We Found Harbor East’s Best-Kept Secret

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This waterfront corner of Harbor East is closed to traffic and dark even in midday: An exoskeleton of scaffolding casts shadows down Lancaster Street. There’s no sign, only window lettering informing passers-by this isn’t just any corner. It’s Keystone Korner.

Keystone Korner, says music director Todd Barkan, is the “wonderful marriage of food and music,” the result of a collaboration between two legends in their respective industries. Chef Robert Wiedmaier was awarded a Michelin star and runs more than a half-dozen restaurants in Washington, D.C. Barkan was recognized at the Kennedy Center as a “jazz master,” the highest award available to jazz musicians, what Barkan calls the “Nobel Prize for jazz.”

Keystone Korner

His legendary San Francisco “psychedelic- era” jazz club — after which Baltimore’s Keystone Korner is named — hosted jazz legends Miles Davis, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, McCoy Tyner, Freddy Hubbard, Barkan purchased the San Francisco bar that would become the first Keystone Korner after approaching the owner about hiring his band. The owner instead suggested Barkan buy the bar. Barkan, just 25 at the time, agreed. After the pioneer Keystone Korner closed in the early ’80s, Barkan went on to manage the Boys Choir of Harlem, run the jazz program at Lincoln Center and produce more than 800 jazz recordings.

Barkan met Wiedmaier 16 months ago at Wiedmaier’s restaurant Marcel’s, which hosted the NEA awards dinner. They became fast friends, as did their wives. Barkan remembers saying to Wiedmaier, “Let’s start a restaurant.
We’ll have the best food, the best music in the world.”

Since Wiedmaier leased a space on Lancaster Street where he’d run a mussel bar, the two chose to open Keystone Klub redux in Baltimore. Wiedmaier calls the menu he created for Keystone Korner “retro, refined Americana,” serving classic American fare such as deviled eggs that are “kicked up a notch.”

The deviled eggs Wiedemaier mentions are described on the menu as“beet-pickled quail eggs with remoulade sauce and crispy magalista pork” and sit among the Southern-leaning American starters such as soups, salads and raw-bar offerings. Main courses range from “soul chicken” to steak to vegan tacos. At brunch, prices range from $18 to $24 for entrees and include breakfast offerings such as omelets and the “Southern breakfast waffle” and entrees such as crab cakes and shrimp and grits. The restaurant has a happy hour as well, with drink and menu specials such as pork sliders, deviled eggs, truffle fries and oysters.

Pan-seared scallops with potato-bacon has and mustard sauce

Wiedmaier says he and Barkan look forward to trying new genres in the club, which opened in spring. “We’re going to have a lounge lizard night,” he says, which will be heavily laden with Burt Bacharach classics. The club has already hosted Latin jazz nights, and “Tuesdays, we have the Baltimore Jazz Collective, featuring the greatest players in the area,” he says. Their set, he adds, is followed by a jam session.

“We just had a four-night run of Eddie Palmieri, the king of Latin jazz who is returning for several shows in December,” Barkan says. His hope is that Keystone Korner will help solidify and grow Baltimore’s devoted jazz fans. “It’s something to do for people,” he says. “To give life meaning. All we have is the love we share.”

For Barkan, that love is music. Although he plays piano, his “real instrument is the jazz club,” he says. But he never neglects the piano for long. “I played this afternoon for half an hour just to keep my soul together.”

However, while opening a club in “New York or San Francisco is one thing,” he says, “Baltimore is still in the process of becoming.” According to Barkan, there hasn’t been a jazz club “of any consequence or duration” since the mid-’80s.

“By far this is the most challenging market I’ve ever had to work in,” he says. “It’s the biggest challenge of my whole career.” But because of that, it’s also “the most gratifying.” He hopes the club is a “healing place for the environment. I know I’m doing something that helps the area out.”

In this corner of Harbor East, my group comprises the entire audience for jazz brunch on this Sunday holiday- weekend morning. This may be because jazz brunch is hard to find on Keystone Korner’s website calendar. Having learned of the jazz brunch at another event, I had to Google “jazz brunch Keystone Korner” to find a menu, then call the restaurant to inquire about the hours.

Alone — and, let’s be honest, loving it — my party of six enjoyed the best crab eggs Benedict we’ve ever had while extraordinary pianist Michael Price played just for our table.

Making an autumn leaves cocktail with sweet vermouth and bourbon

Although signs on the table directed us to keep quiet during the performance, we couldn’t keep quiet about our delectable food, passing plates and insisting our friends try our dishes.

As Price played, he chatted with us, and we admitted to him we didn’t know a lot about jazz. After our private performance, he gave us a private lesson in his art.

Jazz, Price told us, “starts with blues. The music that is American is not from Europe. It is from slavery.” Without it, “you would have had no rock and roll, no Van Halen. If it wasn’t for slavery you would be doing a minuet. When you’re getting your ass beat down to red meat, you are screaming, and what’s coming out is blues. That’s how the blues was born.”

“What we’re doing out here is speaking a language,” Price says. “It’s a real language.”

He grew up listening to jazz legends such as Fats Waller and Louis Armstrong. He left home at age 15 and dropped out of high school but returned to school to earn music degrees later in life. Seeing Reuben Brown play at One Step Down, “a small dingy place in Georgetown,” inspired Price to seriously study jazz.

“When I came out of Boston down here and saw him, I was floored. He’s known all over the world in serious jazz circles. He taught me a lot,” Price pauses and smiles sheepishly. “He doesn’t teach.” But Price wheedled and persisted until Brown relented, a little. “He allowed me to come in. I’d sit next to the piano with a recorder.”

Each of his performances, says Price, takes him on an unpredictable journey. “A lot of what I’m doing up there is improvisation. If I can pull it off, that’s happiness,” he says, “one small moment of happiness.”

We told Price his performance at Keystone Korner was our moment of happiness. I internally debated whether to write about the club, but pragmatism won out. I wanted to keep this brunch spot secret, but Keystone Korner is one secret that deserves to be shared.

Photography by David Stuck

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