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Food & Drink

Cocktails, Cajun spice and comfort food: Here’s what some of Baltimore’s top chefs think will be on the menu in 2023

Predicting what’s next for the local dining scene is always something of a challenge. While market research firms and companies from Whole Foods to McCormick & Co. forecast trendy flavors and consumer behaviors, it’s hard to say what will stick here in Baltimore and what the city’s diners will skip entirely.

Will we all be eating kelp and sipping on yaupon tea by mid-2023, as some prognosticators say? Will West African, French and Japanese cuisine see a surge in popularity, as others suggest? Which will appeal more to Baltimore diners: lower-cost meals or lavish dining experiences?

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Only time will tell, but as 2023 begins, we asked some of the city’s chefs and restaurateurs — many of whom are preparing to open restaurants in the new year — to peer into the crystal ball and give us their predictions.

Craving the party and the cocktails

Randy Coffren (The Royal Blue, Johnny Rad’s, Snake Hill)

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Who better to ask about the new year’s trends than the man behind one of Baltimore’s most popular spots of 2022?

Locals have been flocking to the Royal Blue for Technicolor cocktails, retro vibes and a lively dance floor since the bar opened in Station North this fall. It feels safe to say Randy Coffren and his team have a finger on the pulse of what’s of-the-moment.

“People are definitely out again and happy to be out,” he says. As Baltimoreans make up for time lost at the start of the pandemic, “I definitely think you’ll see a rise in more of a party atmosphere.”

Randy Coffren expects more of a party atmosphere and throwback cocktails at Baltimore restaurants. “People are definitely out again and happy to be out," says Coffren, who owns Snake Hill in Highlandtown, pictured.

Cocktails — particularly those that can served up quickly — will continue to be at the forefront in 2023, Coffren predicts.

“I would suspect a lot more cocktails on draft at places,” he says. “Less low-and-slow concepts, more pre-batched drinks.”

With its disco balls and old-school touches like an analog television set, the Royal Blue leans hard into a 1970s aesthetic, and Coffren predicts enthusiasm for those groovy bygone days will carry over into the new year.

Whether customers are sipping on melon balls or grasshoppers, “the 1970s cocktails are taking over,” he says.

Making connections, not just food

Tony Foreman (Foreman Wolf restaurant group)

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Tony Foreman, the restaurateur behind some of the city’s most revered dining spots, from Charleston to Petit Louis Bistro, says questions about dining trends “become more difficult to answer every year.”

Instead of trying to predict the next hot menu item, he looks for the features underlying a restaurant’s popularity

“Guests want individual attention and connection — that could be an ingredient, a dish, staff, how they feel about the rest of the audience,” Foreman says. “The more electronic and separate we are, the more we crave actual connection to other humans. Restaurants are more important in a way with ever-shrinking actual social engagement.”

“If it’s real, honest and you can connect to it, it will work.”

He’ll no doubt be taking that approach at the newest Foreman Wolf restaurant, slated to open in Hampden this year. Foreman has been mum so far about the specifics of the project, which is set to take over the former Cafe Hon space on 36th Street.

Eating healthy and consciously

Jesse Sandlin (Sally O’s, The Dive, Bunny’s)

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Jesse Sandlin is the first to admit she has “no idea” what 2023 will bring. But she’s pretty confident a focus on health adopted in the past few years will continue to grow, influencing restaurant menus across the city.

More customers follow vegan and vegetarian diets, or are looking for alcohol-free cocktail options, Sandlin says: “People are making decisions about what they’re going to eat more consciously.”

Chef Jesse Sandlin will open a new Fells Point restaurant, Bunny's, in early 2023.

Diners will have to wait to see what health-conscious items Sandlin might include on the menu at her new restaurant, Bunny’s, which will replace the Wharf Rat in Fells Point early this year. She’s keeping details about the new spot close to the vest for now.

One thing Sandlin is hoping to leave behind in 2022 is theft from her restaurants, where everything from outdoor heaters to art in the bathroom have been purloined over the past year.

“A trend that I hope stops in the new year is people stealing,” she says.

Longing for familiar, comfort foods

Randall Matthews (Rize and Rest)

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Randall Matthews is a Washington, D.C., chef looking forward to joining the Baltimore dining scene in 2023.

This spring, he plans to open Rize and Rest, an all-day cafe near Patterson Park that will embody the laid-back attitude and flexibility he thinks diners want to see in the new year.

“I think the heavy fine dining aspect will slowly go away and you’ll continually see more fast-casual concepts pop up,” Matthews says. People want to “create their own destiny, whether you want a little bit of food or a lot of food.”

He also thinks diners are clamoring for the familiar, rather than experimental dishes.

“I think the food becomes more comfort food, something that’s more approachable. Maybe they haven’t heard of it before, but it’s not too out of left field where they don’t want to try it.”

He’ll walk the line of comfort and creativity at Rize and Rest with dishes like a smoked bone marrow topped with lamb braised with a smoky-tangy marmalade and plated alongside pickled shallots — all soaked up with a piece of country bread.

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Letting ingredients shine, without the show

Brendon Hudson (Allora, Velleggia’s, Zander’s)

Brendon Hudson also thinks 2023 diners want more simplicity on their plate.

“They’re not wanting it to be 9 feet high and on fire, with liquid nitrogen coming out,” he says. “They’re getting a little exhausted of trying the Caesar salad reinvented 33 different ways.”

