Walking through the clean, streamlined interior of Flavor (15 E. Centre St.,  563-2279, flavorbaltimore.com), it's hard to believe the historic building was home to the dive-y Midtown BBQ & Brew a year ago. Executive Chef Julia Belton and her wife and co-owner, Vanna Belton, got the keys to what is now Flavor in August of 2015, and they managed to completely transform the run-down former tavern before opening just two months later.
The two spaces that make up Flavor are nestled on E. Centre Street in Mount Vernon, just a stone's throw from the Walters Art Museum. Customers have a choice when approaching the building. They can go to the left for the restaurant and bar, or the right for the multi-level lounge, known as The Attic at Flavor, which becomes a space for the LGBTQ community and allies on Friday and Saturday nights.
Just having a restaurant gets dull, according to the Beltons, which is partly why they decided to establish the lounge. The owners see the Attic, available for rent during the week, as a way to differentiate Flavor from its competition. They also saw a gap in the market. With the closings of queer spaces such as Club Hippo, Coconuts, Gallagher's, and Port in a Storm, the Beltons worried that LGBTQ nightlife was dying in Baltimore—particularly in Mount Vernon, which has long been considered this city's "gayborhood." Although a handful of Baltimore bars host recurring events geared toward the LGBT community, the Beltons wanted to provide an upscale lounge for the queer community that could consistently serve as a safe space throughout the week.
"We got tired of, on a Friday or Saturday, saying, 'Man, I'd love to go out and have a glass of wine. Wait, is it the second Friday? The third Wednesday? Oh, crap, we have to wait until next month!'" Vanna says.
Since its conception, however, The Attic at Flavor has spiraled into more than the Beltons could have imagined. In addition to the many Friday and Saturday night parties Flavor has thrown, the lounge has been home to happy hours for companies and meet-up groups, holiday parties, and over three dozen private birthday parties (a group was setting up for a "Fifty Shades of Grey" surprise party during my visit). Flavor has also hosted fundraisers and sent thousands of dollars to causes and organizations close to the Beltons' hearts, including GLCCB, the Chase Brexton LGBT Health Resource Center, and the victims of the Orlando Pulse shooting.
Flavor is not only for the LGBT community, the Beltons say, noting that both the restaurant and lounge are open to everyone, though the lounge is reserved for the LGBT community and allies each weekend.
The restaurant and lounge spaces have different functions, but a similar feel. A sleek, minimalist design calls attention to the unique lines and angles of the historic building. The refined silhouettes of the furniture and the solid, neutral colors allow guests who rent out the lounge to shape it into something of their own. Though simple in design, Flavor is not spartan; the owners focus on comfort first, believing that when guests are comfortable—on microfiber ottomans covered in leather, for example—they stay longer. They even have a frozen drink machine to eliminate noise from blenders in the bar area.
The space certainly wasn't always as pleasing to the senses as it is today; the Beltons built Flavor essentially from scratch. On Christmas Eve of 2014, they walked into the building for the first time. There were moldy carpets, strange smells, and more than one infestation. Still, they both agreed it would work, and they made an offer the following month. "We both had this overwhelming feeling like, 'This is it. This is home.' I don't know why we felt that way," Vanna says. "Later...I would question that decision multiple times, but I think we're both happy we made it."
The two show great attention to detail not only in their design, but also in their menu. They try to source locally and are all about fresh, high-quality ingredients. The Beltons picked 1,200 pounds of peaches last year to make the puree used in their popular peach-strawberry daiquiri ($9; $5 during happy hour). The cocktails contain juices squeezed in-house, and never rail alcohol. "We don't believe in it; it's against our religion," Vanna says, laughing.
The bourbon mojito ($9) is a crisp and flavorful variation on the classic, crafted by the bartender after noticing guests' proclivity for whiskey. The Irish coffee ($9) is decadent, verging on overindulgent. Flavor's cocktail menu boasts a frozen version of the latter, as well as a robust list of mojitos, throughout the summer.
Flavor strives for a menu that's elegant but unintimidating; all dishes are upgraded versions of classic, everyday American fare. The pork tacos ($14), for example, are composed of beer-braised pork, house pickled red onions, and a chipotle-lime slaw. The best-selling sliders come in two varieties—locally sourced beef with melted cheddar and house made pickles ($10-$14), or duck confit topped with arugula, fig jam, and bleu cheese ($14-$20). The menu changes seasonally; the owners chose the name Flavor because it gives them the versatility to serve Asian dishes in the summer and hearty Italian in the winter.
The Beltons can often be seen socializing at Flavor and the Attic. Julia makes it her mission to talk to each guest at the bar, restaurant, and lounge whenever she is there. "I want them to feel welcomed; I want them to feel like they're guests in my house," she says.
The Beltons believe that interacting with customers and taking their feedback into consideration is the only way to grow. After receiving many requests from guests, they developed a brunch menu, with dishes like scallop crostini ($16) and cinnamon vanilla French toast with strawberry puree ($14). Flavor used to be deserted on Sundays, but now crowds are coming in for brunch.
As Flavor allows the Beltons to pursue their passions, they hope they can freshen up Baltimore's LGBT nightlife, which has afforded them so much. "The first time I went to a queer space I was like, 'Ah, oh my god! I've never seen a gay person in my life...I feel normal and I feel happy, and I don't feel alone,'" Julia says.
"There's a need for spaces like that, because it's 2016, but in some aspects it might as well be 1986," Vanna adds. "So we really wanted to make that safe space—where you could come, relax with your friends, and not be stared at. And I love that we've done that."
Flavor is open Tuesday-Thursday 3-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 3 p.m.-2 a.m., and Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.