These are exciting times in the Baltimore restaurant world with new spots opening left and right. But just as quickly as new places open, other restaurants close — even places with many dedicated fans. Ask any restaurateur and they’ll give it to you straight: The restaurant business is tough. And it’s even harder for restaurants that have passed the “fresh, new hotspot” stage.
But even among those restaurants that are no longer bright and shiny, success is within reach: The Baltimore area is home to a handful of places that have been serving guests for decades.
So what are they doing right? What are the secrets to success in this famously fickle industry?
“I think the major thing is consistency,” says Brian Boston, chef and owner of The Milton Inn in Sparks, which has been operating as a restaurant for more than 70 years, 20 of them with Boston at the helm. For Boston, “consistency” means the highest quality food and service delivered to guests whether it’s their first visit to the restaurant or their 50th.
Ellen Dame, who opened Linwoods in Owings Mills with her husband, Linwood Dame, in 1988, notes that delivering a consistent product, especially over time, isn’t easy. “It requires a lot of discipline by the key people in the restaurant. It’s constant work ethic and constant oversight,” she says.
Of course, consistency doesn’t mean complacency — balancing what has “always worked” with innovation might be the trickiest part of running a restaurant with some history.
“That’s the toughest part of the business,” says Alan Hirsch, who co-owns the legendary café Donna’s in Cross Keys with Donna Crivello. “How do you continue to evolve and stay relevant? You have to keep one foot in the present and one in the future. That’s the art of it.”
At Charleston in Harbor East, which celebrates 20 years this year, chef Cindy Wolf’s menu continually changes, but some of the dishes on it have been part of Wolf’s repertoire since even before the restaurant opened, when she cooked at the now-shuttered Savannah.
“There are dishes from Savannah that often populate Charleston’s menu because people get upset if we don’t serve them,” says Tony Foreman, Wolf’s business partner at Charleston and several other restaurants around town, including Petit Louis, which has been in Roland Park for 18 years this June.
“That doesn’t mean Cindy doesn’t evolve those dishes — she does,” he continues. “And once in a while, she’’ll temporarily retire something. It has to be fun for her to do it.”
When venerable restaurants do update the menu, they take special care with what they remove and with the new dishes they introduce.
“We don’t just throw something on the menu because somebody thinks it’s a good idea,” Dame says. Instead, any proposed dishes go through several iterations and rounds of testing.
“Whatever we’re producing, we want it to be special,” she says.
Good food is only part of the recipe for a successful restaurant; to last, staff need to be top notch, too.
“In the old days, restaurants used to get white hot, then fail because the owners screwed it up, they’d have affairs, do drugs, those kinds of things,” Hirsch says. “The ownership of places like Linwoods and Charleston — they are stable, serious professionals.”
That thoughtful approach to management trickles down to the staff, both in terms of hiring and training. “We hire people we think are great people,” Foreman says. “We can teach them technical service. You can’t teach them to care.”
Running a successful restaurant also requires a certain element of luck and good timing. When Angela Tersiguel’s in-laws opened their restaurant in Ellicott City in 1975, the current “farm-to-table” trend was decades away. But for the Tersiguels, it was just a way of life, which made their approach to French cooking stand out.
“We’ve been doing that for 40 years. It’s not a trend for us,” says Tersiguel, who now runs the restaurant with her husband, Michel. “I think my in-laws were lucky to come on the scene then and have a product that was unique.”
Another key is being smart and strategic before opening, understanding your niche in the local restaurant scene and scouting out the best location.
“We’ve filled the niche of neighborhood restaurant, so people feel like they don’t have to drive far,” Hirsch says. “The Prime Rib fills that niche of glamorous steakhouse. Petit Louis and Linwoods are neighborhood restaurants, but they’re also destinations.”
Part of the success of spots like Petit Louis and Linwoods, Hirsch speculates, is driven by location. “They’re neighborhood restaurants that aren’t cheap but are smart enough to realize the neighborhoods can afford it,” he says.
Before opening Linwoods, the Dames considered opening a restaurant downtown. But at the time, people tended to flood out of the city after the workday was over, so the couple realized the suburbs might offer more consistent customer traffic and easy access for people who would rely on the restaurant for both special occasions and weeknight dinners.
“We thought, ‘We want to do great food and also want to be available as a neighborhood spot,’” Dame says. “We want to offer interesting, up-to-date food, but also if you just want to come in and have a delicious hamburger, you can do that.”
The Milton Inn is another spot that bridges the gap between neighborhood restaurant and destination dining. To encourage people to think of the restaurant both ways, Boston has tweaked his formula, adding small plates and lounge menus.
“We do have a lot of regulars who come in once or more than once a week,” he says. “Once, they might come in to have small plates in the bar, or they might come in for a celebratory dinner in the dining room.”
Having regulars is good for business, and it’s also emotionally satisfying, Dame says. “I feel like there’s a real warmth in our dining room,” she says. “People know each other, the servers know a lot of the customers, the chefs know customers. It feels good in there, like a community. It almost feels like our home.”
For Boston, engaging with guests is fun, and it’s a way to make sure he’s staying relevant and meeting his customers’ needs.
“We’ve built a lot of relationships that are long lasting,” he says. “We have a lot of people who give us suggestions. I take what they say seriously and have implemented many things guests have suggested.”
Ultimately, to remain successful over time, restaurateurs say there’s no way to fake it: You must simply love running a restaurant, or else you’ll fail.
“It’s a difficult business and easy to burn out,” Hirsch says. “But for Donna and me, all we care about is making
customers happy and making sure the food is good.”
Foreman agrees. “I think the only thing that actually works is doing it because you want to entertain people and please them,” he says. “If you do that, you’re going to continually improve and evolve what you do and engage the market and with individual clientele. That’s how you stay motivated.”
The Old Guard
Some of the best spots around town have been in business for a decade or two — or even longer. These are a few of our favorites:
Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano
Ambassador Dining Room
The Black Olive
The Brewer’s Art
The Manor Tavern
The Milton Inn
Mt. Washington Tavern
The Oregon Grille
Pappas Seafood Restaurant
The Prime Rib