Despite its modern furnishings, the Keystone Korner feels less like an entirely new restaurant in Harbor East and more like a reincarnation.
In some ways, it is. The restaurant is named after an earlier Keystone Korner in San Francisco, and is co-owned by that club’s founder, jazz producer Todd Barkan, who teamed up with Michelin-starred chef Robert Wiedmaier to bring it back to life. “This is the East Coast revival of that club,” Barkan said.
But the new Keystone Korner also captures this city’s historic jazz scene, hearkening back to the lost era when Billie Holiday and Ethel Ennis performed at West Baltimore’s various clubs. Audiences may be reminded of the legendary Red Fox Lounge or the Comedy Club on Pennsylvania Ave. “It’s very much rekindling the flame of the West Baltimore Left Bank Jazz Society,” Barkan said.
The association isn’t lost on performers, like jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut, who recently performed at the venue.
“What was west has come east,” he told the audience, sipping drinks contentedly. “Tell your friends: There’s a new spot in town.”
First impressions: Diners are asked not to speak during the performance, and the focus is largely on what is happening onstage. But don’t be fooled: some of the best performances are happening on the plate. Wiedmaier cooks up modern interpretations of unabashedly nostalgic dishes like deviled eggs, ribs and chicken, a visceral reminder of the good old days.
Must-tries: The menu is comfort food, pure, but not exactly simple. Deviled eggs get elevation with an accompaniment of pickled quail eggs, both served atop a remoulade. Our waiter tells us the seared scallops atop potato bacon hash are one of the most popular items on the menu, and it’s no wonder. They’re amazing. Hearty ribs are bathed in a boozy barbecue sauce — but it lets the meat speak for itself.
Special touches: Portions are huge. But do yourself a favor and order dessert. The name crustless lemon meringue pie does little to indicate the delicious work of art that awaits you. A lemon tart is balanced atop a white chocolate wafer with dollops of lime and torched merengue. Bananas foster is flambeed at the table.
Pro tip: Concert tickets range in price from around $25-$55 for “premium seats,” which have a direct view of the stage, or $15-$40 for general admission seats, including comfortable booths where you can watch the music on screens (and feel less awkward about getting up in the middle of a set to use the bathroom). Evenings feature two performances, the first typically around 7 and the next at 9. Come early for the best seats, or stop by for happy hour to enjoy the atmosphere and food without having to buy a ticket. Beginning this summer, Barkan said, customers will be able to reserve specific tables they want.
The bottom line: You may need your GPS to find the entrance: construction nearby means it’s off the beaten path, even in high-traffic Harbor East. But it’s worth the walk. An evening at the Keystone Korner offers a trip back in time in the best possible way, and Barkan said people routinely come up to him and thank him for bringing jazz back to Baltimore. Upcoming performances include the Eddie Palmieri Sextet and the Baltimore Jazz Collective. As Chestnut said, tell your friends.