I don’t blog about food much, but I had a dining experience last night that was unusual enough to mention. The evening began in frustration and ended in an unexpectedly pleasant way. It was a cross-cultural connection of the type that I find all too rare in Baltimore.
First, the frustrating part. My wife had had a long day at work: a drive to D.C. and back, followed by hours of phone meetings. It seemed like dinner out would be appreciated. I checked on our available Groupons (de rigueur in our thrift-conscious household), found a place we both liked — and discovered it was closed on Tuesdays. Strike one. Not to worry, a LivingSocial popped up just in time, for a newish restaurant we were interested in checking out. I bought it before realizing that it wouldn’t be valid until the next day. Strike two.
Feeling unlucky, my wife sifted through other Groupon possibilities and found one for something called 2110 Bistro, a place we’d never heard of over in the Charles North neighborhood, not far from us. A quick scan of the menu indicated a quirky variety: crab cakes, “mojo” sandwiches, a number of vegan options. We are mostly vegetarian, and my daughter is a vegan — we decided to check it out and to bring the kids with us.
When we got to 2110 Bistro, our hearts sank a little bit. The front of the building was poorly lighted; it would have been easy to miss, even with the sign on the door that read, somewhat pleadingly, “We’re open.” Stepping inside, we found the place nearly empty. It was small, with a curtain separating the dining room and kitchen. The walls were dark, the lighting neither brightly cheery nor dimly romantic. The decor looked a bit like a collision between a junior high cafeteria and a small-town Southern juke joint.
But we were greeted warmly at the door and seated in rickety chairs, where we soon ordered and then waited for about half an hour for our food to arrive, wondering what we were in for.
Turned out, it was worth the wait. The crab cakes were good and served with zesty sautéed spinach. The vegan ginger curry chicken didn’t taste exactly like chicken but was delicious nonetheless. The veggie burger, fries and mozzarella sticks were all respectable.
The longer I sat there, the more I liked the place. There was funky art on the wall by an artist transplanted from Russia to Baltimore. One side of the narrow, rectangular room featured long benches with soft cushions. It had an inviting, cozy feel.
But maybe the nicest part of the meal was talking afterward with the owners, brothers named Ray and Jay. Jay did most of the cooking, while Ray served our food and chatted with us about the restaurant, which the brothers opened eight months ago. They live in Edmondson Village and used to have another restaurant, closer to home, but keeping both places going proved too much, so now they just have Bistro 2110.
OK, so the “Bistro” part may be an exaggeration. But these guys are trying hard. Their vegetarian soul food concept is distinctive and tasty. They have live music and spoken word poetry events from time to time. They are doing something good and important.
Ray and Jay are black, as is most of the neighborhood, as were the few other people who drifted in and out during the hour we spent at 2110 Bistro. We are white. And this did not seem to matter to anyone. I promised Ray I’d be back and would tell my friends about his place. Jay said nice things about my kids as we headed out the door. I wish a few more people had come in for dinner during the time we had spent there. I know the odds of new businesses surviving, and I want Ray and Jay’s place to make it.
We took a chance on 2110 Bistro, and it paid off. It resulted not just in a good meal but in a friendly encounter with people who were different from us in a number of ways — folks we would have been unlikely to meet otherwise. Experiences like this, I feel, are sadly infrequent in Baltimore, where black and white, and rich and poor, continue to move in very different worlds.
It embarrasses me that, although I live in a city that is 65 percent African-American, I know few black people personally. Many of the kinds of things I like to do seem to be torn from the pages of “Stuff White People Like”: a Hopkins Symphony Orchestra concert; a sock monkey workshop at the American Visionary Arts Museum. These things are often cheap or free, so cost is not the issue. It’s something much deeper, a brew of historical and cultural factors that can be maddeningly difficult to penetrate.
I don’t have the answers to any of this, but one thing I can say for sure is that if more families like mine spent more time in places like Ray and Jay’s, Baltimore would be a better place. I’ll be stopping in there again — maybe to sample Jay’s vegan beef and broccoli, maybe for a late-night poetry slam. I hope you will too.