Hotels offer fewer spots for fancy dining

The Baltimore Sun

Last week, Pisces, the upscale seafood restaurant in the Hyatt Regency downtown, closed. The grand hotel restaurant may be alive and well in other cities, but not in ours. Baltimore, in the heyday of hotel dining, had the John Eager Howard Room in the Belvedere; the Conservatory and then Citronelle in the Peabody; and, most notably, Hampton's in Harbor Court.

They are all gone now, for various reasons.

Harbor Court's restaurant is now Brightons, which had been the hotel's version of a coffee shop. Similarly, the more casual Bistro 300 has become the Hyatt's main restaurant. The hotels' beautiful spaces that were elegant dining rooms are now being used for private events.

Nowadays, the expense-account restaurants that are still in downtown hotels are mostly independent restaurants and are often "safe" chains (read steakhouses): Ruth's Chris in Pier 500, the Sheraton Inner Harbor's Morton's the Steakhouse and Shula's in the Sheraton Baltimore City Center.

The Diamond Tavern opened in the new Hilton Baltimore recently, but considering that it has a casual atmosphere and more than 20 flat-screen TVs, it doesn't seem to be going the high-end route.

A couple of more ambitious hotel restaurants have survived in downtown Baltimore: Grille 700 in the Marriott Waterfront and Watertable in the Renaissance Harborplace come to mind. Locals, though, don't think of them as places to celebrate a special occasion the way they did Hampton's and even Pisces. Watertable has a new chef, and the hotel has a new food and beverage director, so changes for it may be in the works, but I couldn't get them to talk to me before press time.

I asked local restaurant consultant Diane Neas why she thought the elegant, high-end hotel restaurant hasn't done better in Baltimore in recent years.

"If you're a tourist, this is supposed to be a seafood town," she said. "You want to have something you can't have at home. We have a [food] profile" some other cities don't. She meant, I suppose, that tourists like to go to crab houses or neighborhood seafood places when they visit. And, of course, they want to have a meal in Little Italy.

Add to that the reason why so many things go belly up these days: the recession. Business people don't have quite the lavish expense accounts they once did, and they were surely Pisces' bread-and-butter customers.

One reader on Dining@Large, my restaurant blog, made an astute observation when the subject came up. He pointed out all the high-end restaurants that have opened in Harbor East in the past few years. If you want an expense-account meal or haute cuisine, why eat in your hotel when Charleston, Roy's, Oceanaire Seafood Room, Fleming's or Cinghiale are so nearby?

Pisces, by the way, will be open for one more public occasion: the traditional New Year's Eve celebration. Its location, high above the Inner Harbor, makes the dining room an excellent place to watch the fireworks.

More space Fells Point's popular Asahi Sushi is moving to a new location at 514 S. Broadway. As of this writing, the grand opening is scheduled for Saturday, but I would check before going.

The reason for the move is more space. The current location has seating for only 15 or 20, while the new place has two floors and will seat about 80.

The menu will expand as well, with more Korean dishes and some new rolls.

New eatery The Dogwood Caf e in the Woman's Industrial Exchange (333 N. Charles St.) downtown - an offshoot of the Dogwood Restaurant in Hampden - had its grand opening last Monday. (It was open for a couple of weeks before that.) Right now, it's open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and is serving soup, sandwiches and salads.

When spring comes, says co-owner Bridget Sampson, the cafe will start table service. Right now, you order at the counter and the staff brings you your food. The menu will be larger and, says Sampson, hours may be expanded as well.

Meanwhile, the Dogwood has two bakers baking full time at the new location, so it's a good place to order or just pick up cookies, cakes and pies for the holidays.

Deal of the Week Once a week, Duda's Tavern (1600 Thames St.) has half-priced appetizers (no more than 10 bucks) from noon until 11 p.m. - appetizers such as wings, oysters, steamed shrimp, onion rings, chili fries and chicken tenders. The surprise is that this deal is on Saturdays, not some weekday when the Fells Point bar and restaurant might not get much business otherwise.

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