There goes the 30-foot pink flamingo.
Hampden’s Cafe Hon on the Avenue is serving up its last dinner Friday night before it shuts down to make way for a new concept, announced the restaurant group Foreman Wolf, which is taking over the prime spot.
Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting, who also founded and will continue the neighborhood festival HONfest in 1994, said that after 30 years of running the restaurant, she’s looking forward to “a little downtime.”
“It’s time for a change. When they say one door closes, another one opens. I’m just going to be excited for what’s in store,” Whiting said in an interview Friday. “It’s a new day. I’ll be excited and thrilled to see what Tony [Foreman] does with the place. I can’t wait to see that.”
Tony Foreman, co-founder of Foreman Wolf, acknowledged the restaurant’s history in the group’s release, saying: “We respect all of the efforts at Cafe Hon that have brought the spirit of this deeply Baltimore neighborhood to the public eye.”
Cafe Hon — at the prominent corner of Roland Avenue and West 36th Street, aka “The Avenue” — was easily identified by the eye-catching and enormous flamingo on its exterior by the local artist Randall Gornowich.
Technically speaking, it’s dubbed a flamingosaurus, featuring a cutout of a tyrannosaurus behind it. Gornowich built the structure for the restaurant as a Christmas decoration. Years later, it’s still there.
Baltimore residents rallied to Whiting’s support in 2009 after city inspectors said she needed to pay a hefty fee to keep the pink flamingo up.
That resulted in a “Big Bird” PR campaign and what Whiting called “the best front page article of all time.” The front page of The Baltimore Sun, she said, showed the front lawn of City Hall littered in pink flamingoes.
But Whiting became a polarizing figure during the restaurant’s years in operation. She drew the ire of many after she trademarked the word “Hon,” a term of endearment in Baltimore.
“She owns the rights to using ‘Hon’ on napkins, note cards, stationery, calendars and pens,” a 2010 article in The Baltimore Sun said. “Without her permission, it can’t be used on sweatshirts, hats, underwear, ties, shorts — and certainly not boas.”
The backlash caught the attention of Gordon Ramsay’s “Kitchen Nightmares.” For a 2011 episode of the Fox TV show, Ramsay and his crew attempted to revive Cafe Hon’s menu and public image.
Whiting later apologized in an announcement with Ramsay, saying: “Trademarking the word has not only almost killed me but has just about killed the business.”
Although Cafe Hon closes its doors tonight, HONFest is here to stay.
HONFest, an eccentric celebration of the quirky community that occurred annually for more than 20 years before the coronavirus pandemic halted the event, will return June 11-12 after a two-year hiatus.
And this year’s event could be better than ever, said Whiting, who plans to focus on the street party after her restaurant closes. Whiting said she intends to continue the annual tradition for “as long as they let me.” HONFest will feature some new aspects this year, including different vendors and musical guests.
“Everybody’s excited because we haven’t done anything since 2019. Everybody’s excited to get outside and run and play again,” Whiting said of the festival.
As a staple of the neighborhood, Whiting said she’ll most miss experiencing life’s moments with her loyal patrons.
“The thing that’s the most meaningful is that we’re been a part of people’s lives for 30 years. The good parts and the bad parts; the celebratory parts,” she said. “They’ve been a part of our family and we’ve been a part of theirs. It’s been an honor to be that place for them.”
Cafe Hon’s closure was a surprise to both regular customers and casual diners. Whiting said she told no one that Friday was the establishment’s last day. She has no special plans to commemorate the occasion but expects the dinner rush to be “fun, fun, fun, and crazy.”
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Foreman has kept the details of his new venture close to the chest, too. Whiting said she has “no stinking clue” of his plans for the space.
Asked what he could share about his plans for the space, once Benson’s Hardware store, Foreman replied: “Nothing at all.”
Would it be family-friendly? Foreman wouldn’t say. Would it be a relocation for an existing restaurant? (Foreman Wolf runs Johnny’s and Petit Louis in nearby Roland Park, as well as two restaurants in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood and one in Harbor Point.) He wouldn’t say.
All Foreman would tell The Sun is that “we’re very excited about the new location… I have a vision for the space.”
He did note that the pink flamingosaurus is leaving with Whiting.
Gornowich, the artist, said he would like to see it installed near the Roosevelt Park skatepark.
“I don’t want to see it gone. I think that it’s become somewhat a landmark.”
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