Alex Smith’s Baltimore roots run deep—and so does his culinary upbringing. After founding the Atlas Restaurant Group in 2012 with the opening of Greek restaurant Ouzo Bay in Baltimore’s Harbor East neighborhood, Smith’s hospitality group now runs almost a dozen spots from Baltimore to Boca Raton, FL, with new restaurants forthcoming in Houston, TX, in the summer of 2019.
When people think about Baltimore food, they are likely to imagine crab cakes and a super fresh raw bar. But Smith and his crew bring fresh twists to the classics with a creative Japanese spot (Azumi), an elevated American bistro (The Bygone), and Mediterranean-inspired seafood (at Ouzo Bay). They have also peppered their home city’s restaurant scene with lively Italian spots, eclectic pizzerias, and a speakeasy.
It’s clear that Atlas is redefining Baltimore’s dining culture. We got the scoop on what exactly that means—and what makes Baltimore such a unique place to experiment with food—from Smith himself.
Alex Smith, Founder of Atlas Restaurant Group, was born and raised in Baltimore.
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Founder of Atlas Restaurant Group
- Baltimore, Maryland
Several of Atlas's restaurants are located in Baltimore's Harbor East. Photo by @fsbaltimore
Tell us a bit about your background. How did you get involved in hospitality?
Truthfully, it's in my blood. My grandparents started H&S Bakery here in Baltimore, which has since grown to become a large-scale national business. I remember walking around Harbor East as a kid, always smelling the scent of baked bread wafting through the streets. Inspired by their tenacity, I began my career in hospitality by investing in a Häagen-Dazs franchise in Baltimore during my last semester at the University of Delaware. From there, I went on to open Harbor East Delicatessen & Pizzeria, and finally Ouzo Bay in 2012. Atlas Restaurant Group was born with the opening of Ouzo, and the group has now grown to include eight restaurants with many more to come.
What's made you stay in Baltimore?
Baltimore's a gem of a city—often overlooked for some of its larger, more well-known neighbors on the east coast—but there's a real desire here for world-class, quality food. Bringing that to our community, the city where I grew up, has become my number one priority and something I'm truly passionate about.
How have you seen Baltimore’s food scene evolve? Why does it have the potential to be great?
A restaurant like our fine-dining Japanese restaurant Azumi or The Bygone at the top of the Four Seasons wouldn't have succeeded here ten years ago. The early 2000's marked a noticeable shift in Baltimore's perception—and perhaps acceptance—of experience-driven, higher-quality concepts like the ones Atlas brings to the city. The likes of Woodberry Kitchen and Spike Gjerde really helped set the stage and tone for other restaurants like our own. Baltimore's potential ultimately lies in its fiercely loyal local customer base, coupled with an increasing appetite for unique dining and entertainment experiences, driven by a larger, nationwide trend. We're so excited to continue to watch the city's culinary landscape grow and evolve— and, of course, to be a part of it.
Why is it important to bring authentic food from around the world to Baltimore?
Baltimore's an unbelievable city that's continuing to grow and draw national attention because of the waterfront, the diverse neighborhoods, and the friendly people; it really pulls you in and charms you, hence the name “Charm City!" By bringing different cuisines from around the world to the city, we give locals a reason to stay and tourists a reason to visit.
Ouzo Bay was the first restaurant headed by Atlas. Photo by @ouzobaybalt
Do you have a soft spot for one of Atlas’s restaurants? Which one, and why?
That's a tough one! Each of the concepts are so different, and our newer restaurants like Tagliata and The Bygone really represent the evolution of Atlas in such a big way. But if I had to pick one, it would be our Greek kouzina, Ouzo Bay, the first full-service sit-down restaurant we opened that really kickstarted the group as a whole. I have a soft spot for it because it was my first restaurant and was inspired by our family heritage, as I'm half Greek. We've now grown Ouzo Bay nationally with new locations in Boca Raton and Houston in the works, too. It's exciting to see it grow alongside the rest of the group and introduce the concept to more cities.
No trip to Baltimore is complete without a big seafood meal at Loch Bar. Photo by @lochbar
What dishes epitomize Baltimore, and where are the best places to find them?
Baltimore's hard shell blue crabs are a must-try. Currently, my favorite crab houses are Captain James, found between the Fell's Point and Canton neighborhoods, and Bill's Terrace Inn in Essex, although that might change next year when we open The Choptank! Come summer 2019, we'll be taking over the historic Broadway Market in Fell's Point and transforming the space into a crab and seafood house.
And, of course: crab cakes. You can't visit Baltimore without trying the city's crab cakes. There are several different styles, but I find my favorites at Faidley's in Lexington or our spot Loch Bar in Baltimore's Harbor East neighborhood.
Sliders regularly hosts events for the city's sports fans. Photo by @theelectricmonkey
Best place to watch sports in town?
True to my Baltimore heritage, I'm a big Ravens and Orioles fan. I typically head to Federal Hill, a quaint historic neighborhood just behind the harbor, and catch the game at Mother's, Frank and Nick’s, or Sliders.
Try L.P. Steamers for some of Baltimore's freshest seafood. Photo by @smellslikedinner
Where can you find Baltimore’s best seafood?
This is a trick question! Baltimore's long-standing seafood spots are all fantastic, which is a testament to how fresh and local the seafood is. Some favorites include L.P. Steamers, Bertha's, and Mama's on the Half Shell.
The Elk Room is known for its creative cocktails and cozy atmosphere. Photo by @findtheelk
Go-to spot for drinks?
The city's cocktail and beverage scene is insane right now. My go-to spot for innovative, fun cocktails is The Elk Room, while The Horse You Came In On, The Admiral’s Cup, and Loch Bar are great for more casual brews and drinks.
Fell's Point is one of Baltimore's most charming neighborhoods. Photo by @fellspointdistrict
What’s your favorite neighborhood in Baltimore and why?
Favorite neighborhood is definitely Fell’s Point. It's practically untouched with original cobblestone streets, picturesque shops and homes. It's truly authentic to Baltimore and a great window into what the city used to be.
Enjoy a view of Harbor East from the Bygone at dinnertime. Photo by @thebygonebalt
Best thing to do on a Friday or Saturday night in Balty?
I'd say a dinner in Harbor East at The Bygone or Tagliata, followed by a ride in a water taxi over to Fell's Point to enjoy live music at Waterfront Hotel, Red Star, or Cat's Eye.
Whatever you do, don't miss the Chicken N' Waffles at Miss Shirley's. Photo by @missshirleys
Best brunch in Baltimore?
Miss Shirley’s Café (worth the wait!) and The Corner Pantry. If you go to Miss Shirley’s, definitely get the Chicken n' Waffles or the Maryland Omelette.
Favorite stall at Lexington Market?
Faidley's Seafood—hands down, best crab cakes ever.
Where do you go when you need a quick break from Baltimore?
St. Michaels is a great little town on the Eastern Shore about 1.5 hours from Baltimore. It's close and on the same body of water, but worlds apart. Some of the homes date back to the 1600's, and there are plenty of old historic inns. When I visit with my family, we always eat at Theo's Steakhouse and head to our favorite bar called C Street. We often take visiting friends to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum and check out some of the shops on Talbot Street, too.