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August 27, 2009

The demise of fine dining



Reporter and animal lover Jill Rosen is working on a story right now that was sparked by the news of the Brass Elephant's closing.

Today Jill and I started naming all the fine-dining restaurants that have downscaled or closed (Bicycle, Jordan's, Brasserie Tatin, Ixia, the Spice Company, Taste, Northwoods; feel free to remind us of others below).

While the recession didn't do all of these in, the faltering economy did at least give them a little push. ...


We were trying to decide if it's more that people are no longer going out for special occasions, or if they are still going out for special occasions -- an anniversary or a birthday once or twice a year -- but no longer going out extra times, spending too much money on a good meal just for the fun of it.

I've been doing blog posts all along on some of these issues, but now Jill is going to do a wrap-up story. She'd love to hear from any of you who might be willing to talk to her about either a) fond memories you have of an important dinner at the Brass Elephant or any of the others or b) if you haven't been going out to fine-dining restaurants recently for whatever reason, but especially because of money issues.

Jill can be reached at

(Sun archives)

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 2:55 PM | | Comments (37)


i think it's neither...i think a recession just weeds out the weak seeds. people are going to be more choosy when they go out and the city is younger (imo) and more likely to go out to the trendy, new place than the place that's been sitting on "tradition" as their schtick for years without changing anything (for the record i wouldn't be surprised one bit if other places go under within 5 years - prime rib - i'm lookin at you).

i mean i'm not an expert of these places, i've only been to them a handful of times, but there has to be some reason i didn't come back...where as some places i can't wait to come back (salt - i'm looking in your direction)

i've seen plenty of local restaurants packed this year.

i think the recession will just make people step up more. come up with more incentives, or roll with the punches, maybe have a casual night, etc.

then again..i've also had too much caffeine today, so take it easy on me. (awaiting bashing from said restaurants)

I get what you're saying, but most of the restaurants EL mentions weren't really around all that long. The Spice Company and Bicycle, for example, certainly weren't old restaurants.

and i agree, those weren't really resting on their laurels - so to speak - but there had to be a reason they went under.

i think although it's sad to see them go, a recession just speeds up the inevitable. in cush times more people go out biggie, but now you really have to make a case for yourself.

sure, i'm as sad as the next guy that brass elephant, ixia, and bicycle closed. bicycle was one of my favorite places when i first moved here - but they never really recovered from selling the joint (imo). ixia i went to once and had excellent service, but really only went back for the occasional (amazing) cocktail. i went to brass elephant once back in the day and while the place looks amazing, the next time i went i would just as much rather go upstairs and have a bowl of mussels and some drinks at tusk lounge.

so i guess what my point is is there's a reason a place goes under.

and as much as i'd like to wax poetic about the nostalgia of a place or the cool funky decor with the good drinks, or the place that decided to take a leap and open up a rowhouse bar in fed hill/locust point that made high-end food (GASP! quite the concept back in 2000) gotta keep pushing yourself and creating reasons for people to come back.

and who knows why, but these places obviously didn't.

dog eat dog. it sucks, but it's capitalism baby.

or i could be entirely wrong...what does some 30 yr old punk know ;)

also another point i think has to be made is that this city has a lot more competition in the fine dining category (EL - correct me if i'm wrong, i've only lived here for 10 years) than ever before, now you got the whole cindy wolf "operation", you've got all kinds of new places popping up left and right, woodberry kitchen. all really good places. so the competition goes up, supply goes up, demand goes down...someone's bound to be left out here.

Also - it doesn't help that Mt. Vernon isn't exactly getting the amount of foot traffic that those areas are

It's all about choices. A table of six may want a filet, entree salad, burger, rockfish, and a grilled chicken sandwich. Those who offer these items in a nice vibe with non ala cart sides will be around. It's the era of sepparation in restaurants. Dinners haven't had it this good in years and they deserve it.

Brasserie Tatin and Taste were both replaced with new restaurants in fairly short order... although I'm not a frequent visitor to either La Famiglia or Crush, the times I've been to each they've appeared to be doing well.

