CAFE HON — Neighborhood restaurant saved by celebrity chef

Saturday, February 25th 2012 @ 3:03 AM


Trademark pink flamingo adorns façade of Hampden's Cafe Hon. The restaurant and its owner were featured Friday on WBFF-Fox45-TV's ‘Kitchen Nightmares.’


Restaurant  owner Denise Whiting
trademarked Balto. word ‘Hon,’
incurring wrath of entire city

By Alan Z. Forman
Anyone who watched the first 45 minutes Friday night of the hour-long reality-TV show “Kitchen Nightmares” would have thought Hampden’s Cafe Hon was about to be dead-and-buried.

But wonder upon wonders, in the show’s final segment, Television Chef Gordon Ramsay and his “team” of culinary experts literally snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, transforming the iconic 36th St. restaurant and “persuading” its insufferable proprietor Denise Whiting to give up her claim to ownership of the trademark “Hon.”

Asked if he “twisted her arm” to get Whiting to accede and relinquish her claim to the word, Ramsay said “No”; however he had all but told her in so many words throughout the first three-quarters of the show that if she didn’t agree to it, the restaurant she had put 20 years of her life into was doomed.

Then today, Whiting went on WBAL-1090-AM-Radio and virtually admitted that the only reason she gave up the trademark was because Ramsay had insisted on it, thus also calling into question the sincerity of her mea culpa.

In the TV program’s final minutes a tearful Whiting acknowledged publicly — via a press conference filmed with Ramsay and reported by local media in November — that she was reluctantly relinquishing the trademark which has nearly bankrupted her once-thriving business and made her arguably the most hated woman in Baltimore.

Prior to the press conference she told the morning-radio hosts of WWMX-Mix106.5 she anticipated giving it up but stopped short of an outright promise.


“Kitchen Nightmares,” which runs on the Fox Television Network (seen locally on WBFF-Fox45), got everything about the years-long controversy right — except for the location of Hampden, which it misidentified at the show’s outset as “a small town outside of Baltimore.”

Hampden is a Northwest Baltimore City neighborhood.

With complimentary visuals of the city and its environs — the polar opposite of Charm City’s depiction on the TV drama “The Wire” — Whiting was presented as an uncompromising dictator, a know-it-all authoritarian employer/entrepreneur who had the audacity to steal what she acknowledged in the show’s final minutes didn’t really belong to her, the “term of endearment” (as described by one of her employees) “owned” by all Baltimoreans.

Denise Whiting's trademarked HON logo is seen turned upside down on 36th St., The Avenue in Hampden.

(In reality, the term is used similarly in other parts of the U.S., as are most pronunciations commonly referred to as “Baltimorese.”  Linguists, and wordsmiths like the late Baltimore Sun columnist H.L. Mencken in his landmark Dictionary of the American Language, identify only two words as unique to Baltimore — “a-rab,” for the street vendors with horse-drawn carts that were once ubiquitous around the city; and a word formerly used by The Sun to identify a policeman’s nightstick: “espantoon.”

The distinctive pronunciations so common in certain areas of Greater Baltimore are also found in parts of New York State and West Virginia that were settled by Scottish immigrants.  It’s therefore curious that Ramsay, who was raised in England but born in Scotland, where he lived until age five, had so much trouble trying to pronounce those words.)

Initially Whiting lied to Ramsay on camera, denying she had ever sued — or threatened to sue — anyone for using the word Hon.  However he and others in the show — notably local blogger and self-described “electronic bagel salesman” Bruce Goldfarb — produced cease-and-desist orders from Whiting’s attorneys threatening legal action if they did not stop using the word.

Goldfarb runs a website titled “Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!” and has waged a running battle with Whiting over his use of the word on his Internet site, attempting unsuccessfully at one point to goad her into suing him.


The local webmaster was one of a half-dozen or more citizens critical of Whiting that Ramsay organized into a kind of “focus group” to discuss the much vilified restaurant owner.

However local copyright attorney and biweekly commentator James B. Astrachan, on Dan Rodricks’ “Midday” radio show on Johns Hopkins University’s WYPR-FM, has said he thinks Whiting deserves to be forgiven for her indiscretion, that “she’s not an ax murderer” and doesn’t deserve to lose her livelihood because of an “unfortunate mistake.”

