Everybody's talking about R. House, the new Remington food hall, like it's the World's Fair or something. Not even so much the "Have you eaten there yet and how is it?" chat but a giddy, urgent, desperate, "Have you seen it? Have you been there? And what have you heard about it from others?" Meanwhile, a parallel conversation runs—a hard-thinking, hand-wringing one, observing how the 50,000-square-foot, 350-seat auto garage-turned-food hall got dropped into the city by seemingly sheer force of development will and P.R.
It's so very, very Baltimore, this mix of excitement and suspicion as people duke it out over what is essentially a glorified food court (not that there's anything wrong with that): A large open room with big inviting windows, food stalls up against its walls and tables, booths, and a bar dominating most of the floor space in a style that's a touch more upscale than a mall food court thanks to the polished concrete and wooden beams that nod to when it was a car garage—call it "Chipotle chic."
Over the past month or so, I've gone to R. House 12 times. I've eaten food from all of its stalls and gone at all hours of the day in order to get a sense of what it does well, what it lacks, what it doesn't consider, in an attempt to try and understand what exactly differentiates it from a mall food court, or even the similarly-minded and previously much-ballyhooed Mount Vernon Marketplace.
So first, the food. Let's begin with the just OK: The Korean dishes from BeBim—ddeokbokki ($11.50) and BBQ ($11.50-$15.50)—are tasty and not particularly demanding, and you'd be just as well-served at any of the other Korean spots in the city; coffee and breakfast spot Ground & Griddled offers up beloved Stumptown Coffee—exciting to those serious coffee-drinking types but Stumptown's cold brew ($4-$7) tastes like a butthole to me—and an effective fried egg and cheddar sandwich, the Plain Jane ($5.50).
The worst: Amano Taco is R. House's big, bland disappointment. The chips with guacamole ($5) were impressive—a dual burst of tart and sweet on a thick chip somewhere between a corn chip and a pita chip, and so, more filling and legit than the big bowl of brittle chips you get at most places. But all five of its tacos (pollo guajillo, puerco criollo, chorizo, camarones morita, and rajas, which all cost between $3.75 and $4.25) were hot yet inexplicably drab—the kind of spicy that just makes your nose run a whole bunch.
The almost there: BRD, a chicken spot with stacked high chicken sandwiches (and wings, though they're far less impressive) that almost justifies its price ($9 a sandwich). The BRD Classic features crunchy deep-fried chicken with "BRD sauce"—think Zaxby's Zax Sauce—cooled down by two pickles and then countered with a bit of Old Bay. The nuanced hotness of the BRD Classic is a great example of how spice should work. Here, it's an accoutrement, an added layer, and a clincher rather than a taste-eliminating crutch intended to counter nothingness, which is how it functions at Amano Taco. Not sure how a brand new endeavor can have a "classic" option but fair enough. The Hanoi Hen—also a stupid name but OK—is a Vietnamese take on the chicken sandwich, with cucumber, carrot slaw, and chili mayo. It was a mess to eat though. The rugged chicken and the sauces proved too much for the soft roll, which, by the way, is a Martin's potato roll.
Paying so much for a chicken sandwich on a Martin's potato roll stuck in my craw and other nearby options nagged me: You could walk further down 29th Street past R. House and check out Chicken Bones, which has a solid chicken box and wings, or hustle down Howard Street to Popeye's and get an entire meal for the price of one of these BRD sandwiches. BRD is probably the primary reason to go back to R.House, though a few visits also had friends and I enduring an over-fried sandwich that was more like a frozen chicken tender put in the microwave too long, dry and desiccated.
Ultimately, no big deal—deep-frying chicken is a delicate balance and maybe everybody is still learning. It's an example of how R. House's hype puts its stalls at a disadvantage: You expect more than you're going to get, and what would usually be dismissed as a new business' growing pains here feel like broken promises.
The best: BLK//SUGAR's toasted coconut pie ($5) and chocolate sour dough ($5). The pie filling on the slice was egg custard-like and toyed with temperature—a warm pie, a brittle almost cold crust, while the chocolate sourdough was a clever, foo-foo foodie mash-up, rooted in the realization that very rich chocolate offers up the same taste jolt as sourdough. At first the taste is odd—chocolate-baked bread, lightly soaked in a chocolate sauce—but it's challenging rather than off-putting. It could probably use one more thing, like a little bit of ice cream on the top—I recommend, when it's offered, the Earl Grey Sriracha ice cream (a baby scoop is $3) from Little Baby's Ice Cream which shares a stall with BLK//SUGAR.