I wonder if that's the newness factor at work. EL


great point. i would be able to get a lot more people together to go to say B&O American Basserie, because i know maybe i want to treat myself, while my girlfriend just wants something light, and my buddy (third wheel...haha) just wants a burger.

when with ixia or BE, there is now way i could talk all three (or more) of going.

also interesting, and for places that say "i'm not stooping to putting burgers and that piddly stuff on the menu", is that i have seen multiple times where i will go to a place because i know they have cheaper options on the menu, but then when i read the menu i see something looks/sounds amazing and i just have to get it. the old bait and switch.

I don't go out to fine dining restaurants anymore because of the availability of top quailty ingrediants in the stores. I can buy halibut, wild salmon, dry aged prime beef, all types of cheese, unusual vegetables, top of the line oils and butter at Wegman's and cook it at home for a fraction of the cost. Add in the wonderful wines available at the Wine Source or those I have cellared over the years and I have as good a feast as any place in Baltimore. There really is no need to drop two hundred dollars (or more) on a night out.

I was looking at the menu at Petit Louis and calculating how much a dinner there would set us back and came up with about $120.00. For what? Half a roast chicken $20.00? It is hard to justify paying for one meal what a weeks worth of groceries cost. And this isn't even what I would call fine dining. Last Friday I bought a whole chicken and pound of barbeque potatoes from the Dutch Market and paid $10.00. I can't imagine that the chicken at Petite Louis is four times better. As I stated earlier it is just hard to justify the expense.

In my household, it's strictly a matter of money, or rather the lack of it.

Due to job losses, our income is down by about 30%. Our monthly fine dining outings have dwindled to quarterly events.

Some perceptions and speculations as to why fine dining places may be hitting hard times:

Less perceived "value" per dollar spent compared to alternatives.

Fewer "big" economic events to celebrate - new job, promotion, big sale or contract, etc.

More casual society, in dress, dining, interactions with others, etc. The fine dining "rituals" are not as valued.

As compared to decades past, more people eat out more often, and perhaps prefer to have some number of low-buck meal for the same price rather than one "special" night out. The Leave It To Beaver model of Dad going to work, Mom cooking at home, and the whole family eating around the dinner table, with a few "special" dining out excursions once in a while has been replaced for many families by two incomes, and grabbing Bun And Run on the way to the kids' soccer games. A generalization and exaggeration, but there's still some truth to it.

As some have noted, greater ability to cook comparable dishes at home, if need be.

Faster trend cycle, and not limited to restaurants. The pace of trends in music, fashion, and lots of other entertainment areas seem to go much faster these days, with the time from "buzz" to "bust" seemingly much shorter in a lot of cases.

More communications, so word of bad experiences gets out quicker and stays around for more people to find. Instead of a few newspaper and media restaurant critics, we're all critics now, and the "news cycle" for it is 24/7. Good news also travels fast, but it's not clear how many good reviews it takes to outweigh one horror story.

The "Big Box Store" effect. Go to (insert huge retail store here), stop at (insert chain restaurant next to huge retail store here).

The "Drive by" effect. With chain restaurants of all price levels sprouting everywhere, many people would have to drive past a multitude of restaurants to get to the "fine dining" place of choice. Who's got the time? Yes, many foodies would make the time, but still...

Economics of real estate in the current slump. If the landlord is in trouble, they may jack the rent up on the restaurant owner, who can't make a go of it at the new level. It's a game of "chicken" for the landlord - raise too much and the restaurant goes under and you have no rent. Raise just enough and they stay in business and the landlord's cash flow situation gets better.

I'm sure there are many more.

Looking back though, one wonders if the odds of any restaurant starting today surviving long enough to become a "classic" are any worse than they were when some of the "been there forever" places started. Might be an interesting statistical study.

Warthog said: one wonders if the odds of any restaurant starting today surviving long enough to become a "classic" are any worse than they were when some of the "been there forever" places started.

The restaurant business has always been very difficult to succeed in.

EEL - I am also unable to justify patronizing fine dining establishments these days. Maybe I will have a change of heart when I begin my new job;)

My husband and I love to dine out, but since losing my income, our nights out have been cut from once a week to once a month or so. Most of the restarants we frequented are either closed or they have new chefs. We've been to several places that were good previously, but aren't anymore. Then you have the over priced places with good food and poor service. if I'm going out to a nice place and spending that much for dinner, I expect good service. Give me poor service and I never go back. Places should be putting extra effort in for the people that are actually spending their money now rather than holding onto it.

