Not so long ago, I was telling people I thought the tapas trend had run its course. Small-plate restaurants like Pazo in Fells Point were adding regular entrees to their menus, and new places seemed to be going back to the traditional appetizer and dinner entree model.
One unexpected consequence of the economic downturn may be the resurgence of tapas. With full-sized entrees costing upward of $30 in what were once moderately priced restaurants, customers are taking another look at those small plates. Here are examples of what they're finding:
* Some places have added small-plate specials on slower nights, like Donna's at Cross Keys, which has Tapas Tuesdays.
* Cafe Hon in Hampden has just announced an "Economic Stimulus Menu" of $9.99 small plates and Fannie Mae mini desserts for $1.99.
* New restaurants like Crush in Belvedere Square have "appetizers" that are really little meals in themselves. Crush offers lamb chops in hoisin barbecue sauce, risotto with grilled shrimp.
And now Baltimore has its first new tapas restaurant since La Tasca opened in the Inner Harbor almost three years ago. Tapabar (413 High St., 410-223-3020) in Little Italy sounds like the real deal. Although the owner, Carolina Llaguno, is a native of Venezuela, she's using her Spanish grandmother's recipes to create her small plates.
"It's not a Mexican restaurant," is the first thing Llaguno says when she answers the phone and realizes she's talking to a food writer. Apparently she's gotten incorrect media coverage elsewhere, and feels strongly about it.
The emphasis is on fresh produce in her tapas, Llaguno says, "from farm to table." It's a motto we're hearing from a lot of restaurants these days, but one we can never hear too often.
Located where Cafe di Roma used to be, Tapabar is small, with only 10 tables in the downstairs bar. An upstairs dining room should open soon.
Tapas are available starting at 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, with lunch in the works. Right now an "international breakfast" is also served on the weekend, and there's a wine tasting on Wednesdays.
Dine out for life: Tomorrow is Moveable Feast's Dining Out for Life event. If you eat at one of the participating restaurants, at least 20 percent of the proceeds will go to help feed those in our community with AIDS or other life-threatening conditions like breast cancer. Go to diningoutforlife.com/baltimore for a list of restaurants.
Wine and cheese: Ah, the power of the Internet. Why, you might wonder, would a wine shop be called "Vino" but spell it V-no? Vino.com was taken, explains Mark Bachman, who owns the new shop along with his wife, Kristina.
Only a couple of weeks old, V-no (905 S. Ann St., Fells Point, 410-342-8466) is one of the most unusual wine shops we've come across. And not just because of its name. The wines for sale, all priced under $30, are arranged by style: "crisp white," for instance, and "bold reds." (There is a "cellar" group of more expensive wines.) "Green" wines, as in organic and local, have been given extra consideration, and make up about 25 percent of the stock.
V-no, open Tuesday through Sunday - with flexible hours for the moment - has a seven-day tavern license, which means you can drink your wine or beer at one of the few tables there or take it home. The wines by the glass number 14 right now, although that number should increase.
As for food, V-no offers a cheese plate with breads from Bonaparte, the bakery next door; "home"-roasted nuts; and locally made chocolate truffles and savory tarts.
"We've made it a simple place for people to come in and enjoy wine," says Mark Bachman.
Eat, drink, shop: It's a retail shop. It's a cafe. It's a wine and espresso bar. It's ... A Little Bit of Tuscany (84 E. Main St., Westminster, 410-857-4422). OK, maybe that was a cheesy lead-in, but you have to admit the combination sounds super.
Rose Seaman, who owns the place with her husband, Kirk, has filled the shop part of A Little Bit of Tuscany with home accessories, table settings, books, jewelry, and bath and body lotions, all from Italy.
But it's also a real cafe with gourmet pizzas, panini, bruschetta, imported cheeses and olives, pastries, Italian wines and beers and specialty coffee drinks.
"I wanted people to be able to walk around the shop with a glass of wine, look at pretty things and have a bite to eat," Rose Seaman says.
The building, which was once a dry goods store, has been completely renovated, with new ceilings, floors and lighting, and painted in the warm colors of the Mediterranean.
A Little Bit of Tuscany is open noon to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, and until 10 p.m. Thursday through Saturday.
More lunch: Summer is pretty much over, but we can at least be glad that some of our local eating places are open for lunch again. The French restaurant Brasserie Tatin (105 W. 39th St., Homewood, 443-278-9110) is serving lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Soup's On (842 W. 36th St., Hampden, 410-235-9801) is back with its fine homemade soups from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday.