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Bits & Bites: Papi’s Tacos heads to Ocean City; Bluebird owners will bring family pizzeria to Frederick suburbs; Pairings Bistro opens cafe in Bel Air

For years, we’ve heard that residents who live in the counties surrounding Baltimore have stopped coming downtown to dine out. While that’s far from true — a stop by Harbor East’s Tagliata or an evening in Federal Hill shows you that both neighborhoods are still plenty busy — the dining options for suburbanites are definitely growing. A few Baltimore area business owners are adding branches in Towson, Urbana and beyond.

This week, I’ll tell you about a new market and cafe for one of Harford County’s most beloved restaurants and a pizzeria from the owners of Hampden’s Bluebird. And at least one Baltimore restaurateur is branching out to Ocean City.

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Owner Paul Bankert at Bluebird Cocktail Room on Hickory Avenue in Hampden. He and his wife, Caroline, are planning to open a family-style pizzeria outside of Frederick in Urbana.
Owner Paul Bankert at Bluebird Cocktail Room on Hickory Avenue in Hampden. He and his wife, Caroline, are planning to open a family-style pizzeria outside of Frederick in Urbana. (Amy Davis)

Pizza in Urbana

Paul and Caroline Benkert, who own Hampden’s Bluebird Cocktail Room and neighboring De Kleine Duivel, are planning a pizzeria about 10 minutes outside of Frederick.

Manina will open next February, barring construction delays, in a new shopping center “in the heart of Urbana,” said Benkert.

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The name is a nod to the Sicilian heritage of Benkert’s wife and business partner, Caroline. Meaning “little hand,” it can signify a “delicate touch” or be a term of affection for a “little helper,” says Benkert. “If your four-year-old is helping you in the kitchen,” he said.

The restaurant will serve pizza made with all local ingredients, as well as draft cocktails customers might expect to find at the Benkerts’ Baltimore concepts. But in contrast to those more grown-up businesses, Manina will offer a family-friendly atmosphere Benkert compares to 2 Amys, a pizzeria in Washington.

Back in Baltimore, the Benkerts shut down the Bluebird Pub during the pandemic, temporarily converting it into a burger and milkshake pop-up called Until Conditions Improve. They’re now using the space to host small-scale events.

The Benkerts are far from the first Hampden restaurateurs to branch out into the ‘burbs. Chad Gauss’ Food Market recently opened a branch in Columbia. And Papi’s Tacos just arrived to Towson’s Dulaney Valley Road.

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Papi's Tacos with branches in Fells Point and Hampden, is headed to the beach with a new taco joint opening in April in Ocean City.
Papi's Tacos with branches in Fells Point and Hampden, is headed to the beach with a new taco joint opening in April in Ocean City. (Kenneth Lam / Baltimore Sun)

Papi’s Tacos hits the beach

Another Papi’s Tacos will open in April — this time, in Ocean City, says co-owner Charlie Gjerde. The 260-seat restaurant will have two bars and two dining areas. The building was formerly English’s Family Restaurant, and is just a block and a half away from the beach.

Papi’s Tacos in Fells Point, which shut down after a wall collapsed one morning in September, is still closed. Gjerde said he had initially hoped to reopen the restaurant within about two months, but the fix has been harder than builders thought at the beginning. If construction takes too long, Papi’s will look to open in another location in Fells Point. But it won’t leave the neighborhood.

“That’s our mothership,” Gjerde said. “Fells Point is our home.”

Pairings Bistro gets a cafe

Some existing suburban eateries experienced an uptick in business during the pandemic. One is Bel Air’s Pairings Bistro.

While COVID-19 has provided “the most challenging two years that I’ve ever experienced,” says owner Jon Kohler, it’s also been lucrative. During the pandemic, Harford County foodies have rushed to support Pairings, which also benefited from a loan through the Paycheck Protection Program. “This is by far the best financial year that we’ve ever had.”

Amidst a massive labor shortage, Kohler said Pairings also benefitted from the loyalty of its staff. He estimates that 95% of their employees from before the pandemic are still at the restaurant. “The staff is the most important thing that you can have,” he said. “We are really a family.”

The restaurant, which opened more than a decade ago in Harford County, recently expanded their bar area and plans to open a market and cafe next door, says Kohler.

The Village Market and Cafe could be operating as soon as Nov. 1, offering local meats from Harford County as well as pickles, fresh croissants and more. Expect a rustic country atmosphere for breakfast and lunch. “I hate to use the term ‘Upscale Panera,’” Kohler said, offering the comparison. But, you know, Upscale Panera.

Mucho Gusto opened last year in Bel Air. Now, owners are planning additional locations.
Mucho Gusto opened last year in Bel Air. Now, owners are planning additional locations. (Kenneth K. Lam)

Mucho Gusto will expand to Baltimore County

Perhaps the suburbs have just been too long dismissed as a culinary wasteland. During a recent interview, restaurateur Nelson Ruiz told me he initially had trouble finding the funding for his elevated Mexican concept, Mucho Gusto, in Harford County.

Investors didn’t think chain-heavy Bel Air was ready for a bold Mexican eatery — one with mezcal on the menu, no less. “I think consumers in Bel Air are put in a box, and they just needed someone to open the top for them,” said Ruiz. The New York City native says his goal was to bring “a downtown restaurant to Bel Air.”

So far, so good. Mucho Gusto opened last year on Bel Air Road and Ruiz said he’s already looking to open additional branches in Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties. Look for a new Mucho Gusto to pop up somewhere in Baltimore County late next year or in early 2023.

Clavel chef will open Stoneleigh diner

Carlos Raba, the chef and partner at Clavel, is looking to open a Mexican diner in Stoneleigh next year, according to the Towson Flyer. To be called Nana, the restaurant will be in that quaint stone York shopping center where Uncle Wiggly’s used to be.

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