Tag Archives: Restaurants

House Rules: Buybacks

We’re loathe to admit that New York City has ever done anything better than Baltimore. Sure, they do everything bigger, but that’s not necessarily better.

It almost killed us when we were forced to admit that they’ve outdone us for happy hour, and it hurts us again when we have to discuss the matter of buybacks.

The next round's on the house, Hon.

For those unfamiliar, a ‘buyback’ is a round of drinks received on the house after buying a few rounds in a row. The idea of the buyback is an old tradition which is present in bars nationwide, and even internationally, but nowhere is it more ingrained than in New York. In Manhattan and its surrounding boroughs, a round on the house is almost an entitlement in any bar worth drinking in. Instead of giving bartenders ‘shift drinks’ to comp at discretion, it’s not unusual for management in NYC to have stated policies on buybacks for employees and patrons to follow.

Granted, it is a decidedly old school practice, and like much of old New York is barely fighting to stay alive. This is why we were so pleased to discover by accident a website devoted entirely to finding and documenting the best bars for buybacks on the internet.

BuybackNYC.com never appears to have made it out of beta, and their scant blog hasn’t been updated in some 14 months. Still, their FAQ page is an excellent primer on the culture of buybacks, and the idea of mapping buyback bars is absolutely genius. We’re sorry it didn’t work out better.

Here in Charm City, people are currently still in a months-long frenzy over ‘deals’ sites like Groupon, LivingSocial, Chewpons, CityCents, Mobile Deals, Google and Facebook deals, etc. Personally, we’ve never understood the appeal of most of these, as a lot of them are designed to get you to buy something you wouldn’t otherwise, and to spend more than the value of the ‘deal.’ How many times has a $10 for $20 worth of food coupon turned into a $50 restaurant check? Many, we’d wager. Then there’s a whole host of restrictions and limitations to deal with, not to mention the problem of places closing down before you’ve got a chance to claim your deal.

We’ve always been more partial to specials that are offered directly by bars and restaurants themselves, and we’ve long admired the potential for sites and mobile apps like 600 Block, which like BuybackNYC is still in beta, and seldom if ever updated. At its inception, 600 Block was an invaluable tool for keeping track of the cheapest drinks in town. Unfortunately, a site like that is just too much for one or two people to keep updating daily when the only revenue is Google ads and a few local restaurant sponsorships.

The only solution we can see to the failure of such great ideas is is the publication of a fixed list, with regular specials that recur year in and year out, or to make happy hour calendars a wiki, which can easily be updated and edited by anyone, whether they happen to work in a bar or not. We’d love to see a wiki buybacks site here in Baltimore, to help prevent certain neophytes from walking into bars and behaving like a hipster dufus.

In the meantime though, we’ll continue to find our buybacks and happy hours the old fashioned way; on a barstool.

Advertisements

2 Comments

Filed under House Rules

If The City Shuts Down Food Trucks, What’s The Next Big Trend in Lunch?

If traffic has seemed to move faster and parking spaces have become more available in the last 24 hours, it might be because Baltimore City sent some obscure bureaucrat out onto the streets at lunchtime yesterday, a day after this article was published, to shut down the ever-growing fleet of food trucks that has been dieseling all over downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods the last couple of years.

We were able to watch the whole thing unfold on Twitter, as well as following the live updates on the Dining at Large Blog on the Sun’s website. It almost seems as if social media, the food trucks’ greatest advertising asset, could also be their downfall, since the Mayor is on Twitter too, and can see exactly where to levy fines. Of course, twitter is a good way to yell at city officials as well, and there was no shortage of that until the operators of food trucks, the upscale ones anyway, were granted an indefinite reprieve later in the afternoon.

One of Charm City's many mobile nosheries.

The Chop is a bystander in all of this. We typically aren’t around downtown during the lunch hour, and even if we were, we’d favor an actual restaurant like Werner’s or Burke’s. (Oops. Guess we’re SOL, huh?) We see food trucks mostly as a trend and a fad, and we don’t think Baltimore could support many more than it has now anyway. In the meantime we’re kind of dubious about the whole notion of ordering and eating as quickly as possible. If you’re not getting a full hour for lunch, you’re getting screwed. We’d rather stick with table service.

It got us wondering though… if the streets were emptied of food trucks, what will be the next great trend for lunch in Baltimore?

Tugboats and gentrification have historically not mixed in Baltimore. Maybe food is the missing link.

