It would have been easy, last year, to mistake Denise Whiting's Hampden establishment for almost anything else. It was only in November, when Whiting announced she was rescinding her controversial "hon" trademark, that the municipal emergency surrounding Cafe Hon subsided.
Two months after the TV show "Kitchen Nightmares" gave it a wholesale makeover, Cafe Hon has settled back nicely into its primary business of serving food to customers — lots of them, too. On recent visits spanning several weeks, the Hampden restaurant was full of patrons, many but by no means all of them families with young children. On a Saturday night in December, when there were lines out the door, Cafe Hon looked like Rockefeller Center.
Late fall renovations have considerably brightened the old Miss Havisham dining rooms, and a streamlining of the menu seems to have re-energized the kitchen, which is now consistently turning out decent and flavorful food.
These changes were instigated, executed and documented by "Kitchen Nightmares." Scheduled to air in late February, the "Kitchen Nightmares" episode featuring Cafe Hon is expected to focus on Whiting's excruciating public relations problems. The restaurant has clearly benefited from what amounts to an outside consultation on its cuisine and decor.
Whereas the old dining areas strove to authentically re-create some bygone decade — the 1960s? the 1810s? — the new decor only tries to suggest it, with leopard prints on the banquettes and wall-sized graphics of what we've come to recognize as the "Hon" characters. The interior, now that it's not trying so hard, is really quite charming. Children especially love it, and cleared of considerable bric-a-brac, the rooms look a lot less chaotic and a lot easier to work in, too. The wait staff we met was always efficient and sometimes as cheerful and motherly as anyone has a right to expect from a stranger.
The printed menu, which used to resemble a family-fun craft project, is now a sensibly arranged double-sheet, purged of both irritating Bawlmerese and nostalgic allusions to your grandmother. (Please, everyone do this.) There are fewer entree and sandwich options now, but some of that reduction has been accomplished by the kind of editing any restaurant could learn from. For instance, six separately listed burgers are now listed as one burger, with options.
There are some departed items, though — things like a coconut tilapia, a Caesar salad with blackened tilapia and a chicken tenders entree. And good riddance. No wonder people were sometimes baffled by the old Cafe Hon. Now, instead of blackened tilapia, you can add a crab cake to your Caesar salad, which sounds kind of weird but why not?
There are also fewer vegetarian options now. Gone are a vegetarian chili, a portabello burger (although there is still a black bean burger) and a hummus appetizer, but they might have been axed because they weren't being ordered. The lesson: Don't cater to people who aren't your customers.
What remains is a smart mix of comfort food, contemporary tavern fare and regional classics. Given a manageable menu to execute, the results from the kitchen are mostly sturdy.
The best of the entrees are very straightforward things, like a crispy beer-battered fish and chips and the meat loaf wrapped in bacon. Both are well-prepared and thoroughly satisfying. The fish is crispy outside, white, warm and flaky inside. The meat loaf, served with plain green beans and mashed potatoes — no funny stuff here — is well-seasoned and filling.
An appetizer of three crispy fried oysters, served very prettily on polished oyster shells, is recommended, as are the wings, which are prepared both Buffalo or Old Bay style and served with a beige-colored blue cheese dressing that tastes much better than it looks. An assertively spiced and chunky crab soup is good, too.
There are near some misses. Cafe Hon's chili is filled generously with chunks of beef but has a tinny taste. The filling of a plate-busting chicken pot pie gets good flavor from dark chicken meat but is disagreeably soupy.
Sandwiches were generally disappointing, and I think the weak bread is to blame. This was true of the grilled cheese and a Thanksgiving sandwich with turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce. Even the famous cheese toast that Cafe Hon serves its egg salad sandwich on is dry and airy. The best sandwich is the Reuben, which Cafe Hon actually grills instead of throwing under some heat.
Thick milkshakes, hot-fudge sundaes and homemade desserts like cherry pie and coconut cake are still a specialty. The pies and cakes are classic-recipe versions, which are heavier going than you might remember.
If there's a prevailing nostalgia at work, it's for different foods not touching. And if the main audience for Cafe Hon really is hungry families, that might help explain why the Cafe Hon burger looks and tastes almost exactly like a fast-food burger, with shredded lettuce, a sesame bun and a special sauce — except with much better-quality meat.
A TV show, we all know, won't change our lives. We hope that the "Kitchen Nightmares" episode with Cafe Hon will entertain and amuse us and be worth a half-hour of our time. In the same way, we hope that a restaurant meal will nourish and satisfy us and be worth the money. Cafe Hon does that.
If Cafe Hon doesn't quite explain the universe to us, or conjure the lost soul of Baltimore in a $10 crab dip, it was silly for anyone to think it ever would.
Where: 1002 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 410-243-1230, cafehon.com
Hours: Breakfast, lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$10; entrees, $12-$19
[Key: Outstanding:✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭Fair or uneven:✭✭; Poor: ✭]