Opening a kosher café in an old, vacant Upper Fells Point edifice might’ve sounded a bit crazy back in 2009, Mindy S. Alezra admits. But she and her late husband, Menashe, had a dream, one that lives on today.
“I thought Fells Point was making a turnaround and getting very popular,” says Alezra, who moved to the Baltimore area from Milwaukee in 2003. “I have a very local feel to the restaurant, and people feel comfortable here. I think that’s how I’ve been able to make it, by attracting locals here.”
Located at 300 S. Ann St. in a three-story, 150-year-old former residence, the Van Gough Café is one of only a handful of kosher restaurants in the city. It is operated by Alezra and her daughters, Dalia and Maya. (Menashe Alezra died in November of 2016.)
The café is under the kosher supervision of Rabbi Y. Zvi Weiss, spiritual leader of the Bais Haknesses Ohr Hachaim Synagogue in Northwest Baltimore.
Open daily (except for Shabbat), the Van Gough Café serves breakfast and lunch with a menu that includes paninis, sandwiches, pasta, vegan and vegetarian dishes, as well as falafel and knishes. It also creates, according to its website, “a gourmet assortment of coffee drinks, and carries Baltimore’s famous Goldberg’s bagels, picked up fresh daily from Pikesville.”
The café’s quirky name is a play on the ill-fated Dutch post-impressionist Vincent van Gogh and Gough Street, which intersects the thoroughfare on which the bistro’s brick façade building is located. Fittingly, the works of local artists are showcased on the café’s walls. “Artists know how to find me,” says Alezra. “I do prefer to show paintings to photographs.”
Although it’s a kosher establishment, the Van Gough Café attracts a wide array of customers to its cozy interior, which features two tables located across from the bar, a pair of large sofas in the back and a few more tables alongside the brick wall. The café also has outside seating during the summer months.
Since opening, Alezra says the café’s menu has been upgraded a few times, from just serving coffee to a variety of vegetarian sandwiches and quesadillas. In addition, the clientele has grown exponentially. “Ten to 15 percent of our customers are young kosher families,” Alezra says, “with the remaining 85 percent a cross-section of locals, tourists and convention attendees.”
Last December, Alezra opened a one-suite weekend bed-and-breakfast on the café’s second floor. The suite features two bedrooms, a kitchenette, cable TV and other amenities. Alezra says she is currently booked through the summer.
“I’ve had people from Germany, Helsinki, Toronto and Portugal, some who have attended conventions, others who are applying to Hopkins,” says Alezra, noting that some guests find her café via Kosher Restaurants GPS, a subscriber-based app and website (kosherrestaurantsgps.com) that guides users who observe kashrut dietary laws.
Many of the café’s customers are observant Jewish singles, Alezra says. “Young Orthodox couples on a first date can spend time enjoying the menu while playing board games and getting to know one another in a quiet, safe place,” she says.
Rabbi Etan Mintz, spiritual leader of the historic B’nai Israel Synagogue in East Baltimore, says he’s dined at the Van Gough Café on several occasions. “It is a wonderful café,” he says. “The ambience, service and food are all excellent. It is a relaxed, friendly and welcoming atmosphere. A very enjoyable experience and a wonderful asset to the downtown kosher consumer.”
Rabbi Levi Druk, director of Chabad Lubavitch of Downtown Baltimore, thoroughly agrees.
“Van Gough Café has a warm and cozy feel. You can’t beat an authentic New York bagel and their home-blend coffee,” he says. “It has been a great boon for Jewish growth downtown and the community at large.”
But it’s not only observant Jews who enjoy the eatery. “I first heard about Van Gough Café from a friend – we were some of the first customers,” says Tim Bennet, a Washington, D.C., firefighter who has lived in Fells Point for 14 years. “I like that it’s family-owned and part of the neighborhood, and that it has character and charm that you just can’t get from a corporate chain.”
Dr. Brandon Chicotsky attributes Van Gough Cafe’s staying power to being “rooted and distinguishable.”
“Unlike over-glamorized cafes and delis, the Van Gough Café exudes honesty and refreshing quaintness,” says Dr. Chicotsky, a faculty member at Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. “I grew up in Texas immersed in Mexican food, and I have family in Brooklyn who inundated me with delicatessen treats. The Van Gough Café fittingly satisfies my burrito and bagel aficionado tendencies.”
For information, visit vangoughcafe.com or call 410-558-1958.
Haydee M. Rodriguez is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
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