I had two reactions to the news that Hampton's, once the dining mecca of Baltimore, had closed to the public: I was curious, and I was sad. As a journalist, I wanted to know why.
The answer I got from Edwin Mendez was that the luxurious 65-seat dining room was being converted to accommodate banquets and private parties. "There is such a large demand for private parties that we should have made this decision some time ago," Mendez, food and beverage director of the facility, told me.
Harbor Court, the upscale Light Street hotel that served as home to Hampton's, was built by Los Angeles billionaire David Murdock. It opened in 1986, was sold in 2006 and has been renamed InterContinental Harbor Court.
Mendez said the new management has decided to make Brightons its main dining restaurant, replacing Hampton's. Brightons is a 70-seat restaurant that served breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea.
As a pleasure-seeker, someone who had been wowed and delighted in Hampton's, I was saddened at the news of this change. Dining at Hampton's was a thrill. Waiters delivered perfectly cooked exotic entrees that were covered in silver domes. Surrounded by floral splendor, you gazed out the windows on the Inner Harbor and felt like royalty. The bill was sometimes princely, but you only live once.
When I called former Hampton's executive chef Michael Rork, he reacted to the news of the restaurant's demise as if it were a death in the family, first expressing sorrow, then remembering the good times.
"That's a shame," said Rork, who opened Hampton's. He served as executive chef until 1994, when he moved to the Eastern Shore to open his own restaurant, the Town Dock in St. Michaels.
Rork recalled that his bosses, Reinhart Hermann and later Werner Kunz, spared no expense in building the restaurant's culinary reputation. "I got any ingredient I wanted. It was perfect, like a playground," he said.
Rork and his staff coaxed Baltimore diners into the era of new American cuisine, serving entrees like blackened bison and having waiters serve sorbet between courses of three-hour meals. When sorbet first appeared, it surprised some diners, Rork recalled. "They said, 'What's this, dessert before the entree?' "
Yet the high-end fare drew customers. "We were busy," said Rork. In addition to its regular customers, the restaurant, which was open only for dinner and Sunday brunch, attracted celebrities who were staying in the hotel. "Eddie Murphy came in quite often. Sir Laurence Olivier came in," Rork said. When Murdock visited the restaurant and wanted a particular kind of caviar, Rork had to drive to Eddie's in Roland Park to fetch some. "You did whatever it took," Rork said. "That is what made Hampton's."
Another former Hampton's chef, Galen Sampson, said the restaurant was a place where "you put your heart and soul in what you were doing. You could be as creative as you wanted to be," said Sampson, who worked there from 1997 to January 2006.
Sampson noted that now that he owns his own restaurant, the Dogwood Deli in Hampden, he has had to scale back on his use of exotic ingredients.
"If I wanted foie gras, the hotel would supply it," he said. "Now I couldn't afford it."
Closing Hampton's also means the public will lose "one of its last beautiful dining rooms," Sampson said, noting that a similar room in the old Peabody Court Hotel had gone dark.
Restaurant consultant Diane Feffer Neas agreed the Hampton's dining room was spectacular. "You could live comfortably on what was spent for floral arrangements in that room," she said. "There are other fine restaurants in the city. Charleston, for instance, is lovely and delicious," she said. "But that room was something special."
She also said that the restaurant had served as a focal point of the "food culture of the city," a place where the food was excellent and the "attention to detail and service was remarkable."
Hampton's required its customers to dress up; men had to wear a jacket and tie. But neither Neas nor Rork was willing to say formal dress was a factor in the restaurant's demise.
"Maybe some restaurants are going more casual," Rork said, but there are still restaurants such as the one in the Greenbrier, a five-star luxury resort and hotel in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., that stick with the jacket-and-tie requirement.
Neas said she gets upset when she sees diners in casual dress at fine restaurants. "I think dining out is something special and you should dress to honor the occasion."
Other cities, she said, have temples of cuisine that diners were happy to get dressed up and visit. "Boston has the Four Seasons, Washington has Citronelle and we had Hampton's."