Dining amid musical chairs Restaurants: Chefs moved, names changed and big-ticket eateries were the rage.

December 28, 1997|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,SUN RESTAURANT CRITIC

What a year for area restaurants 1997 has been. You don't often find restaurant stories on the news pages unless a kitchen catches on fire or several customers get infected with E. coli.

But there was such intense interest in the high-profile Milton Inn in Sparks that its closing in September made The Sun's front page. Remarkably, the staff moved practically en masse to a new location in the Admiral Fell Inn in Fells Point. That new location, however, happened to be Savannah, known for its New Southern cuisine and its wine cellar. Tony Foreman and chef Cindy Wolf, operators of the restaurant, moved out or were forced out (depending on which version of the story you believe) and have opened Charleston in the Sylvan Learning Center office building in the Inner Harbor East. The Fells Point version of the Milton Inn has become Hamilton's.

Meanwhile, north of the city, the Milton Inn reopened with the involvement of Baltimore-area restaurateur Richard Pirone, who has owned portions of the Brass Elephant, King's Contrivance, Fiori, Country Fare Inn and City Lights. Brian Boston, lately of Peerce's Plantation, has become the Milton Inn's chef-partner.

Of course, this sort of musical chairs is a restaurant critic's dream -- lots of potentially good restaurants to review or re-review -- but people who are trying to plan a birthday dinner or redeem a gift certificate must be thoroughly confused.

And I haven't even gotten to the Oregon Grille yet.

Local celebrity chef Mark Henry is running that kitchen. He helped make the Milton Inn's national reputation before he moved to the Eastern Shore to open his own restaurant. Sadly, it closed after a couple of years, but Baltimoreans have welcomed Henry back with open arms. His new home in a beautifully renovated building near Oregon Ridge Park opened this fall and is packed most nights. The Oregon Grille is still finding its feet; but it has great promise and might have to take Restaurant of the Year honors, considering the splash it's made.

Early in the year Michael Gettier bought Hersh's Orchard Inn in Towson and moved his popular Fells Point restaurant, M. Gettier, there. He renamed it M. Gettier's Orchard Inn and changed the food from French to contemporary American.

In the spring the seafood restaurant Daniel's in Federal Hill, formerly Tabrizi's, was sold and became Corks, yet another in the surprising number of special-occasion restaurants that opened this year.

Remember when going out for Greek food used to be an automatic cheap eat, and you could count on quantity if not quality? When the chic little Black Olive opened this spring in Fells Point, Baltimore found out just how sophisticated (and, yes, expensive) Greek food can be.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the year was the new Hunters Lodge in Ellicott City. Jeffrey Crise, former chef-owner of the Ambassador, is serving fine contemporary American cuisine in an incongruously rustic log-cabin dining room.

Finally among the most notable newcomers, Baltimore got its first Morton's of Chicago, the luxury chain steakhouse; it's done remarkably well since it opened this summer.

So much for all of us who thought that people today want quick, cheap, casual and predictable when they eat out -- and that the good mid-scale chain restaurant is the wave of the future.

We did get those this year: Romano's Macaroni Grill in Timonium, Carabba's in Ellicott City, J. Paul's in Harborplace, the much-ballyhooed Hard Rock Cafe in the Inner Harbor, to name a few.

A few new ethnic restaurants opened that are worthy of mention: La Tavola in Little Italy; the city's first Senegalese restaurant, Teranga; the Ambassador Dining Room in North Baltimore, now an Indian restaurant.

And what would the year be without the opening of another Donna's -- a jazzy, brand-new one in Charles Village that's more than a coffee bar and less than a full-scale dining room?

But the big news for diners-out wasn't chains or ethnic places or even brew-pubs. Big-ticket restaurants were all the buzz.

Pub Date: 12/28/97

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