I know that we are fortunate not to have lost our jobs, so we are still going out to eat at about the same rate as we ever had (which is to say, not very often). On the rare occasions we do go out, I want something special, on the one hand, and I don't want to feel ripped off, on the other. One bad memory can keep me from returning to a particular restaurant. Being accosted by a panhandler outside the Brass Elephant, for example, may have kept us from returning. Having our waiter at Corks make off with our bottle of wine with a half glass left in it rather than pouring it out for us still annoys me, years later. Unfair? Probably--but we have lots of choices and lots of places we have yet to try.

I assume the recession is hitting some cities harder than others. A few weekends ago my husband and I ate at a wonderful, pricey restaurant in Philadelphia. The place was packed. I asked one of the managers how business has been and he said it's been great ever since they opened in February.

We still eat out a good bit and believe in treating ourselves to fine dining every few months. We hope to eat at the new B&O hotel restaurant tomorrow night.

And the next time you find yourself in Philly, I highly recommend the Union Trust Steakhouse. The food was excellent and the service even better.

EEL makes a good point. I'm a good enough cook that I probably can match a fine dining restaurant meal, but it's a LOT of work! Expending that kind of energy for a celebratory meal is hard; by the time I'm ready to serve it, I'm too pooped to eat it! For holiday meals--Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter--cooking duties are spread among family members so no one has to work too hard.

We just don't have the cash to splurge on an expensive meal "just for the fun of it." When I was working, we loved to splurge now and again, but now that I'm retired, we can't afford it. I ask my husband every week to win the Mega Millions drawing so we can have the lifestyle to which we'd LIKE to become accustomed. He's tryin' ... .

I'll bet Haussner's business would be booming right now. That was high end comfort food for me.
We never go to steak houses. I can buy a whole filet for $50 and slice it into about 6 steaks--a bit of seasoning--my grill and better than almost any restaurant. I really do feel we are so much more capable of making restaurant-quality food at home now (minus the creativity or presentation), that paying exorbitant amounts induce guilt. Still, we go out maybe every other week--at least monthly--to a really good restaurant as an event.

when I lived in Pigtown, hubby and I could easily go to Meckens Cultured purl, or head to Federal Hill for chinese. Well we moved to the sticks. Gas went up, car expenses, new mortgage, you get the idea. Where previously we could hit various establishments, a) I honestly didn't know about them, b) I feel intimidated by many of the places that are mentioned here, c) I'm at a point in my life where yes I would love to go out, but the expense, drive, just leaves me cold. We have done family dinners where we have all gotten together, but with aging parents, kids in college and various schools, not to mention ahem, divorces, and irratating ex-in-laws who are invited to these get togethers it becomes too much. Grab and go becomes the norm which is unfortunate for the fine chefs in the area.

We have a very large extended "family" (a very flexible concept for us) that gets together to eat two to three times each month. Even before the economic downturn, it was far too expensive to take everyone to a nice restaraunt (one celebratory dinner could easily run over $800). So, I cook.

I enjoy the planning, preparation, and execution of the meals. When I need help, someone is always willing to pitch in. Meals run the gamut from comfort food favorites to fine dining...and fabulous deserts are usually brought by my pastry chef sister. It's like having a party every weekend!

Now my husband and I save our fine dining dollars for vacations and special occasions a deux (we have reservations at Charleston and Woodberry kitchen for our upcoming anniversary weekend). I use these experiences as inspiration for family meals later.

I have been out to the better restaurants for special occasions (my birthday, mother's day, Easter, etc), I have not been out for "just a special night out".

As my budget is tight with going to graduate school and I'm a dammed good cook, I tend to do the special dinner at home. Then again, when my boyfriend makes the "nom nom" noise throughout his meal, it's hard to say I'd rather eat out. Frankly, it makes me feel good that I have cooked us such a good meal. When school starts I'm afraid I won't have as much time for the big prep meals and I will search for less complex recipes that still produce the extra special dinner.

