If you walk into Water for Chocolate on a Saturday morning and find an open table, consider yourself lucky.
The Butcher’s Hill café, 1841 E. Lombard St., is the size of a row house living room—but with five tables, a small sofa, and an open kitchen.
In such a concentrated space, you can watch and smell all the food being prepared; you see what your fellow diners are eating; you hear everyone’s conversations. It’s a full-on sensory experience.
Somehow, the space manages to feel more cozy than claustrophobic. In the warmer months, the coziness spills out onto the sidewalk, thanks to outdoor seating.
The chef and owner, Sean Guy, likes cozy. He greets customers, many of whom are regulars, by name. People go to Water for Chocolate for the cross-table conversations, to eat well, and to hang out with their neighbors.
Guy, who lives upstairs, is one of those neighbors. He came to Baltimore seven years ago from New York City to run the Hard Rock Café at the Inner Harbor.
At the time, he was living in Butcher’s Hill—across the street from where the restaurant is now.
He says he enjoyed the perks of working for large restaurant chains, but ultimately preferred cooking over managing.
While at Hard Rock, he opened his own catering company, Water for Chocolate Catering, named after the famous magical realism novel by Mexican writer Laura Esquivel. Guy says the book’s title means passion, heat, or intensity.
“In the book, whatever emotions you feel when you are cooking come through in the food,” he explains.
Water for Chocolate was never supposed to be a sit-down restaurant, Guy says. But plans evolve.
“We did catering exclusively for the first two years, but there was so much interest in the neighborhood that we set up a small dining room,” he says.
For Guy, the café is a welcome departure from the chain restaurant life.
“When I get up in the morning and I have an idea for a dish, I don’t have to clear it with corporate,” he says. “I enjoy myself more here.”
Water for Chocolate is a restaurant without pretense. It doesn’t have a signature style, an agenda, or specialty, other than American comfort food. The menu, which includes seasonal soups and daily specials, changes every day. Guy says he simply likes to take “pedestrian” dishes and make them more interesting.
Take his breakfast panini with capicola ham ($4.55); or Norwegian Benedict ($13.95), an open-faced English muffin with poached eggs, lox, capers, red onion, spinach and Dijon mustard; or raisin-bread French toast with lemon zest, crème anglaise, and toasted pecans ($8.54 ); or BBQ shrimp with grits and jalapeno cornbread ($11.95).
The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner during the week and brunch on the weekends. They are closed on Tuesdays.
Guy says he likes Butcher’s Hill because it reminds him of the East Village.
“It’s eclectic: artists, professionals, a lot of diversity, Hopkins Hospital people. Everyone co-mingles in the dining room. It’s pretty cool,” he says.
When Guy is finishes brunch at 2 p.m. he walks around the room and gives everyone their check, stopping at tables to sit and chat with the customers.
“It’s mostly locals here,” he says. “They come for the food. We don’t have much else going on. I mean, there’s a small TV on the wall, and the only music is what’s on my iPad. If you don’t come here for the food, then I think you’re probably in the wrong place.”
by Danielle Sweeney