Baltimore Sun reviewer Christina Tkacik thought the crab cakes at The Choptank were bland, the french fries were “cardboard-stiff,” the calamari had too much Old Bay (if there is such a thing) and the atmosphere was stuffy.
On the last count, she attributed a particular haughtiness to receiving the cold shoulder at the valet stand when she pulled up with an older Toyota–although a newer Volvo came in behind her and was promptly attended to–dining as a political fundraiser happened nearby, and seeing people pick crabs in suits.
And the cherry on top: The Atlas Restaurant Group, operators of The Choptank, denied access to a Baltimore Sun photographer, Tkacik writes, because of coverage from September on a dress code–decried by social media critics as racist–the eatery tried to implement during its highly anticipated opening.
She awarded one star to the seafood restaurant in Broadway Market.
In response, The Atlas Restaurant Group shared a post by owner Alex Smith on its Facebook page calling the review a hit piece against himself and his portfolio of restaurants and bars, citing her references to the dress code controversy and political hand-pressing. Tkacik also noted Smith’s political donations to Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young.
“Instead of celebrating the 14 concepts we have opened and the over 1000 local people we employ in Baltimore alone, Christina Tkacik takes stabs at pretty much everything in the restaurant including myself,” Smith wrote. “I’ve never met the lady, she obviously knows nothing about food.”
And he contested the knock on the crab cakes, pointing to an opinion posted by Suzanne Loudermilk, a former critic at the daily paper who in September said The Choptank “has maybe the best crab cake in Baltimore (and I’ve eaten a lot of local ones).”
There was one part of the review he liked. Smith boasted he was “glad that you at least told the readers that we didn’t even allow you on our property to take photographs.”
Atlas, he added, cut off the paper from receiving press releases and attending openings after the editorial board skewered the dress code, which included provisions such as “no athletic wear admitted after 10 p.m.,” “baseball hats must be worn forward” and “pants must be worn at the waist.”
“The original dress code didn’t explicitly say that African Americans or other minorities aren’t welcome at the eatery,” the editorial board wrote back in September. “But the way the code was written definitely left the impression that they were the group of patrons the Atlas Restaurant Group, owner of the crab house and several other Baltimore restaurants, was trying to target.” A note said management could “enforce these policies within its discretion.”
The Choptank ended up revising its policy in response to the controversy.
Although Tkacik’s job as a critic is inherently opinionated, she operates independently of the editorial board, as is the case for the rest of the newsroom.
But in the midst of the dress code dust-up, Tkacik did what any journalist would do and reported a story, talking with numerous sources from both sides of the issue–a range that included Smith, Atlas representatives and the mayor defending the dress code and the president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, local writer D. Watkins and Bar Vasquez general manager Charisse Nichols raising questions.
The story noted that such dress codes are legal so long as they are being enforced equally, and quoted Smith saying it was “unfortunate” the restaurant was being scrutinized after Atlas spent money to restore part of Broadway Market and hired 100 people.
But it also had Watkins musing on a designer sneaker ban at another Atlas property, The Bygone.
“C’mon, dog,” he told the paper. “It’s kind of clear.”
UPDATE: In a post this afternoon, The Choptank said it is taking 25 percent off the crab cake sandwich platter all weekend long “in honor” of the review.
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