Sitting at the bar of Belvedere Square's Grand Cru on a recent Friday evening, a middle-aged woman described the changes her favorite bar had recently undergone. Service and food had improved, and drinks were cheaper.
"But I still miss Nelson," she sighed into her pint glass.
It is impossible to talk about the new Grand Cru without first discussing the old. Last July, the affable and original owner, Nelson Carey, died of heart failure. As word traveled among his bar's many devoted patrons, a crowd — including Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, briefly — went to Grand Cru to raise their glasses to their friend who died too young at 50.
Fast forward eight months, and Grand Cru is in an awkward transition, having to balance the mourning of a loved one's unexpected death as a new team does its best to respect the past while keeping an eye toward the future. These are the ripple effects of a significant loss.
But on a recent Friday night, after speaking with several longtime patrons, a sense of finality seemed to inform their laments. Carey is irreplaceable, and the new Grand Cru — owned by 26-year-old J.C. Unitas III (grandson of Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas) and the Foodshed restaurant group's Spike Gjerde and Corey Polyoka — will never be the old Grand Cru. With those caveats in place, it's up to new ownership to prove themselves a worthy successor.
Give Unitas and company credit: On my visit, Grand Cru still looked the part of a buzzing neighborhood hangout, with roughly 40 patrons by the bar and nearby tables. The room was filled with laughter and conversation, which fit the description the same woman gave me earlier. She and her friends regularly hung out in Fells Point during their 20s and 30s, she said, but Grand Cru was their preferred meeting place now. It's where they feel most comfortable. Based on the conversational clientele and happy atmosphere, I saw her point.
Naturally, the drinks helped, too. Of the 11 cocktails offered, I tried four and walked away satisfied by each. A martini ($12) made with Green Hat gin and Dolin vermouth tasted like a classic standard, as did a Pikesville Rye-based Manhattan ($9). The Radler ($9), Grand Cru's take on Spanish cocktail the Paloma, utilizes Tapatio tequila, but the real star is the Stiegl Radler grapefruit lager. The Austrian import made the Radler standout as a prime warm-weather cocktail.
The best drink, though, was an Old Fashioned ($9) made with Pikesville Rye and angostura bitters. But it was the use of oleo-saccharum — an ingredient made from thinly sliced lemon peels that are soaked in sugar to pull the maximum flavors from the rind — that put it over the top.
While the cocktails were good, service left a little to be desired. Cocktails were delivered slower than I would have liked. Given the crowded scene, this would have been permissible, even with three or four bartenders working. Still, there was little sense of urgency behind the bar. I pointed this out to the woman next to me, who had asked for a sample of a beer but received no explanation from the bartender on its background. She said insouciant service had, in a weird way, always been part of Grand Cru's charm.
After my visit, I called Unitas, who also serves as general manager, for his take on the transition. He has heard the complaints surrounding changes (there is less wine available — 17 types offered on the menu by glass — but said the selection is "more curated") and he has read the April letter to The Baltimore Sun where a reader called his version "cold and unfriendly."
Unitas, a Baldwin native who lived in Philadelphia as a buyer for Urban Outfitters before recently moving back to the area, called the transition "very challenging." While Unitas is the first to say he cannot fill the void left by Carey, he hopes to please old customers and welcome new ones. He understands that is a tall order.
"I want to extend my warm welcome and say, 'Yes, it's changed, and your friend is gone and the space is not what it used to be,'" Unitas, a former employee at restaurants Cinghiale and Petit Louis, said. "But I'm here and I'd love to pour you a drink."
His self-aware and well-intentioned offer cannot change the past, but it could play a role in the ongoing healing process for Grand Cru's regulars. At the very least, it is a starting point.