Restaurant couples find other times, ways to create romance

Kevin Perry and Cecilia Benalcazar are the owners of Liv2Eat in South Baltimore.
Kevin Perry and Cecilia Benalcazar are the owners of Liv2Eat in South Baltimore. (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun photo)

Sure, not everyone wants to celebrate Valentine's Day. It's not so hard to sit it out.


But imagine if you and your sweetheart worked together in the Valentine's Day industry, catering to romance but, come dinnertime on Feb. 14, never able to experience it yourselves.

That's the situation facing couples who work together in restaurants. Picture them: One is firing up a filet mignons, the other is clambering over boxes of sparkling wine in the walk-in. All the while, customers are glowing dreamily in the candlelight, clasping hands under the table and feeding each other succulent bites of lobster Thermidor.


You have to adapt your definition of Valentine's Day — or of romance.

Cecilia Benalcazar and Kevin Perry opened Liv2Eat in South Baltimore in November. They're in the old Bicycle space and live upstairs with their son, Jack. Benalcazar is new to the game, but Perry has been in the restaurant business for years, recently as the sous-chef at an Annapolis seafood restaurant.

Like a lot of restaurant veterans, Perry isn't a huge fan of Valentine's Day. "It's work," he said.

But Benalcazar is looking forward to spending Valentine's Day with her husband at Liv2Eat, even if it is work. "I like it. I think it's exciting," she said. "Kevin's putting together a beautiful Spanish-themed menu. We want these people to have a very special time."


So for this Valentine's Day, at least, Benalcazar and Perry are focused on making other people happy. For themselves, they're content with creating romance at other times — something their fellow restaurateurs know much about.

The Baltimore restaurant scene is blooming with husband-and-wife restaurateurs — Amy and Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Karin and Bud Tiffany of Peter's Inn, Tina and Guido De Franco of Caesar's Den, Debi Bell-Matassa and Michael Matassa of Alchemy and Bridget and Galen Sampson of Dogwood. The list goes on.

A few of them shared their experiences of injecting romance in their workday lives.

Making every day special

"I can tell you that we will probably celebrate at lunch, not dinner," said Cyd Wolf, who co-owns Little Italy's popular Germano's Trattoria with her husband, Germano Fabiani.

The couple has been together for 30 years, said Wolf, who can't remember the two ever going out for a Valentine's Day dinner.

"But my sweetheart makes me a cappuccino with a heart in it every morning," Wolf said.

Wolf said she and Fabiani usually celebrate Valentine's Day over lunch. If the 14th falls on a weekend, they typically dine at home. If it's a weekday, the couple will go out to a secret destination of Fabiani's choosing. "For Valentine's Day, we'll go for Greek or Indian. Or Thai. Just not Italian," Wolf said. "I would be happy with a hamburger."

Wolf said she and Fabiani weren't always such smoothies. Before joining Fabiani in the restaurant business, she tried having a Valentine's dinner waiting for him. "I decided I was going to do oysters, but I didn't know you needed a special oyster shucker. He came at the end of a very busy Valentine's Day and had to shuck the oysters for me."

Work, kid, work, kid

"We've never really done anything for Valentine's Day," said Cristin Dadant, who co-owns Clementine with her longtime partner, Winston Blick. "We just kind of acknowledge it's our anniversary, and then we get back to work."

Dadant and Blick, it turns out, ignited their romance on a Valentine's Day 10 years ago, when they were working together at Sobo Cafe in Federal Hill. The restaurant crew did what crews do after a rough shift, Dadant remembers.

"We all went out for a beer afterward, at the Mount Royal Tavern," she said. "We had a lot of people, and Winston and I broke off as usual and talked to each other. My friend was mad because we weren't talking to her. She said, 'I don't know why you two just don't go out.' That was our epiphany. We kind of looked at each other and Winston said, 'I don't know, why don't we?' "

Blick didn't propose a date then, but he drove up a few days later to Atlantic City, N.J., to surprise Dadant, who was doing environmental work there during the week. "'I'll never top this,'" Dadant remembers Blick saying. "'I just shot myself in the foot.'

Ten years, a house and one child later, Dadant said that she and Blick try to make the most of their time off. "We're sort of like: work, kid, work, kid. For us to go out to eat, and this may be true of all restaurant couples, it's a really big deal. Because we're always in the restaurant doing stuff. You try to make the most of it."

Getting away

"We try to get away as much as we can," said Ted Stelzenmuller, who runs Jack's Bistro in Canton with his wife Christie Smertycha. "Here's the way I look at it. I'm 39, and I've been in the business for 20 years, longer than I haven't been."

Stelzenmuller said he and Smertycha have come to value their time away from their restaurant, whether it's scheduling an annual vacation for the first weeks of January or going on impromptu getaways.

The couple has made a tradition of flying off to distant locations on New Year's Day — which also happens to be Stelzenmuller's birthday — sometimes mere hours after locking up the restaurant. This year, they went to Thailand. Diners coming to Jack's Bistro in February will find items on the menu like Somboon mussels, a Thai-style preparation with lemongrass, basil, mint and a rich fish sauce. And Stelzenmuller periodically takes his crew on culinary excursions to dining destinations like Chicago.

But two weekends before Valentine's Day, Stelzenmuller and Smertycha closed up their restaurant on Super Bowl Sunday and hopped down to Key West, Fla., for a long weekend.

"We had a nice three-day weekend," Stelzenmuller said. "It was absolutely a Valentine's Day thing. This one was just me and Christie."

Back in Baltimore and rested, Stelzenmuller and Smertycha will throw themselves headlong into Valentine's Day with no envy or regrets. "It can be a very stressful evening for diners," said Stelzenmuller. "We try to make Valentine's Day special for people."

On the cover

Cecilia Benalcazar and Kevin Perry, the owners of Liv2Eat in South Baltimore.

About the shoot

On him: Gian Marco suit, $1,575; Edward Armah pocket square, $80; Henry Arlington shirt, $275; Italo Ferretti silk tie, $165; all from Gian Marco. Michael Kors watch, Handbags in the City, $680.


On her: Laundry dress, $145; Kate Spade necklace, $260; both from Handbags in the City.


Photographed by Lloyd Fox, The Baltimore Sun, at Liv2Eat, 1444 N. Light St. Styling by John-John Williams IV, The Baltimore Sun. Hair and makeup by Leah Sarah Bassett, T.H.E. Artist Agency

The stores:

Gian Marco Menswear, 517 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon. Call 410-347-7974.

Handbags in the City, 840 Aliceanna St., Fells Point. Call 410-528-1443 or go to handbagsinthecity.com.

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