When we have gone out for a special date night it is often to a fine dining establishment but on a night where they have a crowd drawing special. Isabella's in Frederick does a paella special on Wednesday nights for $12. That along with only a few tapas and a cocktail cuts our usual bill there in half. So we still go for a lovely dinner out at a favored restaurant, but we do it more economically.

Time is an unrelenting opponent. Restaurants are like professional athletes. Once past their prime, they have trouble competing with fresh young contenders. Classic becomes "used to was" and to make matters worse, the regulars who once indulged their expense accounts at a favorite watering hole have retired. They're not about to spend their own savings the way they did the company's money. Meanwhile, their successors have a slew of hot new choices at which to entertain clients. If Haussner's couldn't make it -- given its legendary reputation -- it's no wonder the Brass Elephant had to hang up its culinary spikes.

DH and I are amoung the lucky ones that have kept our jobs, and our laziness factor is such that cooking a "real meal" is rare. But for us its still about time. We don't WANT dinner to take 1.5-3 hours. Fine Dining is for when we're seeing people we don't see often and intend to spend the time with them, and occassions like birthdays and anniversaries.

I think the line between really nice restaurants and what I would call "special occasion" places has blurred. Maybe 10 years ago, Henninger's would have been a special occasion place, but it is now a place we go on a week night for a lighter dinner--appetizer and salad or soup. The entrees are over $20, but the restaurant seems to have adopted more casual dress and attitude in its wait staff.

For the last few years, Chameleon has been one of our special occasion places for anniversaries and out of town guests. Because they were closed on our anniversary this year, we went to Akbar, where we are always treated well, even though it would probably not be in the "fine dining" category.

We've been meaning to go to Woodberry Kitchen, but haven't gotten there yet.

The wife and I are lucky to have pretty stable jobs right now - I've got a position funded by grants for the next 3 years, and she's a tenured educator and department chair. But between our BGE bills, gas, oil, and seemingly everything else going up, AND allocating money for daycare after she has her baby, there isn't really that much left to go around. Our jobs are stable, but certainly not high-paying (we're both "public servants"). So when we do go out, we're pretty thrifty lately. A big, extravagant night for us would be The Helmand, and we're more likely to head to Hamilton Tavern or Nanami Cafe. Fancy-pants dining really isn't in our budget, and we limit those kinds of places to very rare occasions (only a couple times per year).

Also, as has been mentioned above a couple of times, we can make really really good food at home without breaking the bank. The other night I made some lovely mahi mahi with a modified Romesco sauce (I didn't have all the ingredients) over wilted greens with a carrot gratin. For dessert, I whipped up whole wheat crepes with peanut butter and ice cream filling (mmmm...), all washed down with sparkling pear juice (she's pregnant, and I just had surgery, so...). I'm not sure what that would have cost at a restaurant, but we ate really really well for very little money at home.

When we do go out, we really lean towards places where we can get great food and drink for under $50 each (preferably well under). There really is an abundance of such places in Baltimore, I've found. Sadly, we never made it to Bicycle or the Brass Elephant (although we went to the Tusk Lounge a few times) - they were both places we always talked about visiting but never did. I'm feeling inspired to go over our list again and hit some of the places we haven't been to yet before they're gone, too...

mmmmm...sean, your menu sounds wonderful! I may have to look for a recipe for a carrot gratin...

Well the trend that hasn't really hit Baltimore down from NYC and other places is the phenomenon of great, even "foodie"ish food with a completely unpretentious atmosphere. Take for example like a Momofuku Ssam Bar, Bar Room at the Moderne, or Avec in Chicago. The food is the focus, not the experience. The strong service comes from a very knowledgeable and excited waitstaff, and bold flavor combinations.

As far as translating into what this means for Baltimore, I think the places that are succeeding are those where you can find unique ingredients and techniques but in a very relaxed and unfussy atmosphere.

Turkeybone, I think you're right. That seems to be why, in my neck of the woods, places like Clementine and Hamilton Tavern seem to be doing pretty well (although there's also less competition in NE Baltimore than downtown, Harbor East, etc).