Tugboats. Part of the appeal in the food truck movement has always been the same appeal offered by the likes of Bourdain and his ilk, namely co-opting the culture of the working class and repackaging it for the leisure class. Take for example the lowly hot dog. Traditionally, a hot dog truck would be limited to places like construction sites, quarries and Bethlehem Steel, and workers would settle for hot dogs because their jobsite site was inaccessible, and they were likely too dirty to sit down in a real restaurant even if they could get to one. The hot dog was ground up pig guts, two for a buck, not something that was “finished with onion and tomato jam” or listed at “market price.”

Tugboats have long been renowned for their excellent food, and they’ve all got galleys already built right in. This was the next logical step in foodie fads anyway, wasn’t it? We can see it now, some enterprising chef steaming back and forth between the Inner Harbor, Fell’s Point, and the new Under Armour compound at Locust Point, with customers sitting out on the stern eating $12 bowls of pea soup and posting pictures to Facebook.

A bunch of trendy New Yorkers line up to buy junkfood from a wall.

Return of the Automat. Most people in today’s workforce are far too young to remember the automat, But it ticks all the boxes on the potential food trend checklist: Arcane and obsolete? check. Made for the Poor, re-sold to the Rich? check. Plain food with the potential for dressing up needlessly? check. A novelty which is more about the experience than the menu? check. Nostalgia for something you never lived through? check. Potential to overcharge? That’s a check, my friend.

There’s even a template to follow. It seems New York City has a shiny new upscale automat on the formerly gritty Saint Mark’s Place, complete with ‘opulent brownies’ and ‘Tijuana Taco Krokets.’ Their over-designed website even features a full page of schmoopy media gushing. Since Baltimore pretty much stole the whole foodie-food truck idea from NYC anyway, we might as well pony up $200k and jump on the automat franchising opportunity before the trend peaks.

Lexington Market is "ripe" for gentrification.

Lexington Market. Lexington Market has long been ripe for gentrification by the downtown lunch crowd, yet in 220 years of operation, it’s managed to retain its character. ‘Authenticity’ is at a premium these days though, and it could be the only thing that’s saving Lexington Market from an influx of suburban office workers is the fact that Polock Johnny’s isn’t nearly as adept at rebranding, merchandising and franchising as say, Ben’s Chili Bowl has been.

Of course, it’s kind of tough to repackage the working class experience with all those pesky working class folks hanging around and ruining it for the rest of us. If Lexington Market is ever going to become Baltimore’s hot new food destination, we’re going to have to cut off bus and subway access, and add some valets to the garages. After all, that’s not the safest neighborhood for parking your Prius. Why do you think you don’t see more food trucks there?

2 Comments

Filed under Chop Rants!

God Save the Queen!

Today is Saint Patrick’s day, Baltimore. It’s that most drunk and sloppy of meaningless phony holidays which are completely insignificant and thoroughly unenjoyable. We’re already on record as being against drinking holidays and the rabble they produce as a matter of principle, and all of this green and phony-baloney Irish crap doesn’t sway our opinion in the least. Throughout history the Irish have shown themselves to be little more than illiterate Papist subsistence farmers, no better than, say, Guatemala when you really think about it. Instead of ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish,’ we prefer ‘Kiss my ass, I’m American!’

Rather than swill green beer and play at being some sort of drunken foolish hooligan, we’re intending to mark today in the manner we think most proper… a celebration of all things English.

The Chop celebrates England, in all her glory.

With the closing of Canton’s Tyson’s Tavern last Fall, the area’s base of proper English establishments was reduced by a third. Fortunately, two British outposts remain in Central Maryland as a testament to and a reminder of the greatness of the English nation.

If you’re south of the city, Union Jack’s in Columbia is about as British as it gets this side of the Atlantic. We’ve never been, but the photos on their site remind us instantly of some of the pubs we saw in the high street on our trip to Southampton. With a full menu, some 60 beers, and four distinct spaces, there’s little reason to leave once you’re settled in.

If Howard County is a stretch though, you can still get your full fix of all things Anglo at Brighton’s. Hidden away on the second floor of Light Street’s Intercontinental Hotel, Brighton’s is something of an ironic contrast when compared with Union Jack’s. Although it’s in the heart of the city, the ambiance here is decidedly more upscale with something of a country feel to it. It wouldn’t take much suspension of disbelief to arrive around tea time and swear that you’d walked into a country estate, just after the hunt. It also offer’s close proximity to one of the city’s very best bars, the Explorers Lounge. The martinis here may be damn close to $20, but it’s a guaranteed lock that you’ll be able to drink one in peace without encountering a single one of the tossers and punters about in Federal Hill.

If you’re not as flush as all that though, you can still celebrate the same way we plan to: by donning our Arsenal jersey and spinning a Billy Bragg record while whipping up a vegan shepherd’s pie or a bread pudding, and settling into it with a James Bond flick and a pukka dry martini.

