Baltimore's dining scene — how 'hot' is it?

Anyone planning to book a Mother’s Day dinner for four this Sunday at one of Baltimore’s hottest restaurants had better run, not walk to OpenTable.com because the seats are going fast. At Bygone or Tagliata in Inner Harbor East, the potential bookings were down to table scraps by mid-morning Monday — unless Mom prefers to dine at 8:30 p.m. or later. The pickings were also starting to get slim at Aldo’s in Little Italy, Woodberry Kitchen in Woodberry and Rye Street Tavern in Port Covington. And that’s not even talking about Sunday brunch, which is a big attraction when it’s time to pamper Mom. By the time you read this, brunch tables for four at the Inner Harbor’s Fogo de Chão ($40.95 per person for the full experience) may be a thing of the past no matter the hour.

Meanwhile, out in Cockeysville, you won’t have to wait at all for a table at the Macaroni Grill or the Bob Evans or the Christopher Daniel or the Padonia Ale House on Mother’s Day or any other Sunday. All those once-thriving Padonia Road restaurants (all located within a mile of each other) are shuttered and empty. Why? Each likely has its own story to tell. That’s the nature of the restaurant industry where competition, management, rising costs, misguided ownership, poor decisions and changing public tastes can make a local dining spot or even a chain of them a smash hit one day and a candidate for bankruptcy the next. According to one well-regarded Ohio State study, 60 percent of restaurants are out of business within three years.

Such context is required when considering the plethora of Baltimore eateries that have either gone out of business or declared their intent to do so in recent weeks. The list includes some well-known names like Regi’s American Bistro, the Corner Restaurant and Charcuterie Bar, and Fork and Wrench. Not surprisingly, it’s raised speculation that this is part of a much larger trend than the ordinary restaurant up and down cycle and that the closings are linked to violent crime in Baltimore. What if, observers naturally wonder, restaurant customers have decided that it’s simply too dangerous to book a table in the city and are opting for suburban dining spots instead or some other food alternative, from carryout meals and Royal Farms chicken boxes to meal kits from places like Blue Apron delivered to their door?

That’s certainly a possibility and deserves to be taken seriously. As The Sun’s Brittany Britto reports, Baltimore’s commercial real estate vacancies are up and the number of restaurants is down — a modest 2013-2016 decrease made worrisome by the fact that nationally, the number of food and drinking establishments rose during that same period. Yet how much of that is due to crime? Baltimore Ravens home attendance, for example, rose ever so slightly during those same years (before falling — also slightly — this year, which follows overall NFL trends). The Baltimore Orioles’ home attendance in 2016, the first full season after the Freddie Gray unrest, was 11th in Major League Baseball. In 2013, it was 13th. Was Camden Yards seen as much safer just one year after officials were so fearful of spillover into the ballpark that they closed an Orioles game to fans? Probably not.

Again, that’s not to diminish Baltimore’s violent crime problem. It’s a serious matter. As this newspaper recently reported, the city has seen homicides pick up to a one-a-day average pace after experiencing a decline earlier in the year. That’s worrisome. But what impact does it really have on restaurants? Sad to say but violent crime — particularly people in the drug trade killing each other — isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in Baltimore, nor has it been for decades. Another possibility is that hysteria over urban crime has hit a fevered pitch in the age of social media and Trumpian disdain for big cities. It’s not just crime but the perception of crime that matters.

Baltimore is working on its crime problem. Can it get a little help with its perception problem? Unfortunately, people who show up for a good meal at hot spots like The Food Market in Hampden and get exactly what they wanted — as happens thousands of times each day in Charm City — don’t make headlines. Perhaps some of the folks running for governor this year (paging Larry Hogan) and claiming to be interested in Baltimore’s future might want to visit a city dining spot this week to demonstrate that their money is where their mouths are. Who knows? They might even be able to score a Mother’s Day table before Sunday rolls around.

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