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Social distancing and lost revenues: Baltimore’s high-end restaurants do one pivot after another to avoid disaster

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 9/25/2020 By Christina Tkacik, The Baltimore Sun
a close up of a door: An old-fashioned phone booth serves as a pass-through to another bar at Monarque Restaurant. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS An old-fashioned phone booth serves as a pass-through to another bar at Monarque Restaurant.

Inside the kitchen of Monarque, a high-end French restaurant from the Atlas Restaurant Group, the chef is figuring out how to do fine dining in the middle of a pandemic. With the need for social distancing, there’s fewer people to do more work. Suppliers may run out of basic ingredients like meat and radishes. After-dinner cheese carts and shared plates seem less luxe and more like a potential safety hazard.

a group of people performing on a counter: The bar at Monarque Restaurant. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS The bar at Monarque Restaurant.

“You’ve got to rethink everything,” said Marc Hennessy.

For now, the restaurant, with its marble table tops and velvet draped stage, sits empty, its grand opening delayed by the pandemic. When Monarque finally greets its first guests this fall, it will face a fine dining landscape its architects could scarcely have imagined. Business lunches and dinners and large-scale events have ground to a halt. Dress codes now require face masks, and COVID-wary guests may no longer wish to linger for multi-course meals. Many restaurants have shut down for months, leaving regulars to refresh their Facebook pages in search of updates. Some, like the Alexander Brown Restaurant downtown or Roy’s in Harbor East, have closed for good.

Hennessy accepted the job in Baltimore at Monarque after his previous restaurant, Washington’s Rare Steakhouse, shut down for the pandemic and still hasn’t reopened. He had hoped it would come back after a few weeks, but with children to care for and a mortgage to pay, “I just couldn’t wait any longer.”

a living room filled with furniture and vase of flowers on a table: A fireplace is a feature at Monarque Restaurant. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS A fireplace is a feature at Monarque Restaurant.

Marshall Weston, CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland, predicts 40% of restaurants in the state will have shuttered by the end of the year. The ones that remain, he says, “are hanging on for dear life."

One drastic change has been the drop-off in business lunch and dinner guests as workers take to home offices and meetings happen over Zoom, not multi-course meals. The pinch has been acute in places like Harbor East and Downtown, dense with office buildings. “It’s been huge,” said Tony Foreman, whose Foreman Wolf restaurant group owns high-end restaurants like Charleston and Cinghiale. The latter is an Italian restaurant in Harbor East he says “is perfectly formulated for the business diner of the last 10 years," able to accommodate large groups of post-convention diners as well as client meetings. But those groups don’t exist at the moment, and it’s unclear if and when they’ll return. “I think those things will be slow to come back because I think people have a little PTSD," Foreman said.

a room filled with furniture and vase of flowers on a table: The main dining area features a stage. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS The main dining area features a stage.

The loss of business traffic has also been bad news for fast casual eateries like Bon Fresco, an Inner Harbor eatery owned by Phil Han. He shut down the cafe on the first floor of the Candler Building for months and wasn’t optimistic about the prospects for reopening.

a room with a large mirror: One of the dining areas at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East has a display of Burlesque photos. Monarque, which is still under construction, will be a French-themed restaurant and dinner theater and is part of the Atlas Restaurant Group.. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS One of the dining areas at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East has a display of Burlesque photos. Monarque, which is still under construction, will be a French-themed restaurant and dinner theater and is part of the Atlas Restaurant Group..

In nearby Harbor East, the owners of Monarque envisioned a sunnier future. Though many are still avoiding indoor dining, “I think they’ll come back,” said Atlas Restaurant group founder Alex Smith, who owns 12 other eateries in Baltimore with more on the way. At least, he hopes so. His business is also facing a lawsuit and accusations of racism after a Black mom and her son were turned away from Ouzo Bay this summer.

Some have used the fallow period to reinvent themselves. When Magdalena reopens in October in the boutique Ivy Hotel, the menu will offer innovative takes on local classics like Southern Maryland ham stuffed with greens and pit beef with onion gravy. The high-end eatery in Mount Vernon, which shut down in March, was previously known for elite fare and prices to match.

Executive chef Mark Levy said that for him, it’s a return to the classic cuisine of gastropubs in his native England, where “food was always very much more from the heart instead of from the head.”

At the same time, it’s an acknowledgement of how the world has changed since March, and an effort to make Magdalena “more accessible," and more economical for guests in the wake of a pandemic that has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans, and destroyed so many restaurants.

In a bid to accommodate COVID-era guests, other restaurants are likely to ditch multi-course tasting menus in favor of faster services that can be eaten in an hour, Weston says. “I don’t think many people are interested in spending two, two and a half hours in a fine dining restaurant going through a five- or six-course meal any longer,” he said

But diners at Magdalena can still expect to be dazzled. An after-dinner cocktail comes with a Berger cookie... topped with gold.

Many eateries have shut down and reopened multiple times this summer, an expensive ordeal. “The margins are thin in the restaurant industry. Compounded with intermittent closures — it’s just suicide,” said Jerry Trice, co-owner of Gunther & Co., a global inspired eatery in Canton. After Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young suspended indoor dining late July, his business was losing money by staying open. He and wife Nancy Trice shut down the restaurant and laid off their staff again, hiring almost everyone back in September after Baltimore allowed indoor dining to resume at 50% capacity.

a room filled with furniture and a table in a restaurant: The main dining area at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East. © Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun/The Baltimore Sun/TNS The main dining area at Monarque Restaurant in Harbor East.

Freshly reopened, they’ve launched a deliverable menu available through Uber Eats that features items like Thai curries and fresh salads that travel well. “Pivot is the new word of 2020," said Nancy Trice.

For hospitality workers more accustomed to bending over backwards to accommodate guests, one challenge has been enforcing mask wearing and social distancing among a sometimes reluctant clientele. “It was a serious problem. I was basically the mask police, along with our whole staff,” Nancy Trice said.

Hennessy, of Monarque, has heard of arguments happening between diners and restaurant owners or employees. “It’s uncomfortable."

But for the majority of guests, a night out — even under a mask — is just the antidote to the crushing series of disappointments the year has inflicted. Many guests have splurged on meals at Charleston, a restaurant known for its pampering, to make up for vacations missed during the coronavirus. “They’re using it as a way to spoil themselves a bit, and that’s super-duper flattering,” said Foreman. “It reminds us that people love that feeling, the feeling of being taken care of.”

In a potential sign of life returning to normal, Gov. Larry Hogan last week announced that, in jurisdictions where local governments give the OK, restaurants can fill up to 75% capacity. But eateries still need to follow state and federal health guidelines, which recommend tables be spaced 6 feet apart in the name of social distancing. That makes it impossible to fill a restaurant at anything near to that, said Foreman. “It is generous in concept,” he said of the order. “It does not take into the details of operating realities.”

As the weather cools, restaurants that just a few months ago were investing in outdoor tables and umbrellas to accommodate more al fresco dining will likely need to start stocking up on heat lamps, tents and other supplies, says Michael Evitts, spokesman for the Downtown Partnership. He’s hoping that Marylanders will layer up and embrace the cold weather. “That would be a good thing, I think, for all of our mental health, but it would be a really good thing for our restaurant industry.”

Foreman said has ordered some heat lamps, and is already facing a backlog that has come to feel so typical in 2020. “The ones we ordered in August may come at some point," he said dryly. As for his guests, good sweaters will help guard against the chilly evening air. So will good wine.

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