(We’ll keep admiring the English right up until about the Fourth of July, at which time of course we’ll conveniently remember our own Yankee superiority, which bows to no one and takes pride in being a citizen, not a subject.)

1 Comment

Filed under A Day in the Life of the Chop, Chop on the Spot

House Rules: Credit Card Roulette

The Chop is not typically given over to gambling. We used to frequent Pimlico when the horses were running, and we’re loathe to back out of a bar bet if we’re absolutely sure that it was Paul Rodriguez who co-starred in DC Cab and not George Lopez. Aside from that though, we tend to eschew games of chance believing the odds are always in favor of the house.

So it may be a bit uncharacteristic of us to come out and endorse credit card roulette, but endorse it we do, and heartily.

CCR is great for fancy restaurants. Just make sure you don't eat like a horse...

For the uninitiated, credit card roulette is a game played by a group of friends out dining or drinking. When the bill comes, all parties at the table produce a credit card, which cards are then shuffled and one is picked at random, usually by a waiter or busboy. The owner of the card picked is then gracious enough to pick up the entire check, while everyone else’s card finds its way back into their wallets unswiped.

Credit card roulette is not new, per se, as the earliest reference to it we found in a quick Google search was 2006. It is however new enough that it has yet to gain much in the way of popularity. Despite a few mentions here and there on TV and in the movies and print media, many people have still never heard of it, and those who do know about it often balk. With the great recession taking hold in mid-2007, most people out there were lucky to be eating at all, let alone in restaurants, and that’s to say nothing of picking up the whole table’s bill. We’re slowly crawling out of that mire though, and we hope that 2011 will be the year that CCR really takes off as a social phenomenon.

Granted, it’s not for everyone. For those who go out often enough though, and who tend to go out with the same groups of friends on a regular basis, the rewards easily outweigh the risks. Hell, we endorse paying the bill out of sheer generosity if you can swing it. The reaction to a surprise check pick-up can range anywhere from genuine gratitude to outright awe. If you’ve never felt this from your guests (and at this point they are your guests), you owe it to yourself at least once. Even as a winner (loser) of credit card roulette though, a hearty round of thanks and appreciation are still your due.

Another great aspect of this game though, and the main reason we endorse it with so much gusto is because of the social bonds it can create and nurture. If nothing else, it’s an inducement for the loser to invite everyone else back out for another meal in the hopes of getting back to breaking even. After a few meals are exchanged and it all evens out (and maybe a few new marks get to pay once in a while) the whole thing becomes more of a gentlemen’s society and rotating supper club than anything else. And hey, who doesn’t like a free meal once in a while.

What about you? Have you played credit card roulette before? Won? Lost? Was the loser a sport or did they get all huffy about it. would you try it again? Let us know in the comments.

2 Comments

Filed under House Rules

House Rules: Servers and Bartenders, Put Away Your Cell Phones.

We don’t usually embrace curmudgeonly rants on this blog. Even though we’ve got a category for rants, only a couple of those entries could actually properly qualify as one, and even so they’re not the sort of rants that are full of expletives and exclamations.

It is Baltimore Restaurant Week though, and while we were talking about restaurants yesterday it got us to thinking. We have just one simple idea to impart to you today: waiters and waitresses need to put away their goddamn cell phones while they’re on shift.

OMG! It's my BFF on BBM!

We understand that servers are people, and that most people are assholes about their phones. Since we bought a Blackberry we’re on it all the time. We also understand that servers are not defined by their jobs and that they have more interesting things to do than to bring us extra mayo and a free refill. We get it. We know that there’s some pretty cool parties going on tonight, and that you’re only doing this shit until you get a break in your field and that degree starts paying out like a slot machine. Besides, it only takes a second to look at your phone so what’s the big deal, right? Yes we know that. But we also know this:

“Whatever you are, be a good one.” -Abraham Lincoln

It’s hard to argue with Honest Abe’s logic, and whether you’re in a white tablecloth Michelin starred restaurant or a greasy diner, a certain amount of professionalism is called for. If you came to the table to take our order and we brought out a cell phone and checked our email, that would be pretty rude, and there aren’t many servers that we know of who would bear it with a smile.

We’ve even noticed a rash of phone-checking by servers in restaurants whose policies forbid cell phone use by patrons.

Every time we’re eating or drinking and we see a server at the waitstand, cash register, or end of the bar checking his or her phone, it’s just, to us anyway, a great reminder that our table is not really a priority, and that that person would much rather be somewhere else doing something else with someone else.

