Walk through the doors of pretty much any restaurant these days and you’re sure to spot menu items in sweeping curlicues and block-like shading on chalkboards behind the bar. Or perhaps folding chalkboards greet you on the sidewalk as you come in, hoping to titillate your taste buds with the specials of the day.
Woodberry Kitchen server Serina Hoff takes the art form a step further. For nearly five years, she has transformed chalkboards into menu masterpieces. Working mostly on slate and using chalkboard paint and acrylics that yield a thick, painterly stroke, she has created Monet-style sunsets, likenesses of Parisian cafes, even a graphic show of support for France after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack.
Though she has always loved art, and was especially drawn to lettering during her childhood in California, the self-trained Hoff didn’t realize her talents until she was working as a server at Petit Louis Bistro, following a move to Baltimore after college.
“I remember the day we got the chalkboards,” Hoff says. “I knew I could be ornate and really give life to those boards, and one day, they needed to be changed and I was around—that’s when it started.”
At first, Hoff simply wrote the menu, but soon branched out to explore themes culturally related to France, using as inspiration iconic French artworks and old-fashioned advertisements depicting scenes of Victorian cafe life. Her works—which could take up to five hours to complete—took on a painterly quality that had patrons raving. “One customer used to show me his phone and the background was one of my boards,” she says. “They became like pieces of art.”
Hoff moved on from Louis to serving stints at Sticky Rice, where she continued to script and paint menu boards, and Cinghiale. And, these days, while Woodberry does not need her slate services (their menus are strictly printed on paper), she’s currently beautifying the boards at Hampden’s Blue Pit BBQ & Whiskey Bar, one of her favorite places to visit when she’s not on the clock.
Ironically, one of the best parts of chalk painting, Hoff says, is knowing that her work won’t last. “I usually erase it myself, because I absolutely love the impermanence,” she says. “I think that’s when you’re allowed to do your best work. When you know that something is impermanent, you’re letting go.”