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The year in food: Markets, pop-ups, pizza abound in Baltimore in 2015

A look back at the biggest dining news of 2015

Baltimore staked its flag on the country's food map this year when chef and restaurateur Spike Gjerde brought home the city's first James Beard Award.

It was one of the brightest moments in a tough year for Baltimore's restaurant industry, which saw patronage and sales drop following April's unrest.

There were other moments that showed the heart of the tight-knit food community in Charm City. Early in the year, the city rallied around Water for Chocolate owner Sean Guy, raising nearly $14,000 through GoFundMe and hosting other benefits, to help him reopen his Upper Fells Point restaurant after it was damaged in a March fire. And during the summer, Michael Tabrizi spent Restaurant Week serving meals to hundred of homeless folks at Tabrizi's rather than welcoming diners for discounts on prix-fixe menus.

Despite some difficulty attracting diners downtown, Baltimore's food scene continued to mature with the addition of curious concepts from local and national restaurant groups. Here's a look at some of the biggest dining news from 2015.

Openings

"Top Chef" finalist Bryan Voltaggio kicked off the new year in food when he opened Family Meal, his second Baltimore restaurant, at the Inner Harbor on Jan. 2.

A number of local restaurateurs spent 2015 expanding their presence. The groups behind Abbey Burger Bistro and Fork & Wrench both expanded in Fells Point, with a second Abbey Burger location and Modern Cook shop nearing their December openings.

In Canton, Jokers and Thieves took over the JD's Smokehouse space, and Alma Cocina Latina moved into the Can Company building. Over in Federal Hill, Breadbangers made its debut and Encantada opened at the America Visionary Arts Museum, replacing Mr. Rain's Fun House.

Further north, the opening of the posh Ivy hotel in Mount Vernon brought with it a new restaurant, Magdalena. Lane Harlan opened her second spot, the mezcaleria Clavel, in Remington. And Aromes, a French restaurant, set up shop in Hampden.

Some fresh concepts emerged, including Baltimore's first Basque restaurant, La Cuchara at Clipper Mill; the African restaurant Delights by Mina; and Play Cafe, a coffee house and play space for kids.

Meanwhile, Baltimore restaurants such as Birroteca grew into the suburbs. Other notable openings in Greater Baltimore included Baroak and Fox's Den in Annapolis.

Fast-casual pizza was a hot concept for 2015, both for local and national chains looking to grow in Greater Baltimore. The Bagby Restaurant Group launched its chain of Bagby Pizza Co. fast-casual pizza eateries, opening its first location in Pikesville and with plans for another shop in Owings Mills. Meanwhile, Pie Five Pizza Co. opened three new locations in Glen Burnie, Ellicott City and Owings Mills. Blaze Pizza announced it would open at the Inner Harbor in 2016. Pie 360 took over the Venti-Tre space at Canton Crossing. And Pizza Studio debuted in Charles Village.

Those were just some of the out-of-town chains that set up shop Baltimore. Other national chains that added Baltimore locations include Sweetgreen in Harbor East, Dinosaur Barbecue in Fells Point and Shake Shack at the Inner Harbor. Mussel Bar, a rock-and-roll restaurant from Washington, D.C., restaurateur Robert Weidmaier, also took over the Townhouse Kitchen + Bar space in Harbor East. And Cava Mezze made moves from D.C. to Harbor East with a new location in the Hyatt Place Baltimore/Inner Harbor hotel.

Meanwhile, pop-up events and foodie festivals flourished in Baltimore this year. Some restaurants, such as Sascha's 527 and Clementine, held pop-up dinners after shifting their operations to focus on catering rather than dinner service. The Gathering of Chefs in September merged Baltimore's restaurant and food truck chefs for a six-course pop-up meal collaboration.

The city's food trucks continued to gain traction in 2015, and a food truck park opened in November at the Hollywood Diner Backlot. The diner provides seating for customers who order from food trucks parked in the lot at 400 E. Saratoga St.

Breakfast concepts opened, too. Iron Rooster recently took over the former Farmstead Grill space at Canton Crossing, and Blue Moon, the "bad-ass breakfast" spot in Fells Point known for its Cap'n Crunch French toast, opened a second location in Federal Hill.

Markets and food halls — and the promise of more to come — were among the big hits this year with the opening of concepts like Mount Vernon Marketplace.

Baltimore's beverage sector also made a lot of progress this year. Craft coffee started to gain traction with the addition of newcomers like 3 Bean Coffee in Federal Hill, Argosy Cafe in the central business district and Ceremony Coffee in Mount Vernon. The craft beer segment remained strong, and distilling also took off with the addition of local distilleries like Baltimore Whiskey Co., Lost Ark Distilling and Old Line Spirits. Not to mention, Kevin Plank broke ground on his five-acre Sagamore Spirit distillery in Port Covington, set to open next year.

Closings

Baltimore saw some notable restaurant closures in 2015, including some stalwarts in prominent locations like La Tasca at Harborplace. Harbor East saw several closures with the departure of Chazz: A Bronx Original and Talara.

Canton Crossing also had its first restaurant departures as Venti-Tre and Farmstead Grill moved out. And the Horseshoe Casino lost the Mallow Bar, which was soon replaced by Guy's Bar-B-Que Joint, another Guy Fieri concept.

Other restaurants closed with the promise of reopening, though only one managed to do so. In Federal Hill, Porter's Pub closed during the summer for what it said was a tax mix-up. The pub has yet to reopen. Spike Gjerde shuttered Shoo-Fly, his Belvedere Square diner, though he said it could reopen in a new location. And Sip Kitchen & Wine Bar at the Ritz-Carlton Residences closed its doors but stated plans to relaunch a new concept.

Red Parrot Asian Bistro, a local Asian-fusion chain, closed its Station North location, where Bottega owner Adrien Aeschliman plans to open a French-inspired restaurant. Bottega, his 20-seat BYOB, closed with plans to move to a larger location, then reopened in its original space.

Tapas Adela and Anastasia, two restaurants from the Kali's Restaurant Group, closed. Both are being replaced by new concepts — 8 Ball Meatball and Points South Latin Kitchen, respectively — early next year. Kali's group is also expanding the Admiral's Cup to the second and third floors, where they're building out a beer-centric concept.

Looking ahead

Developers are building up infrastructure to support up-and-coming chefs and small-scale food producers. The growth of incubators for food businesses will come to fruition next year with the addition of concepts R. House and B-More Kitchen.

And talks continue to revitalize the city's public markets, including Cross Street Market, Lexington Market and Hollins Market.

A number of new restaurants from established Baltimore restaurateurs are on the way, as well. Cosima, the new Sicilian restaurant at Mill No. 1 from the folks behind Donna's Cafe, is on track to open in January.

One of Baltimore's storied restaurants, the Brass Elephant, is being reincarnated as a new restaurant called the Elephant. The owners are targeting a February opening.

smeehan@baltsun.com

twitter.com/sarahvmeehan

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