Just as most restaurant employees are relegated to smoke outside the back door, kind of near the dumpster, so should the nasty habits of twitter, facebook, and IM be relegated to out-of-sight areas of the building, or simply discontinued entirely. A server who’s not preoccupied with phone messages is a more efficient and better-tipped server.

Leave a comment

Filed under House Rules

House Rules: Making Multiple Restaurant Reservations

Getting a table at your favorite restaurant is seldom a pressing problem in the Baltimore restaurant scene. The only place that ever seems to have much of a wait is the interminable, befuddling Cheesecake Factory at Harborplace. They might as well call that place the Waiting Factory. We never understood it. Apparently suburban fatties really like their cheese in cake form, and are willing to queue up for it.

Anyway, while waits aren’t generally a problem, there are certain nights when restaurants do crowd up. Baltimore Restaurant Week is now in full swing, and one of the busiest dining nights of the year, Valentine’s Day, is right around the corner. On big dining evenings like that, most people just pick out their favorite place, zero in on the hot new buzzed-about spot, or pick the nicest restaurant they can afford, try to get a reservation, and then hope the kitchen and waitstaff don’t get horribly backed-up in the weeds. We’ve got a better idea.

If you want a table for two for Valentine’s Day, you should have reserved not one, not two, but six tables last week. (Or you can still try to do it right now.)

Hear us out on this. Reservations are free to make. It doesn’t cost you anything at all. They’re also very easy to make if you are acting well in advance. We’d never suggest that you make a reservation in bad faith and hold up the table, we’re just saying that the restaurant business is business, and your dealings with the restaurant are, in a sense, business dealings.

You’re in competition for a place at the table, literally, with other customers, and making three, four or half a dozen reservations early will place you at a competitive advantage against them. As the date draws closer and the prix fixe menus are released, the New Year’s entertainment is announced, or your after-dinner plans are finalized you can better make your decision, a business decision, on where to dine.

After you’ve decided where to dine, you can easily cancel those reservations you’re not going to use. Remember, it’s just business. The hostess or floor manager is not your boss. Neither are they your parents, college professor or landlord. You don’t need a good reason to cancel a reservation. You don’t even need a poor excuse. You’re the boss. When it comes down to it, the restaurant and the other diners may even be relieved and happy to see a table open up at the last minute and get some breathing room.

As an added benefit, you may be able to help out someone you know by virtue of your advance planning. Maybe a friend of yours screwed around and forgot to make that Valentine’s reservation until too late. Maybe one of your in-laws was going to be out of town, and now will be staying around, but stuck eating at Sip and Bite. You can always tip them off to one of your extra reserved tables, with the restaurant being none the wiser. If you do this often enough, you’re going to be using made up names anyway. Just be sure to give each reservation the same name, as to avoid confusion, and change that name the next time you go out to eat.

Leave a comment

Filed under House Rules

House Rules: The Soft Opening

For some people a new year can also mean a new business venture. Whether you’re a national bank or restaurant chain buying up properties in a new market or a little guy opening a humble shop on a main street corner, your first instinct might be to hire a PR firm and an ad agency, build a lot of buzz, excitement and goodwill, and pull out every gimmick in the book from free iPads to air dancers and spotlights to midnight madness doorbusters. We say save it.

The Chop fully endorses and approves of the soft opening.

Baltimore is a city of small businesses and corner places in which you are your reputation, and reputations are still made by word of mouth. People in this town tend to be pretty savvy about what works and what doesn’t, even to the point of passing judgment on certain shops, cafes and bars without ever having been inside.

Word of mouth can make a bar legendary. Worked for this place.

This might seem counter-intuitive, but this is also a town of very few surprises. We’ve been just about every place that’s worth going, and the truth is that we’ve seldom been surprised. If someone says a spot has the absolute best bloody marys, they probably do. If the word on the street is that the service is terrible, you can believe that it is. And if a place gets a reputation as a neighborhood’s best kept secret, you’d be much encouraged to get yourself in there as often as possible.

Granted, in this day and age word of mouth is also word of email. It’s word of tweet and word of status update, as the folks at Cafe Hon are finding out. The bottom line remains the same though, if you’ve got the goods you’ve got a good reputation. You can hire all the PR people and social media strategists you want, but none of them can do for your business what a few good words, honestly spoken from a trusted source will do.

So we say skip the big grand opening, no matter what you’re opening. Don’t bother with the 60% off sales and the double-happy happy hours. Forget about the groupons and ad campaigns and luring critics in the door and all of that nonsense.

Just hang out your shingle, open your doors, and offer your offerings as best you can. Baltimore will do the rest for you.

2 Comments

Filed under House Rules