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Bits & Bites: Larder shuts, Ekiben to open third branch in Baltimore, and ideas to celebrate New Year’s Eve

Maybe it’s just getting old, or maybe the pandemic has completely broken my perception of time, but it feels frankly insane to me that a full year has gone by. Looking back on the past twelve months and more, it’s clear that time hasn’t impacted us all equally. Amid the pandemic, some of us have relished more free time and flexibility to work from home, others, particularly essential workers, feel pushed to the brink. Some businesses are closed or are on the verge of ruin, others are expanding and have never been doing better.

On that note, I have some bad news and I have some good news for Baltimore foodies. And I have some ideas of what to do on New Year’s Eve.

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Larder founder closes, enters ‘burnout recovery’

First the bad news. I was saddened — and a bit surprised — to learn about the closing of Larder, a farm-to-table cafe in Old Goucher from owner Helena del Pesco. I had interviewed del Pesco a few times since she opened in 2019 and was always impressed by her unique perspective on food.

Del Pesco moved to Baltimore from California, where she had previously worked at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse, a restaurant considered to be the birthplace of the farm-to-table movement. While Chez Panisse is pricey, at Larder, farm-to-table was approachable and relatively affordable: ordered and eaten in a fast casual setting.

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During the pandemic, del Pesco pivoted to offer subscription meal services to customers, helping her business to maintain a consistent revenue stream and keep people employed. She also collaborated with other local chefs, hosting pop-ups at the space that showcased the diversity of the region and an abundance of perspectives on food.

It was the kind of restaurant that I want to see more of. And, after Dec. 19, it will be closed.

Helena del Pesco, owner of Larder, a restaurant in the Old Goucher neighborhood, is closing shop after nearly two years of pandemic pivoting "over and over again."
Helena del Pesco, owner of Larder, a restaurant in the Old Goucher neighborhood, is closing shop after nearly two years of pandemic pivoting "over and over again." (Barbara Haddock Taylor)

An Instagram post announcing the closure said it comes “[a]fter nearly two years of pushing through this pandemic.” I had to ask del Pesco: was she just exhausted?

“Covid just made a business that’s already volatile… even more hard to predict,” she said. After a first year in operation that was chaotic in all the ways a first year of any business is, her second year, during the pandemic, involved “pivoting, pivoting over and over again.” And more recently, she’s faced price hikes for food and shortages of staff.

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In short, she’s beyond exhausted. “I started to think of myself as a cellphone whose battery wouldn’t charge anymore,” she said.

Some other factors were at play too. The restaurant, which shares a courtyard with Fadensonnen, the natural wine bar from Lane Harlan, didn’t sell alcohol. With overall sales still below pre-pandemic levels, del Pesco said, “Not having alcohol sales to buoy us was challenging.”

The property is leased by Harlan, who also owns the adjoining wine store, Angels Ate Lemons. Sophomore Coffee sits below. Asked about plans for the property, Harlan said in an email: “Nothing is in the works yet all of this is very fast and new.”

I asked del Pesco if she would consider reopening Larder at a different location, perhaps one that sells alcohol. “I’m not writing anything off at this point,” she said. But she’s not making any decisions right now. “I’m still in burnout recovery.”

Still, expect to see more from this talented chef. According to the Instagram post, del Pesco will continue to offer workshops for home cooks and small-scale catering through a new venture she’s calling Larder At Home. “I’m not someone who likes to sit still. I’m not good at doing nothing.”

Third Ekiben in former Bar Licorice

I have some good news for South Baltimore Ekiben fans.

Baltimore’s beloved sandwich shop is opening a third location — this time in the city’s Riverside neighborhood. Ekiben 3 will open in the former Bar Licorice location at 801 E. Fort Ave. sometime next year, says owner Steve Chu.

Ekiben opened its first brick and mortar location in Fells Point in 2016. A second location in Hampden came in 2019.

Construction at the new spot has been something of a nightmare — hello, COVID supply chain disruptions. Chu says his team is currently waiting on BGE to come out and upgrade the gas meter, electricity and pipes. “Everybody wants BGE to show up to their place.”

Expect to see some new additions on the restaurants’ menus in coming months — and check social media for a chance to be the first to try them. Chu, who boasts some serious foodie credentials of his own, has started hosting monthly “R & D nights,” or research and development nights, to test out some experimental creations on customers. Recent items included octopus hot dogs and cheesesteak egg rolls.

The best part: “All the food is served at a reduced cost. We make zero profit on it,” he said.

What are you doing New Year’s, New Year’s Eve?

The pandemic gives homebodies ample excuse to stay in on New Year’s Eve. But if you’re one of the brave who wants to ring in 2022 in style, here are some ideas.

The Keystone Korner jazz bar and restaurant is decorated with jazz-themed art, such as this painting of Lester Young playing on the streets of Baltimore.
The Keystone Korner jazz bar and restaurant is decorated with jazz-themed art, such as this painting of Lester Young playing on the streets of Baltimore. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

The Keystone Korner Baltimore

The Harbor East jazz club hosts an evening with Gary Bartz and Cyrus Chestnut as well as the Integriti Reeves Quintet. Doors open to begin serving at 6:30 p.m.; music starts at 8:30. Tickets are $100 to $125 and include a three-course meal and Champagne toast as well as admission.

Busboys and Poets Columbia

Ring in 2022 with activist Angela Davis, scholar Ibram X. Kendi and author D. Watkins at Busboys and Poets’ newly-opened Columbia branch. Celebration includes live music, food and a Champagne toast. Tickets cost $75; attendees must show proof of full COVID-19 vaccination or a negative test result before entering.

The Manor

Join songwriter and producer Cazwell and drag queen Raja, winner of RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 3 for an “epic countdown to 2022″ at the Manor in Mt. Vernon. Doors open at 6 p.m., party lasts until 2 a.m. Tickets are $75 to $125 and include food and an open bar.

Maximón

The Atlas Restaurant Group-owned Mexican restaurant at the Four Seasons lobby has a festive celebration planned with live music, buffet and open bar until midnight. Tickets are $150.

Blk Swan

The trendy Harbor East eatery is hosting a black-tie celebration with tickets ranging from $75 for bottomless Champagne to $250 for a 5-course tasting menu with bubbles.

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The Milton Inn

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Spend New Year’s Eve in Sparks? At Milton Inn, bien sur. A four-course menu plus Champagne toast at midnight costs $119 per person.

Sally O’s

One of my personal favorite places for a meal in Baltimore still has a few reservations available for their $60 per person New Year’s Eve menu. Indulge in oysters Rockefeller and a “steak and cake” — rib-eye plus jumbo lump crab cake at this inviting Highlandtown spot.

Guilford Hall Brewery

Guilford Hall Brewery is hosting a party with live music and a DJ in its Crown Room. Tickets are $40 for general admission with free hors d’oeuvres and nonalcoholic beverages, or $75 for unlimited beer and wine.

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