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Rodricks: What to make of Baltimore restaurant closings?

What do we make of the closing of Aggio, the contemporary Italian restaurant that the talented celeb-chef Bryan Voltaggio opened in downtown Baltimore just four years ago? That business fell off? That its location, in the Power Plant Live area, was not the best for “fine dining”? That Voltaggio, at one point the owner of eight restaurants in our region, decided he had spread the bruschetta too thin?

We don’t have much to go on. On Friday, Voltaggio was said to be traveling and unavailable for comment, and his handlers emailed me the same terse notice that went to the media earlier in the week: “Bryan and his team thank the community for their support over the years.”

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It would have been edifying to hear why Aggio closed because, these days, every time a restaurant shuts its doors, it’s taken as another harbinger of the Baltimore apocalypse: The city is in decline and riddled with crime, and therefore, people in The Villes (Cockeysville, Catonsville, Clarksville, Davidsonville) refuse to come into the city to dine. Suburbanites go to Carrabba’s instead.

But no gripe with Voltaggio. Operators of restaurants that go bust rarely have much to say about it publicly.

It’s a tough business. Restaurants come and go. They open, they close. Some last forever; many close in their first year. They close because customer traffic never reached anticipated levels, or because the reviews were bad, or because their operators misjudged the importance of location and the need for easy parking. I know of at least one Baltimore restaurant that closed because the owner-chef could not keep cocaine out of his nose.

Still, these days, when an establishment like Aggio goes out of business, on the heels of other restaurants that enjoyed success for a good number of years, the instinct is to blame it on Baltimore’s crime rate — or, as civic leaders like to say, the “perception” of crime, and a climate of fear.

This never used to be the case with restaurants. Failures were simply seen as a hard reality of a challenging business.

But over the last couple of decades, in Baltimore and other cities, restaurants took on greater importance. They became better, more diverse and more abundant, and more central to a city’s cultural scene. Food, foodies, restaurant news, online reviews, social media — it’s a big swirl of chatter and a large part of civic life. So, it follows that restaurants are viewed by many as a way to measure conditions in the city.

And restaurants are part of the narrative we’ve been hearing since the unrest that hit Baltimore on the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral in April 2015. It goes like this: Three years of hellish violence across the city, combined with a lingering perception of lawlessness and municipal dysfunction, make Baltimore unappealing as a destination for people from The Villes. And with fewer people from The Villes calling for reservations on the weekends, restaurants suffer, and some go out of business.

This is a real phenomenon, people in the restaurant business or who work close to it say.

But it’s not the full picture. There are usually other issues at play: the personal decisions of restaurant owners, the availability and cost of good staff, the terms of leases. And two major factors have to be considered.

One is the number of good restaurants. This is something we’ve come to take for granted. If you want a fine and interesting meal in and around Baltimore, you have plenty of choices. (A friend who recently dined in a new rooftop restaurant was happy with the food, but ecstatic about the waterfront view.)

“There is much more competition than in 2004,” says Chris Spann, who announced the closing of his Wine Market Bistro in Locust Point after 14 years. Spann will keep his adjoining wine shop and bar open, but the dining room was slated to serve its last meal this weekend. “There are a lot of good [restaurant] operators out there, A-plus operators. I think it’s a more serious environment now.”

Another factor, big and getting bigger: Home-delivery of groceries, dinner kits and prepared meals, making the eat-in option appealing. Online sales are becoming more common, and so are empty restaurants, especially at lunch hour.

“This online market is projected to grow 15 times faster than the rest of the restaurant business through the end of the decade,” Derek Thompson reported last year in The Atlantic. “The future of dining out might look a lot like eating in.”

Of course, these trends are showing up nationwide. But from what I hear, Baltimoreans tend to attribute restaurant fails to crime. It’s still the first thing that comes to mind when a story like the Aggio closing shows up in the news feed. That’s because the three-year surge in violence overwhelmed just about everything in the civic imagination, and we are still suffering from its real and psychic effects.

Meet four chefs to watch in the Baltimore-area. (Karl Merton Ferron and Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun video)
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