A quick walk through the not-yet-opened second location for Taste This, Craig Curbean and Dante Davis' restaurant on 25th Street, makes it clear that the vibe of this new restaurant will be very different from that of the location's previous tenant, Georgia Soul Food. The walls are decked out with Curbean's abstract paintings, one of which is stamped with a footprint from his baby daughter, and small square tables are sprinkled around the dining area. That intimacy alone is a stark contrast to the very "just come and get your food" feng shui of Georgia Soul Food with its unforgettable rough carpet and not-so-inviting lights. When I visited earlier this month, 27-year-old Curbean was decked out in a black chef's coat and mopping the floor as if customers were on their way, even though Taste This won't be opening until later this month—a reflection of the dedication that Curbean and Davis both have to their restaurant and their down-home, soul-food-inspired cuisine.
"My roots are purely Southern," Davis, who's 40, says with pride. He learned about cooking from his grandmother, who was a Santee, South Carolina native, and his mother. "I came up watching my grandmother cook huge meals for every part of the day. No matter what time of day it was, she'd be making rice but that's where I learned patience in the kitchen. Everything was slow-cooked and was made with care." While Curbean's experience with cooking shares the same Southern foundation that Davis and most other black Americans have, he also learned the craft of food-making and presentation from his time at Baltimore International College, the downtown culinary institution that was taken over by Stratford University in 2012.
That formal education, opposite from Davis' in-home training, is what the two believe to be their key to success, even though Davis has to reel Curbean back in from his lofty food ideas, which may come in the form of a random phone call in the middle of the night. "Sometimes I'll just be up thinking about new stuff to put on the menu and I'll call him like, 'I got a new idea: Let's do jerk shrimp and Andouille sausage over grits!' or something random like that," Curbean says.
Davis looks on and shakes his head in laughter, adding that this happens all the time. "He's like the young, eager one and I'm the one who has to tell him to bring it in and cool down from time to time."
Before they officially went into business together, Davis and Curbean's love for cooking was mainly a passionate hobby that sometimes paid. While working as a truck driver for Cloverland in East Baltimore, Davis turned that love into service when he decided, along with Curbean, to cook a huge Christmas dinner for his co-workers in 2010. "I knew I wanted to make this special dinner for everybody at work but I didn't have anybody to help me out," Davis recalls. "But knowing Craig through his mother and his love for food made me reach out to him." A year before, Curbean carried out a similar deed when he organized making meals for the homeless during holiday season, which has continued every year since. "Going to BIC right downtown, I couldn't help notice the number of homeless people around campus," Curbean tells me. "I just wanted to do something to help. My friends all came out to help. My mother surprisingly let me use her kitchen," he adds with a laugh.
The Christmas dinner, which included Mardi Gras chicken, barbecue ribs, pit ham, macaroni and cheese, and more, was so much of a hit, Davis' co-workers immediately requested a similar dinner the following year, fueling Davis and Curbean's desire to open their own place.
For the next three years, Curbean drove around town scouting for potential spaces, finding no luck with reaching landlords and sometimes being plain turned down, even when he would wear a suit to try and repel any pre-conceived notions that some may have. While the chances of their business actually happening started to look bleak, Davis and Curbean continued getting small catering jobs, never giving up on the initial joy of cooking for others. In 2013, they both found themselves with an "if it happens, it happens" attitude toward landing a spot, but it was their first big job in 2014 that motivated them to keep working toward their goal. "We got booked to prepare food for this wedding and we went all the way in," Curbean proudly reflects. "We stayed up that whole night before cooking and making sure everything was on point and we killed it. Everybody at the wedding loved it."
"There was one downside, though," Davis adds. "They didn't tell us the right amount of people they were expecting so all the food ran out." The fact that the misstep wasn't on their end kept them from being discouraged, especially considering that the bride and groom were extremely satisfied. After the gig, Curbean went back to the routine scouting he'd been doing the three years before.
One day while taking an unnecessarily long route home, Curbean found himself in the Hamilton area, and an empty building that used to be Cal's Uptown Ribs N Thangs on the corner of Harford Road and Shirley Avenue caught his eye. He drove past and shrugged it off, but something made him go back. "Something just told me turn around. The worst they could say was 'no' like everybody else," he says. "I got the contact on the building, reached out to the owner, and she wasn't trying to give it to us at first but I had to convince her. For some reason, she finally said yes." Soon after, the two went in with a team and renovated, adding welcoming lighting and Curbean's art, and Taste This was finally born.
Since then, the two have enjoyed loyal customers who sometimes travel from as far away as Philly, Washington, D.C., and its surrounding Maryland suburbs—and some don't hesitate to add their own edits to the menu. "We've got a guy named Eric who is by far our most loyal customer," says Davis while they both burst into laughter. "He's been coming since the first week we opened and he always orders something that's not on the menu. Now we have a grilled barbecue chicken sandwich and grilled asparagus because of him." Curbean adds: "But it's cool because he will sometimes eat every meal of the day at Taste This and tells all his friends about us." Other customer favorites include stuffed salmon, turkey wings, and gravy over rice and spiced chicken.
With the success of their Hamilton location and the urge to expand throughout the city, Curbean's excited to connect with the melting pot that is 25th Street—and the neighborhood is just as happy to welcome him and Davis, judging by the number of people who knocked on the door for food just during the 40 minutes I was there. But they're both thinking bigger. "We wanna be the spot that, when people come to Baltimore, people say 'Go to Taste This,'" Davis says. "That's why we take so much time with what we do. Nothing is rushed, we give you great presentation and we're gonna correct all mistakes we might make. We're trying to expand as much as possible. Even outside of Baltimore." •