Instead, he says, restaurants will do well to focus on high-quality ingredients and time-honored techniques. He’s been digging into those at the newly opened Velleggia’s at Cross Street Market, a reboot of his family’s classic Little Italy restaurant.

Brendon Hudson, grandson of Frank Velleggia, the former owner of Velleggia's in Little Italy, reopened the restaurant in Cross Street Market in November 2022. He and partner David Monteagudo have plans to open another restaurant, Zander's, in 2023.

Simplicity often goes hand in hand with nostalgia, and Hudson plans to hearken back to the past both at Velleggia’s, where he’s working to resurrect vintage menu items like beef liver, and at Zander’s, which will lean on classics from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s.

At Allora, he stands by the cacio e pepe, a minimalist dish featuring pasta, cheese, salt and pepper. “The vibe we’re going for is high-quality ingredients, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves,” he says.

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Exploring regional eats and traditions

Marisa Dobson (Church)

Marisa Dobson, a longtime publicist on the local restaurant scene, took a dive into bar ownership last year as a partner in the Old Goucher cocktail spot Church.

The bar is harnessing one of the trends that Dobson sees on the horizon for 2023: regional specificity in food and drink. Diners are interested in hyper-regional culinary traditions, whether that’s pasta from Italy’s Abruzzo region, Memphis-style barbecue or brothless ramen from Nagoya, Japan. At Church, partner and beverage director Chelsea Gregoire is using ingredients imported from far-away regions, like the Thai spirit mekhong, sotol from Mexico and strega, an herbal Italian liqueur.

Church, a new bar from Chelsea Gregoire and Marisa Dobson, opened Sept. 28 in Old Goucher.

Dobson also expects vegetarian cooking to continue to broaden its reach. “It used to mean kale and nutritional yeast,” she says. “Now, it’s cauliflower shawarma and braised squash with fermented black beans … People are rediscovering the veggie-forward dishes that already existed in their food cultures.”

And she thinks the future is bright for condiments like chili oil and zaatar, which have been growing in popularity. “There are a lot of these sexy millennial condiment companies that are making beautifully bottled condiments,” Dobson says. “I think this could be the new hamburger helper, you know?”

Diving into the heat

Hadar Cohen Aviram (McCormick & Co.)

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Speaking of sexy spices: Hadar Cohen Aviram has a thought or two about what’s going to be hot — literally and figuratively — this year.

The executive chef for McCormick & Co. helped pull together the Hunt Valley-based spice company’s annual Flavor Forecast, which prophesies the palate of the year to come. This year’s forecast predicts that approachable cooking grounded in French techniques and ingredients will be popular, as will the use of fats to bring out the flavoring in dishes and a deeper dive into the many uses of heat in cooking.

McCormick & Co. predicts that chefs will be emphasizing fat and spice in their cooking this year. The company's 2023 flavor of the year, a Vietnamese and Cajun spice blend, gives a kick to dishes like chicken wings.

McCormick even launched a spice to accompany the report: the new Vietnamese x Cajun Style seasoning is a blend of smoky cayenne and paprika used in Cajun cooking and the lemon grass, garlic and black peppercorn traditional to Vietnamese recipes.

“We were looking for something that would play with all of these different trends,” Cohen Aviram says. “It is one flavor to represent them all.”

Changing menus to offset rising costs

James King (Titan Hospitality Group)

James King thinks changes in consumer behavior that started earlier in the pandemic will carry over into the new year.

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Carryout and delivery, a lifeline for restaurants during the early days of the pandemic, are still going strong and will only get stronger, the CEO of the Crofton-based Titan Hospitality Group predicts.

“People are comfortable sitting on their couch at home, and having food brought to them,” he says.

Price hikes that plagued the industry in 2022 will also continue into 2023 — and they’re shaping restaurant trends, according to King. Titan Hospitality, which operates restaurants like Smashing Grapes, Blackwall Hitch and Blackwall Barn & Lodge, adjusts its menu on a quarterly basis now, rather than twice a year, to keep up with changing prices.

“We’re all spending more time on menu development and trying to be more nimble,” King says. That makes it a little harder to predict what ingredients might be all the rage: “There’s not one thing that jumps out right now that everybody’s rushing to. It’s really about what’s available and cost effective.”

Looking for the best value in dining

Ashish Alfred (Duck Duck Goose, No Way Rosé, Anchor Bar, Pirata)

Ashish Alfred of The Alfred Restaurant Group cooks.

Ashish Alfred, the owner of Fells Point’s Duck Duck Goose and Federal Hill’s No Way Rosé, shies away from making too many predictions about the new year in dining: “I’m not much of a gambler,” he says.

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But he feels pretty certain that in 2023, diners will be looking, more than ever, for the best value for their money. That might mean choosing to spend on lavish dining experiences, or it could mean searching out the best bargains.

“I think you’ll start to see a little bit more smoke and mirrors in restaurants,” Alfred says. “Or you’ll see the antithesis of that, which is meat and potatoes.”

He’s going the meat-and-potatoes route with Pirata, a “stick-to-your-ribs, red sauce Italian place” opening in the old Points South Latin Kitchen space in Fells Point in late February or early March.

Alfred predicts menus will also become more streamlined as restaurateurs look to cut excess costs. But the ultimate hospitality goal — impressing the guest — remains timeless.

“It’s got to wow them one way or the other,” he says.


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