Gordon Ramsay will find no nightmares at Cafe Hon.
No one has any reason to believe that Cafe Hon's kitchen is the horror show that many people associate with "Kitchen Nightmares." Not all nightmares are alike. An occasional "Kitchen Nightmares" focuses on a personality problem that threatens a restaurant's well-being. Presumably, Whitings' public relations travails are what got a producer's attention.
Hardly anyone seems to remember the original Cafe Hon, a little lunchroom Whiting operated for a few years before moving across 36th Street to its current location in 1995. I used to go there on Saturday mornings and have a breakfast sandwich. For no reason I can remember, I stopped going.
I found Elizabeth Large's grudgingly positive review from 1992. "This is very much a homey little business," she wrote, "and you accept that." The review concludes, "What Cafe Hon sets out to do, which is nothing very ambitious, it does pretty well."
Two other comments stick out: About the dinner menu, Large said, "The menu is so ordinary it'll put you to sleep reading it, with its BLTs and cheese steaks." Although, Large did enjoy the egg salad on toasted cheese bread, which I remember liking, too.
And then there's this opening line: "Denise Whiting, who sells real estate and does some catering on the side, has opened a small restaurant in Hampden that probably wouldn't be getting so much publicity if it weren't for its wonderful name."
I have eaten at the new (current) Cafe Hon maybe twice. I came to be among its detractors, for the same reasons many did. The kitsch seemed forced. Oh, well. A friend who ardently dislikes Cafe Hon admitted, under duress, that visiting relatives ask to go there. They love it. Another friend, a divorced dad, brought his sons here every Wednesday for years. It never let him down.
Has the food gone downhill? Looking over old reviews from the Sun's archives, I'd say it has not. It was never great. But it has its moments.
The Baltimore Sun reviewed it positively in April 2011. "For a casual (if kitschy) restaurant, I found the food good and the service smooth. One more thing: No one called me Hon, and that was a plus."
On Wednesday, we tried a few things from the menu. The food is fair to middling, but never anything remotely bad. Like a hundred other restaurants in its same zip code, it could be much better. I hope that Ramsay can help Cafe Hon commit itself to serving a wholesome menu of comfort food steeped in Baltimore home economics.
A sympathetic designer could freshen up the main dining room, which has grown stale, in no time. The service I encountered on Wednesday night was above the Baltimore average. For the record, not a single one on the dozen or so staff I saw on Wednesday slipped me a note with HELP ME I'M BEING KEPT A PRISONER scrawled on it.