Food & Drink

Changing Lane

How Lane Harlan shaped Baltimore’s drinking and dining scene—and herself.

Before adopting her middle moniker of “Lane” as a first name, Lane Harlan, born as Brittany Harlan in 1987 on Clark Air Base in the Philippines, was once afraid that her birth name would hold her back. “Brittany was so ’80s,” says Harlan. “And my best friend’s name is Brittney, so people were always calling us ‘The Brits.’ I thought, ‘I’d like to be my own person.’ I wanted to grow into myself. I wanted to move forward. So about seven years ago, I was like, ‘I’m Lane now.’” The name change seemed to work as the 30-year-old entrepreneur has since become a bit of a one-name wonder in Charm City. As owner of the speakeasy-style W.C. Harlan and Maryland’s first mezcaleria, Clavel, Harlan has defied conventional real-estate wisdom—location, location, location—and turned a blighted block of Remington into a drinking and dining destination for killer craft cocktails and simple, traditional Sinaloan fare.

By the look of the line that forms out the door at Clavel during the dinner rush, it’s clear that Harlan has become a force on the scene. In the less than two years since it’s been open, the spot has adopted a loyal following of culinary constituents, as well as families, hipsters, and Remington residents. Regulars include former Gov. Martin O’Malley, House of Cards actors Michael Kelly and Neve Campbell, and local legend John Waters.

Weighs in Waters, “I love Clavel because it has cute people eating there at moderate, unpretentious prices right off of Howard Street and 23rd, which is the new culinary center all because of Lane Harlan’s good taste. Yep, bohemian and foodie can go together.”

As the midday light streams through the window of her 100-some-year-old apartment in Tuscany-Canterbury, Harlan sits on a vintage German beer garden table, looking striking. With her gorgeous, flowing locks, full lips, gauzy clothes, and knack for accessorizing (a simple silver bracelet here, an unexpected hat there), she exudes a mysterious beauty, like someone straight out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

Her digs project a similar air of élan and worldliness. Relics from her travels are everywhere—pieces of Chilean pottery and religious art hang on the walls and two corner cupboards are crammed with glass from the Czech Republic, vintage Día de los Muertos angels purchased in Mexico, and an ivory boat given to her from her parents’ trip to Japan. There are also beloved books—by Steinbeck, Nabokov, Kierkegaard, Pound, Mann—as well as tomes of poetry—Czeslaw Milosz, Tomas Tranströmer—stacked on shelves in an open closet, above which is mounted an aoudad ram’s head. (“My Texas side,” she says.)

On this mid-November day, Harlan is fresh from a weeklong trip to Oaxaca and Mexico City. By December, stamps from Denmark, Norway, and Sweden will grace her passport. “When I’m here, I’m so focused on the businesses,” she says. “Travel is like my personal development. When I travel, I’ll feel a growth spurt.”

Harlan exudes a mysterious beauty, like someone out of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

In her early years, Harlan’s personal growth came from a similarly nomadic upbringing. As a military brat, Harlan and her family were always on the go—nearly every two years they would pick up and move to another state, from Texas to Nevada to California to North Dakota to Florida, and, finally, to Maryland.

“As soon as we got the tack on the wall, it was time to pack up again,” she recalls. “As a kid, it was pretty hard, because I am living in Florida and I’m trying to be a surfer, and then we moved to New Mexico and the kids are really preppy and I’m trying my best to fit in, and then we move to Maryland and the kids are really into hip-hop.”

Recalling the family’s final move to Waldorf one month into her eighth-grade year, her eyes dampen ever so slightly. “I can still remember arriving at P.E. class on that first day,” she says. “I was wearing flip-flops and toe rings, and I had a sundress on and the kids were like, ‘What just landed in our gym?’”

After high school, Harlan moved again—this time to study French and political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. A 2009 study-abroad program in France in the spring of her sophomore year stirred her wanderlust. “I went to Aix-en-Provence and studied French,” she says, “but I didn’t do well, because I didn’t go to school. I sat in a cafe reading and writing and smoking cigarettes all day. It was my sentimental education.”

Back in Baltimore, she yearned to return to France. In September 2010, she landed a job teaching English in the tiny town of Saintes, near Bordeaux. By 2011, it was back to Baltimore, where she eventually gave up her formal education. “I took Shakespeare, poetry, political science, but I couldn’t pass a math class,” she says. “At some point, I couldn’t justify the degree as something that mattered.”

Work, however, was something that did matter. One of her first jobs was at the storied Brass Elephant in Mount Vernon (recently reopened as The Elephant), where she made butter in the basement. Next, she worked at Roy’s as a host, a food runner, a bus girl, and a server, and she continued to learn the ropes of the restaurant business.

From Roy’s, she went to work at the tiny Jack’s Bistro in Canton, where she tended bar and first dreamt of owning a place of her own. “[Owner] Ted [Stelzenmuller] let me do whatever I wanted,” she recalls. “They let me be creative behind the bar and I loved interacting with people and had a lot of regulars.”