The pretty good: At Arba, I went with the eggplant fries ($5) and the falafel over rice and orzo (you can also get it in a pita, over mixed greens or over quinoa). The eggplant fries weren't much on their own, just some brittle greasy meh, and the sauce, sort of a vodka and marinara sauce combo, lacked power. It was essentially an eggplant parm "deconstructed," as they say on "Cutthroat Kitchen" whenever a dish doesn't quite work or is scant. Arba's falafel ($6.50) is strong and its Tahini, drizzled on the falafel (you only get three medallions and they're fairly small, but hey) was bold and the best I've had in the city. Quality-wise, Arba's falafel almost competes with Red Emma's or Shapiro's.
The very good: Stall 11 offers up witty vegetarian and vegan dishes, such as the filling, fun Fungi Philly ($12) a cheesesteak riff, with a "cashew wiz" sauce cast as cheese and roasted sliced mushrooms as the meat, as well as hots and caramelized onions. Arepa bar White Envelope's el Chicharron or "the crackling" arepa ($8.50), is a homey cornbread-like patty full of pork crackling, white cheese, and cilantro—if you're a dummy like me, I thought of it as an artsy-fartsy pork rind sandwich. And there's Hilo, a poke and sushi spot, where the sushi burritos ($10.95-$14.95 depending on what's in them) offer the most food for your buck: a massive sushi roll—seaweed wrap instead of tortilla—that is stuffed with fresh seafood and vegetables.
Now, onto the sometimes discouraging design and mixed messaging.
At R. House, you are always in the way of somebody else. Waiting for food when its busy, which for now is quite often, is anxiety-inducing. You'll be asked if you're in line when you're waiting and some unaware less-anxious beardo in a baseball cap will stomp in line in front of you because he thought you were waiting for your order not waiting to order, and when you walk up, it's kind of hard to see the menus without being up in somebody's face, so you're always standing out, intruding. Drinks are mostly relegated to the R. Bar and if you want water you have to get it from a "water station," an efficiency, though an absurd one, too; especially, I imagine, for the bartenders who can't give you water and instead must direct you to a spigot and glasses near the bar. Lots of beer options at the bar, and there is a relatively inexpensive option: Natty Boh for $3.
There's something profoundly impersonal about the R. House set-up. If you're with friends and you're all going to different stalls, it's easier to split up and order, wait alone, and then convene at a table or at the R. Bar, and well, it's a bit not-fun to me. At a food court in a mall where ease and speed are prioritized, this works, but R. House is supposed to be more communal and presumably chill—sending your squad on a capitalist scavenger hunt for gauche grub is not chill.
On a busy Friday night—the day before New Year's Eve, specifically—R. House was swarming, and two friends and I had to make five laps around the perimeter before we finally spotted someone leaving. We pounced on a table for two and made it work for three. However, the seat hunt had a holiday-shopping-meets-"Lord Of The Flies"-thing going on, an eagle-eyed, quick and cutthroat search for a motherfucking table to sit and eat. Wisely, the R. Bar had waiters walking around to the tables and the booths asking people for their drink orders which they would bring to you and you could even pay with one of those swipe credit card dealies.
Within an hour or so of sitting down, the place was way less busy, and most of the people who arrived when we did had cycled out and there were new people who looked a lot like the other people who had just left. Here is a big problem with R. House: It doesn't seem like somewhere to stay and hang out, except at the bar, which should be bigger—really, R. House should be a food court with no tables, just a gigantic bar in the middle—because the food court-like set-up is one that by design, doesn't want you to stay too long.
It's neither an informal food court space or a formal space like a library or a museum—instead, it's a confounding, incontinent in-between: a semi-classy, only somewhat social gathering spot.
And it is front-loaded with lofty rhetoric invoking change and the future of dining and neighborhoods. Tucked in the corner, scrawled on the floor across from the bathrooms, is R. House's ridiculous, lengthy mission statement. "R. House is the start of a movement," it says, and a place where "people will experience their first kiss [and] play footsie under the table," that will "play a role in creating waves of change" and be "a place to bring people together." It goes on and on—that this manifesto is hidden near the shitters is appropriate.
