuses. “It’s sort of taken on a life of its own.”