A look back at January and February
The biggest opening so far this year -- the new Mari Luna Bistro, across from the Meyerhoff.
The biggest happy story -- local franchisees found for Gino's Burgers & Chicken
Closings -- Mi Viejo Pueblito, in Brewers Hill, replaced by Fiesta Mexicana; Sander's Corner .
But the biggest local restaurant story so far in 2011 may be about good breaks. Mild weather, compared to last January and February, successful restaurant-week promotions and a stellar four-day Valentine's weekend have been a shot in the arm for area restaurants, still reeling in a sluggish economic climate.
One restaurant owner, describing the crowds he saw in his dining room over Valentine's Day weekend, said "It was like we were back in 2005."
Valentine's Day actually spilled over beyond the four-day weekend. Donna's at Cross Keys, for instance, had its busiest winter dinner ever the Saturday before Valentine's Day.
The organizers of the restaurant week promotions are still tabulating the final results of their member surveys. I did talk with Howard County Tourism & Promotion Director Rachelina Bonacci. She told me that Howard County's promotion stays successful by keeping the same dates each year, always beginning on the Martin Luther King Holiday.
Bonacci also told me that restaurants and diners respond to the themes for the winter ("local global flavor") and summer (farm to table") promotions, which are designed to set Howard County's promotion apart from the ones put on by its neighboring counties. And by allowing individual restaurants to set their own prices, a roadside tavern like the Woodstock Inn, a favorite of bikers, can participate alongside fancier places like the Elkridge Furnace Inn.
My insight is this: Good promotions and good weather tend to help successful restaurants and to have less effect on less successful restaurants.
In Baltimore, City Cafe reported an enthusiastic response to the $10 gift certificates handed out during Restaurant Week. Aldo's reported one of its busiest restaurant weeks ever, with some customers returning "3 or 4 times" for one particular dish -- a Tuscan-grilled rib eye with black truffle sea salt.
Restaurant weeks are here to stay, at least for a while, because they work.
The Baltimore Sun photo accompanied a 2005 review of the Woodstock Inn