Since the dawn of time, some of civilization's greatest moments have been inspired by the search for a good meal.
Would Marco Polo have traveled halfway across the world if not for the lure of kung pao shrimp? Would Caesar have held the same stature without his salad? And didn't Columbus stumble across America while going for Indian takeout?
In the modern era, the hunt for the perfect dining experience continues, with the average American relying on restaurant fare nearly four times a week. And it isn't just a matter of burgers and fries -- or, in Baltimore's case, crabs and beer. Food, for many, has become a consuming passion.
With that in mind, the Real Dish makes its debut. Twice a month we'll be looking at the brave new world of dining in and around Baltimore. From the English pub brewing by Camden Yards to the new bistro opening in Mount Washington, we'll have news, gossip and tales from the town where seafood is king.
The buzz around Baltimore is that the Belvedere's venerable John Eager Howard Room will reopen on Thursday as -- are you sitting down? -- a nightclub. It's true, say husband-and-wife partners Dion Dorizas and Maryann Bennett, who also run the Owl Bar and the Skyline Cafe on the 13th floor. They promise that their latest, Club Renaissance, will have a dance floor, three sitting areas, two bars and a disc jockey's booth on the balcony where Wallis Warfield Simpson had tea.
Food won't be forgotten, either: There will be a light menu of fried calamari, baked brie and crab cakes.
On a smaller scale, chef Gino Troia, of the beloved Cafe Troia, plans to get into the bar business. By Thanksgiving, he hopes to expand his Towson bistro by some 50 seats and open a wine bar with light fare, live jazz (on the weekends) and 25 kinds of grappa, the powerful Italian spirit so trendy now.
Speaking of Italian food, the wood-burning stoves are heating up around Baltimore with the news that Sfuzzi (pronounced foo-zee) is opening in the IBM building downtown on Nov. 23. (That's dinner only; it opens for lunch the following week.)
The chain's 15th restaurant will feature its signature focaccia, pasta and brick-oven pizzas, but look for a Baltimore twist in the architecture: a frieze with Maryland crabs, clipper ships and an Oriole bird. Coordinating the opening is Paula Rome, who recently helped put Nickel City Grill, Silver Diner and Mick's on the local map. A party, co-sponsored by Esquire magazine, is planned for early December.
Owings Mills will get a new Northern Italian restaurant this spring when Linwood and Ellen Dame open a place next door to Linwood's Cafe-Grille. The trattoria will be more casual and less expensive (entrees will range from about $10 to $18) than its New American counterpart. Their existing gourmet shop will broaden its carryout menu to include breads, Italian dishes and more.
Linwood's helped popularize the exhibition kitchen -- where diners get to watch chefs grill and saute in style -- but what about an exhibition brewery? That's exactly what's being built at the Wharf Rat Camden Yards. Bill Oliver and his family, who took over the P.J. Cricketts location about six months ago (they still have the Wharf Rat in Fells Point), are turning it into a nouveau British pub. By December, diners will get to watch the family recipe for Oliver's Ale brew and bubble while they eat.
The word is there's a hunk in the kitchen at Windows restaurant. The handsome cook happens to be 30-year-old Jay Swift, who recently left the Polo Grill to become restaurant chef at the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel. Along with hotel chef Guy Reinbold, he's planning to revamp the menu -- and even replace the china -- by early January. The Baltimore native has lots of experience in the business, having apprenticed for three years with Rudy Speckamp of Rudys' 2900.
But like a true professional, Mr. Swift downplays his good looks. "I just think about what I'm doing with my hands," he says.
Handsome guys and savvy restaurateurs Jim Mikula and Tom Douglas are building on the success of Weber's on Boston. Literally. Next month they're opening the second floor with a working fireplace, stamped brass ceiling and parlor. It's primarily for private parties and business functions but may add 80 seats on the weekends. Look for chef Bob Morgan to also introduce a new menu: Smoked lamb and barbecue quesadillas, anyone?
If all goes as planned, the Mount Washington space that was Cafe des Artistes will live again as McCafferty's by the end of the month, says Patrick Raum, general manager. If the name of this American bistro rings a bell with local sports fans, that's because one of the owners, Donald McCafferty Jr., is the son of the late Colts coach.
Turkey lovers, listen up. Restaurant consultant/therapist Diane Neas makes her TV debut tomorrow on WMAR-TV's "Morning Show." In time for Thanksgiving, she finds her favorite hot turkey sandwich around town. In future appearances, she may turn her taste buds to ice cream sodas and diner food.
Trading in a fork for a microphone has its challenges, though. "I'm doing something different with my mouth," she says, "talking instead of tasting."
And this just in: Red Hot & Blue, the Virginia-based chain, has set its sights on Owings Mills for its first Baltimore area outpost. The company just decided on the location, so you'll have to wait several months before licking your fingers over barbecued ribs there.
Have news about local restaurants, chefs or clubs? Call (410) 332-6156 or write the Real Dish, Baltimore Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, 21278.