Casey Jenkins took a chance five years ago, when he opened Darker Than Blue Café on Greenmount Ave. in a north Baltimore neighborhood where residents have worked hard for years to create community in the face of crime and years of disinvestment.
But Jenkins, owner and executive chef, has made his cafe a destination. All successful restaurants have at least this one thing in common, whatever their cuisine or price point – people want to eat there. That seems obvious, but it’s no small feat to whip up this intangible quality.
Jenkins’ formula becomes clearer when you enter the cozy club and watch him in action, answering the phone with the signature phrase: “…where jazz and blues meet great food.”
Jenkins sat down with me, just after the restaurant’s five year anniversary on Sept. 15th, to talk about how it all came about.
From Aquavit to Waverly
At 18, Jenkins was a cook in the Marines and surprised himself, he said, by liking the work. After completing his stint, he enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, N.Y., on the GI Bill. The CIA, as it’s known among food pros, teaches not only cooking but also wines and spirits, menu development, cost control and management.
Darker Than Blue Café
3034 Greenmount Avenue, Baltimore, MD. 21218
Open – Wed. 4-9 p.m.; Thurs., Fri. & Sat. 12 Noon – 9 p.m.;
Sun 11 a.m. – 8 p.m.
Closed – Mon. & Tues.
He honed his skills in Manhattan by working with executive chefs at the Delegates Dining Room at the United Nations and the 3-star restaurant, Aquavit.
Jenkins describes himself candidly as “a business man who is a good chef.”
“Early on I discovered that I loved being a chef and the restaurant business,” he said.
When he decided to open his own place, Jenkins said, he did his homework and chose Baltimore. “I saw the city’s potential for growth and as a likely destination for increased tourism,” he said. “I also wanted a place in a community that would welcome a restaurant that had good food in generous portions at a reasonable price point.”
Loyal customers are now his core business; he estimates that 75 percent of his guests are returning visitors.
Fine and Mellow
Part of the Café’s appeal is the fact that Jenkins is the meeter and greeter, as well as chef, caterer, art curator and musical director.
The original painting on the walls are by Baltimore artists and, this time around, give more than a nod to the jazz and blues trios and quartets that play there on Friday and Saturday nights.
The day I visited there was vibrant jazz playing in the background and a video display of art images on a screen. The downstairs seating area is comfortable, but on the small side; upstairs there is a dining area that seats 50.
First-timers may be taken aback to discover this much ambiance and space inside the little storefront. Jenkins says people have been surprised when they show up and find they should have made a reservation.
Knowing Your Neighbors
Jenkins is proud that he knows his patrons and says he remembers many of their likes and dislikes: “Dr. M and his wife like catfish and Caesar salad. L never eats fish or seafood. R likes his vegetables on the side.”
He lives in the neighborhood as well, in Ednor Gardens, and is interested in all aspects of community life. That’s a big part of why he thinks he has succeeded, when so many start-up restaurants don’t.
“I manage the bottom line,” he said. “And I enjoy the community and being part of it. We support each other.” By way of example he recalls what happened when someone from the Charles Village Community Benefit District called for a reservation.
“When I said we had many openings because of the weather, she sent out a group email saying we had tables available and soon we were booked,” he recalled.
I had the signature peach mango sweet iced tea, cornbread and sweet potato butter while waiting – a tasty beginning.
The fried chicken and waffles dish was plated very attractively, the waffle folded in half as an envelope and topped with fresh strawberries and lightly whipped cream. Half of a small chicken, cut into four pieces and deep fried, accompanied it. Warm syrup accompanied the dish. I confess the amount of food was intimidating. But, as the cliché goes, the proof is in the eating.
The waffles had the mouthfeel of bread, which was surprising at first, but satisfying against the richness of the chicken and syrup, berries and cream. When I go back I want to have the Blackened Tilapia, served with Jasmine rice and spinach in a Louisiana seafood sauce made with chunks of salmon and shrimp.
At this time Darker than Blue is BYOB, but the liquor license is being finalized and chef Jenkins is enthusiastic about the selection of wines and wine by the glass he will be offering.
That’s just one of the improvements Jenkins has in store for Darker Than Blue, which takes its name from a Curtis Mayfield song. Another line from that song – “Are we gonna stand around this town and let what others say come true?”
Not if Casey Jenkins can do something about it.