Here’s the deal, Hon. The camera crews and TV host Gordon Ramsay packed their bags months ago after filming an episode of Fox’s Kitchen Nightmares at Cafe Hon. The show, centering around the Hampden restaurant and owner Denise Whiting, aired in late February to great fanfare (or, in some cases, perhaps, community warfare). It was painful to watch at times with the longtime staff speaking frankly about their boss with a word that rhymes with witch. But everyone was smiley and huggy at the end, or so it seemed.
We wondered if the makeover and Whiting’s mea culpa for trying to trademark the Baltimore endearment “Hon” was continuing to resonate once the spotlight dimmed. We think it has.
There still may be locals holding grudges, but Cafe Hon seems to have recovered as it enters its 20th year of business. On recent visits, the place was lively with diners of all stripes—families, office workers, couples, friends, and solo folks at the long counter.
The restaurant looks fresher, too. There’s an appropriate smattering of pink, the giant murals of proverbial Hon girls are fun, the flamingo chandelier and leopard-patterned booths are just kitschy enough, and the shelves with teapots add a homey flair.
The comforting setting suits the comfort-food menu. It’s the kind of place where you find Mom’s cooking with staples like meat loaf, chicken pot pie, and mac and cheese. Statuesque desserts are diner-like in size and scope.
When we stopped by for dinner, we started with “Bawlmer’s best wings.” We chose the Buffalo style as opposed to an Old Bay preparation and concur that they rank high in Baltimore wingdom. The morsels, zingy and moist, were attractively served with a sprinkle of blue cheese and carrot and celery curls. We had to ask for blue-cheese dressing, which elicited a hairy eyeball from our waitress—puzzling since it was supposed to come with the dish.
The service here is perfunctory. The waitresses, several of whom have been here for years, are pleasant in an efficient way, but they don’t seem to have time for chitchat or questions. We didn’t see Whiting during our visits, but we understand she is still a prominent presence at the restaurant on most days.
Before our entrees arrived, we also tucked into a plate of fried, cornmeal-crusted oysters. They were fresh and satisfying.
For our main dishes, we couldn’t resist the crab-cake plate. The plump patty would please any Baltimorean. But when we want to feel nurtured, we’ll go back for the country-fried pork chop. Kudos to the kitchen for cooking the chop just right. The accompanying mashed potatoes, gravy, and fresh green beans were so wonderfully ’50s.
The dessert case, filled with inches-high cakes and giant pies, is hard to resist. The luscious-looking sweets are baked on the premises. One glance, and you forget that you’re already full.
Portions are generous, too. The wedge of coconut cake with plenty of its namesake ingredient could have been a state-fair winner. And although the filling in the blueberry pie tasted canned, it was packed with flavor.
On another visit, we tried a cup of the excellent crab soup. This is the real deal with chunks of fresh vegetables and a good amount of crab meat in a spicy broth. Both native Baltimoreans at the table were very happy.
Our vegetarian dining companion didn’t go hungry, either, especially with the black-bean burger, which we’re adding to our favorites’ list. Layered with lettuce, tomato, and onion, we didn’t even miss the cow.
Homemade Old Bay chips come with the sandwiches and are delicious. In fact, they made up for a disappointing Thanksgiving sandwich. It sounded intriguing on paper—turkey, stuffing, and cranberry-mustard sauce.
In reality, it tasted more like a bland barbecue with shredded dark-meat turkey, some crumbles of stuffing, and a dab of cranberry sauce on a roll. We weren’t feeling very thankful afterward.
But a just-blended, thick vanilla milkshake put us back on track. We like that our waitress gave us the extra shake in the silver mixing container. We also got a flavor boost with the blueberry-cherry crumble pie, served warm.
On the surface, Cafe Hon appears to have followed much of the advice (aka admonitions) offered by chef Ramsay and to have surmounted its hurdles with the “Hon” trademark debacle. Or, at least, it’s lessened the aftertaste.