When it comes to East Coast dining destinations, Baltimore is usually outshined by nearby Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. But two young and hungry restaurateurs want to change that: Alex and Eric Smith, the brothers behind Atlas Restaurant Group, which has stormed onto the scene with 12 diverse and daring restaurant openings in the city in just seven years.
For the Smiths, revitalizing Baltimore is a mission that runs in the family. “It’s been in our blood for 100 years,” says Alex, 34, referring to the legacy of their late grandfather, John Paterakis. Paterakis—"J.P." to those who knew him—helped develop Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood into a bustling hot spot, starting in the 1960s when he transformed his immigrant father’s small-scale bakery there into a thriving business. It fills the streets with sweet scents to this day.
Alex had just graduated college and was planning to play professional lacrosse when his grandfather called on him to help open a Häagen-Dazs franchise in one of his Harbor East properties. This ignited a passion for hospitality; in 2012, Alex established Atlas Restaurant Group with the opening of upscale Greek seafood spot and Wine Spectator Restaurant Award winner Ouzo Bay, where Eric, now 28, first worked as a bartender. (He's now a partner overseeing the group's beverage program.)
At the time, Baltimore’s fine-dining scene was dominated by steak house chains and a handful of fixed special-occasion spots. The success of Ouzo Bay signaled to the Smiths that the city craved more. Since then, they've opened a diverse collection of concepts in a remarkably short time. Whether they’re topping pies with duck confit at their casual pizzeria, Italian Disco; pouring premier vintages of Château Margaux at Bygone, their stylish rooftop grill atop the Four Seasons Hotel; or offering a 1,000-plus-bottle list of mostly Italian gems at Tagliata, the Smiths and Atlas continue to raise the bar, expanding to places like Boca Raton, Fla., and Houston along the way.
Alex and Eric are on a mission to prove there’s more to Baltimore than craft beer and crabs. The homegrown duo spoke with assistant editor (and fellow Baltimorean) Julie Harans about lessons from J.P., the importance of standing up for their city, and why it's primed to become the place to be for discerning diners.
Wine Spectator: Once you knew you were interested in restaurants, why stay in Baltimore rather than move somewhere with a more robust scene?
Alex Smith: First off, Baltimore in general is a fantastic city, despite what you read in the news. There’s a couple of small areas of crime that give the city a bad rap nationally, but it’s really a fantastic city. What we’re trying to do is create concepts in Baltimore that don’t exist, and as we were creating these concepts, we found that the local clientele were not only receptive to it, but encouraged us to keep going. Without the support of the city, it wouldn’t be possible.
Eric Smith: We have a saying in our company that ties in exactly with what Alex is saying. We always say when we open a new concept, “The city needs it.” Every concept we open, we’re adding more wonderful things for people in Baltimore to enjoy, and [to attract people who] come and spend time in Baltimore.
WS: Some say you shouldn’t mix business and family—what’s your take on that?
ES: Alex is my best friend and my brother as well, so it makes it pretty easy. I don’t think we’ve had an argument ever. We’re always trying to come up with the best idea, and there’s no ego involved. Whatever idea is going to work the best is what we’re going to run with, and we’re going to put 110 percent of our effort into it.
AS: I 100 percent agree. Eric and I don’t really argue. We never even really argued as kids. There’s not a single day that goes by that Eric and I don’t talk five times a day. Everything’s out in the open and we’re discussing it, and unless both guys are on the same page, we don’t move forward.
WS: Why do you think Atlas has been able to grow so quickly, and with such success?
AS: I’d say the number one thing is we take care of our people. We rarely have anybody leave our company, because we compensate them very well, we treat them with respect and we want people to feel that they’re valued—because they are valued. I think that our investment in our staff and our investment in our employees is what has allowed us to grow so fast.
ES: It’s all about the team, right? And I think they respect us because when we’re in the restaurant, we’re not sitting there sipping Pellegrino—we’re working. We’re usually expediting or we’re dealing with guests in the front of house or serving wine. We’re doing all the jobs that everybody else does, so there’s a common level of respect, and our culture’s built on that.
WS: What role does wine play in your restaurants?
AS: It’s about the overall experience. When you walk in the Tagliata cellar and you have 1,200 labels, or you go into Bygone and you have 1,100 labels, people appreciate that, they really do. They appreciate the experience, they appreciate the visual, they appreciate tasting the wines and talking about it. A beverage program is key to a successful restaurant.
WS: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your grandfather?
AS: Hard work beats all. You have to commit to something that you’re good at, and be willing to perfect it and grind it out. My first year at Ouzo Bay, I worked seven days a week; I didn’t take a single day off. He ingrained that in us, and that’s led to a lot of our success.
ES: Another key thing for J.P. was family. There’s always going to be trials and tribulations in your life, but blood is blood, and you have to stick with it, because it always has your best interest.
WS: How do you envision the future of Baltimore’s restaurant scene?
AS: I think we’re getting there. If Baltimore figures out the public safety concerns, we are right there with Austin or Nashville or Philly or any of these other cities. I think that as the city continues to grow and mature, I see Baltimore at a place where we’re going to have twice as many restaurants and it’s going to be one of the best food scenes. You’re literally right on the Chesapeake, with a ton of farm-raised items coming in, high quality products coming in from all around the region. I just see Baltimore booming in the industry.
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