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January 12, 2009

What is an ethnic restaurant anyway?



The discussion continues under the post on "upscale" ethnic restaurants, and it occurred to me that I use the term "ethnic" without really being able to define it.

For instance, we got a couple of good suggestions under the post that hadn't occurred to me -- Black Olive and Tio Pepe -- but I can't decide whether they are truly ethnic restaurants.

Is that precisely because they are upscale? I don't think so. ...

Yes, Tio Pepe serves regional dishes of Spain. But what it's best known for are its Continental dishes, which might be filet mignon in a wine sauce or soft shell crabs fixed some fancy but not necessarily Spanish way. I would label it a special occasion restaurant rather than an ethnic restaurant if I was allowed only one label.

Likewise Black Olive's owners are Greek, but I think of it as a seafood restaurant with Greek accents, not a Greek seafood restaurant.

I'm not saying I'm right in my perceptions, but I bet I'm not the only one who has them.

I also don't think of French or Italian restaurants as ethnic restaurants. Technically they are, but the term conveys to me cuisines that are less familiar to Americans.

Would you consider a restaurant ethnic if it's owned by an American even if the food is another country's regional cuisine? Are Baltimore's Japanese restaurants that are mostly Korean-owned somehow less ethnic because they are? What is an ethnic restaurant anyway?

(Seafood display at Black Olive by Elizabeth Malby/Sun photographer)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 10:46 AM | | Comments (5)


An "ethnic restaurant" or "ethnic food" is a lazy way of saying "food from another country I'm not used to eating." Eventually, if you like the food/restaurant enough and begin to eat it regularly, it sheds the “ethnic” label and you just call it the type of food/restaurant that it is. I never understood why people can’t just call it what it is from the get go.

Actually I think that an "ethnic" restaurant used to mean the storfront in an all Italian, or Korean, or Greek, neighborhood much like some of the Latin places in Fells Point where mostly neighborthood folk went to have a cheap meal, pretty close to what they would have got in their old country whereever that might have been. It's been blured somewhat, of course, but the cheap neighborhood joint still has a major attraction whatever the cusine.

Ethnic is the adjective form of ethnos which can be defined thusly:People of the same race or nationality who share a distinctive culture.

Perhaps some of the regional or geographic restaurants mentioned, like Tio Pepe, no longer fit this mold because their food is no longer distinctive. Just as McD and KFC have homogonized food abroad, much "foreign" food has been adopted [highjacked?] in the US. Thus, Spanish, Mexican and Italian food are no longer part of a distinctive culinary culture, but Ethiopian and Vietnamese are.

Ze Mean Bean on Fleet Street in Fell's Point...ethnic to me because I don't know of any other restaurants in the area that serve Eastern European food.

Rough question for me. All the restaurants I think of as "ethnic" have at least some patrons who's first language isn't English. So, Chicken Rico is ethnic. Isabella's isn't.

But, I'm not happy with that definition.

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About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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