Visiting Mom and Pop

Mike Cook

In the restaurant world, it is strange but true that mom and pop joints are no longer where many go for comfort and familiarity. Despite being called mom and pop restaurants, locally owned eateries no longer feel like family. We have grown accustomed to the homogenization of the chain restaurant. We know exactly what to expect in every iteration of a chain. In our eagerness to embrace familiarity though, we risk losing out on the new and different sensations that turn eating into an experience worth sharing and remembering. For diversity, creativity, and local flavor, mom and pop remain on top.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the idea of a chain restaurant. Kona Grill seems to have made the perfect addition to a barren block of Pratt Street, for instance. Sadly, few chains have the flavor of Kona's latest branch. Most chains are not only the same within their brand, but many of the brands have become remarkably similar to each other. Menus have become standardized, with a burger, chicken tenders, and Caesar salad on every chain restaurant menu in the nation, regardless of what that chain claims to specialize in. No matter how excellent the chef in a corporate restaurant, he or she is probably chained to a fixed menu.

Creativity abounds in mom and pops. Not only can you discover exciting new menu items in independent restaurants, you'll encounter creativity in all sorts of ways. Local owners offer different specials in response to Baltimore conditions or fads, something that even creative managers and chains are often not free to do. You can usually see this creativity on the very walls of a mom and pop. There are dozens of Baltimore restaurants that deck their walls with the work of local artists. Other local restaurants like Vino Rosina, Tabrizi's, or Brewer's Art embrace their locations, tying in Baltimore's ever-present brick, views of the water, or historic tin ceilings.

Locally owned restaurants are allowed to embrace this local flavor, which is sadly so lacking in the chain experience. A TGI Fridays is the same here in Baltimore as it is in Kansas City, Atlanta, or Boise. Chains do a poor job of highlighting local foods too. I have no faith in Fridays' crab cake, whether it is in Baltimore or not, and know that when local fresh fruits and vegetables come in, the locally owned restaurants are the ones to visit to enjoy them.

Some chains do encourage their managers to embrace their locale, and Maryland has its own homegrown chains, like DuClaw and Rams Head, that provide some of the best of both worlds. These, however, are the minority. Cookie-cutter chains are everywhere, and they're everywhere because we visit them. Our need for them is unfortunate, because in racing to these familiar chains we run the risk of asking chains to avoid exciting our senses, and food is all about the senses. A restaurant should be soaked in its sauces, steeped in the scent of its flavors. The people there should be individuals with opinions and ideas that can shape our enjoyment of our meal. The flavor of the restaurants itself should be memorable. When we do visit a mom and pop, we get something worth our money: a shared experience in a vibrant, memorable location.

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