That there is another shorter, slightly different mission statement when you first enter—this one invokes "the Zulu phrase Ubuntu, which means 'I am because we are'" which, OK, LMAO—is appropriate, too. R. House tells you, more than once, how special it is and why it matters so damn much.
Mostly, R. House seems like it's for rich people to Uber to and think they're rubbing a little bit of Baltimore quirk all over their slacks and then, next, it's for residents in nearby Remington Row, and then it's for the rest of us. The stakes are also higher for residents in Remington than Mount Vernon, which is near downtown and always fighting it out with those who want the whole city to be fancy. In conversation, many of Remington's proud and yes, often-embattled residents rightfully worry that this is the death knell for the neighborhood.
And if you look into R. House a bit, the premise that this is a "startup incubator" falls apart. Sure, nearly all of R. House's stalls are ostensibly local (save for Philadelphia-based, Little Baby's Ice Cream) and some come from people with city cred such as Stall 11 (Melanie Molinaro, former chef at Encantada), R. Bar (Aaron Joseph and Amie Ward, bartenders from Wit & Wisdom and Aggio respectively), White Envelope (Federico Tischler, former chef at Alma Cocina Latina), and BLK//SUGAR (from Krystal Mack who used to run Karma Pop/PieCycle). However, most stalls are additional ventures by locals who already own restaurants in the city: Ground & Griddled (Café Cito), Hilo (Thai Landing), BeBim (Brown Rice) and Arba (Baba's Mediterranean Kitchen).
Alex Janian, who owns Amano Taco and BRD, is a former investment banker, whose brother is Chris Janian, the president of Virtuvius, "a boutique real estate development and consulting firm," according to its website. Virtuvius' website lists R. House as one of its "featured projects."
Not questioning Alex Janian's passion here at all—he is one of the most visible figures at R. House, I often saw him racing around BRD—but a place with just 11 businesses, where two are owned by the same guy, does not compute with R. House's boasts about being "an incubator." It's probably wise to start with restaurateur types that really have their shit together already. If that's the case though, present R. House as a cool, new place to eat brought to you by a few of your favorites around town and leave it at that. As it stands now, the only stall that's daring, like an actual idea being "incubated" is BLK//SUGAR, because it offers creative, ambitious deserts from somebody who was until recently peddling around the city selling her sweets off the back of her bike. Like, that's cool, you know? More of that please. There is a currently unoccupied "pop-up" stall and I anticipate they will do something similar with that.
There are a few ways in which R. House nearly lives up to its communitarian talk. R. House has free Wi-Fi and when it isn't too busy, the long seats near Ground & Griddled are nice for doing some work or meeting up with someone. Last Sunday, R. House projected football near the bar and it hit that sweet spot for sports watching—neither hallowed hall for bros where no one can talk unless they are screaming at the screen like maniacs or game as background noise, on out of obligation.
It is also kid-friendly and that isn't true of most places in Baltimore where a parent would want to eat (including the Mount Vernon Marketplace). There's a stack of scattered, bench-ish, box-like seating at the front of the space that often doubles as an area for kids to crawl around and wild out. And R. House welcomes loudness—high ceilings send everybody's conversations into the air where they mix into a friendly din along with the music—so you can take kids there without feeling ashamed for even having kids and so many places in Baltimore are like that. Putting myself in the headspace of a parent, R. House made sense.
Nearly everything at R. House is prohibitively expensive—at least three or four dollars too much. And all of this stuff is expensive not because of the very fine ingredients and culinary skills of those serving it—think BRD's chicken sandwiches on a Martin's potato roll—but because, I suspect, this price point keeps certain people out and brings certain other people in, and I am not a fan of that at all. That is the exclusivity that lurks behind so much rehabilitation and development in cities, however posi and sunny it might appear.
Meanwhile, the rest of Remington, just by being Remington, offers up an affront to R. House. The last time I left R. House, I passed people waiting for Ubers to take them away from Remington once they had indulged in this supposed food hall—because what else is there to do in Remington?—and walked toward 29th Street noticing other food options. There's the aforementioned Chicken Bones further up 29th Street, local trash pizza institution Pizza Boli's right across from R. House and further up the street, solid-and-then-some wings and burger spot The Dizz, and also action-figures-and-silly-shit-on-the-walls diner Paper Moon.
I thought, "I'd just as well eat at any of those places as R. House," and it shook me from the spell of that place's lofty rhetoric for once and for all. Remington was doing fine before this allegedly important addition popped up and dominated the conversation.