Whiting told Ramsay on the TV show she has finally come to the realization she did in fact make “a mistake” — but not until after he finished dissing her management, her cooking, her intransigence and her lack of honesty, in addition to her menu and restaurant’s décor.


In one delightful segment, Ramsay tries to pronounce “Bawlmer” and other Baltimorese expressions without much success; and in another he chats with Whiting’s embattled head chef in an alley behind the restaurant.

And his critical comments upon tasting the restaurant’s food are priceless:  “Horrible… awful,” he intones.  He hated virtually everything except the Maryland crab, which was the only dish served that wasn’t greasy.

But at the end of the show he served up his own version of “Hon food” to illustrate the new menu and refurbished décor he created for the café.

The popular reality show has just been renewed by Fox for a fifth season.

British Chef Gordon Ramsay is attempting to save Hampden's Cafe Hon, featured on his TV show ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ Friday night.

Ramsay, 45, is a British chef, restaurateur and TV personality.  Coincidentally, Cafe Hon’s first chef, when the restaurant opened in 1992, across the street in a smaller location, was also British.

Other businesses prior to the year of controversy faced similar wrath from Whiting, who has been unrelenting in her zeal to “own” the word Hon.

The former proprietor of a Towson store whose merchandise displayed the word Hon told Voice of Baltimore she shut her business down several years ago rather than engage in a costly court battle with Whiting.

And patrons boycotted the restaurant in droves, posting signs around the neighborhood with the HON logo turned upside down, to read “NOH.”  By her own admission, in 2011 Whiting did less than half the business she had done the year before and had just invested her last $10,000 prior to Chef Ramsay’s arrival.

In addition to the restaurant she also sells Hon-related memorabilia.

Even her employees attacked her during a private interview with Ramsay, with verbal barbs, telling the TV chef she was impossible to get along with and that they expected any minute to be fired for disagreeing with her.

Things at Cafe Hon are going to be done “my way,” Whiting told the television audience.  In one segment of the program, in a huff she threw away most of the food that Ramsay and restaurant patrons criticized, angrily dumping large portions of steak, French fries and shrimp into the garbage and cursing kitchen workers, some of whom cursed back.

“Kitchen Nightmares” producers bleeped not only the sound but blurred the mouths of the individuals so viewers couldn’t lip-read.


But by show’s end, Chef Ramsay saved the day and all was lovey-dovey: Everyone was happy to still have their jobs — and confident that the restaurant was about to move into a new era and would survive.  The formerly critical staff even began to express sympathy and what might be described as a strange kind of love/hate relationship with their employer.

Whiting, for her part, tearfully hugged the verbally abusive Ramsay, possibly considering him a kindred spirit, thanking him profusely for “saving” her business and promising him and Baltimore that she had turned over a new leaf.

Others were not so sanguine.

“It’s not easy for a leopard to change her spots,” one Hampden resident who declined to be identified told VoB.

“Just because she’s promising to change — on television while the cameras are rolling — doesn’t mean she’s really going to do it.”
Editor’s Note:  THE CAFE HON EPISODE (Season 4: Episode 15) MAY BE VIEWED IN ITS ENTIRETY ON HULU  (click here)  and also on Fox Television’s website  (click here).  It runs 43.42 minutes and will be available FREE beginning one week from today (as of Saturday March 3rd).

3 Responses to “CAFE HON — Neighborhood restaurant saved by celebrity chef”

  1. ralahinn1

    I live in the area, but I have never been inside of Cafe Hun. Just the things I have heard from other people have kept me out of the place. Seeing the changes made by Chef Ramsay though have tempted me into going one day, just to see if things really are getting better inside of there.

  2. G

    Although clearly the woman was a bit “off” to consider trademarking the word “Hon”, which my teenage daughter (in Canada) uses also, I really have to wonder how she managed to get it trademarked — I mean, who in the patent office (or whatever) makes these random decisions?

  3. » Blog Archive » COED STRIP — Johns Hopkins University students display bras, leotards at Hampden HonFest »

    […] See VoB’s coverage of the Cafe Hon/Denise Whiting controversy (click here) […]

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