...and it looks like I'm not alone.

I have found the food at many of the restaurants that have gotten good reviews i.e Petit Louis, Bicycle, Charleston,Chameleon Cafe etc. to be inconsistent and heavily salted. I enjoy the taste of salt but I also like other ingredients. I have found when I make it myself I can get great tasting food for a fraction of the price. Couple that with a bad economy and service that is many times indifferent until it's time to slap the check on the table with a big smile and "Thankyou!!!" and I'd rather just stay home and have a pleasant evening.

for the record i was at wooberry kitchen last night, and it didn't look like there was a recession to me. Not only was the entire inside and upstairs packed to the gills, but so was the large outside patio, and about 15 people waited at the bar to get seated (this was at 8:30pm).

we had a great meal too. certainly not a place i would go all the time because the cost makes it more of a "treat" type of place, but i feel like we got our money's worth.

how can anyone in their right mind justify fine dining with the price of steamed crabs these days?

These uncertain times have caused me to cut back on fine dining.

But even in less uncertain times, and I've said this before, I prefer places (like turkeybone describes) where I can get the "fine dining" food without having to dress up.

I have to wear a suit every day of the work week. When the weekend comes, I am tired of dressing up and just want to be comfortable - that eliminates places like The Brass Elephant or Tio Pepe or the Prime Rib - if I go out I am looking for the best place I can get "fine dining" food in casual clothes. One such place is the Hamilton Tavern, but there are others.

Dollar a piece crabs at Captain Dan's in Eldersburg Mon-Thurs nights. Local corn $1.25 (or something like that). Nice size crabs for a buck too. We didn't have them this go round, I was in the mood for scallops, but they are sure selling the heck out of them.

Which brings about what I've noted about our dining habits. I've begun to seek out places where two can dine for $20 or so. It's do-able. And, can be done well too. So far, we went to Outback, which I really don't usually like, but for a small steak, baked potato and large salad, $9.95 who can complain? Then, Captain Dan's for my scallops and my partners soft shelled crab sandwich with 2 sides each about $20. That's 2 dinners for about a quarter of what we used to spend on one.

In all fairness to the Brass Elephant and the closing of Ixia this in the world can any type of business survive on Charles St?? Our store moved out over 6 years ago when the "streetscape" project just about killed us, then I drove up the street this past week and I felt like
I should have brought a friend's Hummer to get through the mess. In 6 years streetscape has moved about 3 blocks along?? I know these restaurants were not perfect, but come on...who wants to go through that craziness and ruin a tire over dinner. Another great planning decision on the part of Downtown Partnership!! If it were the Inner Harbor it would have been completed in a weekend. Ha!

I miss Nasu Blanca in Locust Point. Also Vin was pretty upscale - over priced, but upscale.

Anyone remember Limoge Bistro on North Charles - was never there but always heard very good things about it. I believe it's Charlies Trattoria now..

Instead of replacing upscale joints with other upscale joints, I would love to see (especially in Mt. Vernon) more fun casual places where the food is still exceptional--like Iggie's on Calvert St.

I had a frustrating experience recently. I live in Centreville, MD across and my boyfriend and I like to go out for a nice meal about 1-2 times a month. We had become really fond of a place called Lisa's Small Plates in Kent Island. They were an upscale Wine and Tapas Bar with an extensive menu featuring many different genres of food to choose from. Everything was always really good, but as with tapas, the size of our bill could climb depending upon how hungry we were. The restaurant had 2 sides, a dining room side that provided a quiter setting to which both my roommate and I had taken our families to dinner before; and a bar side with high top tables, tvs and a pool table.

Recently upon returning from a trip we stopped in there on the way home to have dinner. Apparently, the dining room side of the restaurant was now closed and available for private functions. Also, the menu had been scaled back to two pages consisting of appetizers and entrees. Since then, I found out that a music duo that was supposed to be there in September has changed to a different venue that evening causing me to assume that they will no longer have musicians in there as well. It is very unfortunate that the large menu of varying dishes and the entertainment space have been taken away with the changes made to the establishment. I wish them the best, but unfortunately we feel that we will not continue to patronize them with the same frequency as before.

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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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