By Faye Rivkin

You want to check out that hot new restaurant downtown. But then you look at the menu and wonder, “How do I decide between all of these yummy-sounding choices with mouthwatering pictures?”

Will you finally try tuna carpaccio? Or duck ravioli? Or maybe this is the night you go for the beef short ribs? Oy.

Do you give up and stay home? No, you visit the Tapas in the City website, Facebook and Instagram pages. Chances are that founders Rachel Lipton and Jordan Zelesnick, a pair of lively 20-something foodies, have been to that particular restaurant. And you might find that their company, Tapas in the City, is holding an event there soon.

Lipton and Zelesnick are local food bloggers (Rachel is @LiketheteaEats and Jordan is @jzeats) who met through Instagram after seeing they were sharing the same restaurants. These Towson University alumnae bonded over their mutual love for food, and they’ve turned that passion into a fast-growing venture.

Over a dinner of small plates at downtown’s Puerto 511 Cocina Peruana, they hatched their idea: holding intimate, multi-course, small plate dinners around the city for diners overwhelmed with all of the intriguing food options that Charm City has to offer.

One to two nights each month, groups of diners — no more than 30 — experience the best of a restaurant through a specially designed meal with optional wine and drink pairings. Working with the restaurant, they develop a small plates menu including favorites, off-menu items, dishes that diners may not think to try, and items the restaurant is considering adding. Menus are posted six weeks before an event and, where possible, include a vegetarian or pescatarian option.

Their concept has won praise from restaurants and diners alike since their first dinner at Federal Hill’s Bluegrass Tavern last May. All of their events to date — including at Sammy’s Enoteca, Points South Latin Kitchen and Wayward Southern Bar and Kitchen — have sold out.

One of their first was at Cava Mezze, a new Greek spot in Harbor East. Cava is part of a D.C.-based restaurant chain.

“We gave them the space, and they created,” says Ryan Jones, the restaurant’s general manager. “They worked really hard, and their unique touches seemed highly personalized.”

Those touches, which they re-create for every event, include printed customized menus; flowers; communal seating; a speaker from the restaurant who discusses each dish and wine pairing; and comments from Lipton and Zelesnick, which include reminding guests about their Instagram contest. (Those who share their photos on Instagram with the hashtag #TapasintheCity are entered to win a 20 percent discount off the next Tapas in the City event.)

Most of their guests are young professionals who want a memorable, affordable meal at a restaurant they haven’t tried before. Heidi Barboy, 26, attended a Tapas in the City dinner at Sammy’s Enoteca with her fiancé. A marketing manager, she learned about the dinner from Facebook ads (part of Tapas in the City’s social marketing campaign) and from talking to her friend, Rachel Lipton.

“I love being surprised,” Barboy says, “as to what food and possible wine pairing we will be having. I also love that you can try a lot of the restaurant’s menu at a very reasonable price, and possibly find a new favorite restaurant.”

When they’re not tending to their new business, Lipton and Zelesnick hold full-time jobs; each works in digital marketing for a different company.

Lipton handles most of the social media and business activities for Tapas in the City — including its weekly “To Do” lists, Facebook ads and website — while Zelesnick typically designs the menus and manages their email marketing.

Tapas in the City gives diners enjoyable, affordable meals, with drinks, often under $50.

“Anyone can make reservations at a restaurant,” says Zelesnick, “but not everyone can enjoy the unique dining experience we provide.”

Cava’s Ryan Jones says a number of guests have returned to his restaurant since the Tapas in the City event. “They do a great job with marketing,” he says. “We’d have them back in a heartbeat.”

Lipton and Zelesnick have considered returning to restaurants for follow-up events, as well as expanding into other cities.

“When it feels right, we will jump,” Lipton says. “We have a great concept and we want to perfect it before we make any other moves.”

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Faye Rivkin is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

 Rachel Lipton (Left)  and Jordan Zelesnick are the founders of Tapas in the City. Photo by Daniel Kucin Jr.

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