With the help of her family and some small savings, in 2013, Harlan, who had married musician and now business partner Matthew Pierce by then, bought the dilapidated building that became W.C. Harlan—and named it after her grandfather. “When we had traveled to Portugal and Spain to these little bars, we were like, ‘Why can’t we have this in Baltimore?’” she says. “We wondered, ‘Why can’t we have something simple at home that doesn’t have a long menu and cheesy décor and terrible lighting?’ We just wanted a good place to go.” Despite her gypsy soul, Harlan finally put down roots. “I decided to buy the building and I was like, ‘Okay, Baltimore is where I live now.’”

With its Oaxacan textiles, handmade pottery, and calaveras (skulls), Clavel is an exotic Eden that oozes authenticity.

With its well-curated craft beer menu and dark, candlelit interior, W.C. Harlan was an immediate hit in the ’hood. “I took everything out of my apartment, including the books and paintings, and put them at W.C. Harlan,” she says, laughing.

And then, in 2015, thanks to W.C. Harlan’s success came Clavel, inspired by a trip Harlan and her husband had taken to Oaxaca years earlier, where she first learned about mezcal, the distilled spirit derived from agave plants.

“I was sitting in a mezcaleria in Oaxaca, and I geeked out,” she recalls. “It felt like something so special to me. This is about people, this is about farming, and this is about traditions. Mezcal is made like it was five or six generations ago where people are harvesting the wild agave with the donkey or the pickup truck and then cooking it in an underground oven, open-air fermenting it, and distilling it in little clay pots.”

These days, Harlan features about 75 bottles of mezcal on Clavel’s menu and is so bent on increasing understanding about the special spirit that she travels with her bartenders to Oaxaca every year. “They need to see what I see and know in order for this to work,” she says.

Another secret to Clavel’s success is that it transports diners as they sit under the strings of white lights. With its Oaxacan wall textiles, handmade pottery, calaveras (skulls), and artfully placed objets, Clavel is an exotic Eden that oozes authenticity. “It’s set up for you to be welcomed into a memory and feeling of being somewhere else,” explains Harlan. “I remember being in a courtyard in Mexico when Clavel wasn’t even a thought, but I was sitting there, and I’m like, ‘I feel so warm and I’m a little drunk and I smell food and the lights are above me and I’m in an open space,’ and that’s what we wanted people to feel at Clavel.”

In many ways, Harlan took what she learned from her experience with the corporate hospitality world and did the exact opposite. “The corporate structure says that you go to a table and give the spiel,” notes Harlan. “Everyone wears the same thing, and you treat the guests who have a lot of money better than anyone else. You make money and put on a show, and no one cares about your bad day.”

At both of her businesses, servers wear whatever they want and she refers to her staff, with whom she eats lunch at Clavel around 2 p.m. many days, as “family.” It’s clear that the feeling is mutual. “Most of us come here on our days off to hang out with each other,” says server Christina Joseph. Adds bartender Viveca Licata, “She cares about us and respects us deeply.” “We’ve all worked in restaurants before,” says bartender André Barnhill, “but Lane takes this humanistic approach to people. Just last week, I was telling someone there was a laundry list of reasons why I love working here—and then [Lane] instituted free quarterly massages for us.”

Several hours before Clavel’s peach-colored door reading “bienvenidos” opens for service at 5 p.m., Harlan readies for the evening. Her afternoon is a busy one. After eating chicken gorditas washed down by what is jokingly called agua orina (“urine water” made from leftover pineapple skins) with her staff, she “grades” a stack of quizzes on the finer points of mezcal that she’s given to her bartenders and a busser who wants to become a server (sample question: “What’s your favorite dish on the menu and why?”), and art-directs local artist Jessica Soulen, who is painting an outdoor mural inspired by 1950s Mexican poster art.

“I thought I’d be a dandy living abroad,” says Lane Harlan, “but instead I’m providing for the dandies.”

Harlan also confers with her sister’s boyfriend’s brother, Mexican-born co-owner Carlos Raba, who runs the kitchen. For Raba, Clavel’s kitchen is like a return to his Sinaloan childhood, as he prepares staples such as Ceviche Sinaloense (shrimp cured in lime and chiles) and Cochinita Pibil (pork in bitter orange and achiote), passed down from his grandmother. (“When we opened, his mother and aunt came here to make sure we were living up to the recipes,” says Harlan, smiling.)

Raba recalls that when Harlan approached him about the idea of opening a restaurant, he was a manager at a Giant Food Store and had no formal experience. “When she said, ‘We should open something together,’ I thought she was joking,” he says. And then, when it became clear that she was serious, he was hesitant but felt bolstered by Harlan’s confidence. “We knew we couldn’t fail,” he says. “There was too much passion. She has a strong, beautiful energy.”

As customers stream in and the line starts to build, Harlan radiates a sense of calm and contentment. For today at least, she isn’t going anywhere, other than off her barstool to greet her customers, many of whom she knows by name.

“I thought I’d be a dandy living abroad and writing and dining out, but instead I’m providing for the dandies,” says Harlan as she takes a small sip of Champagne left from an earlier tasting. “I’ve given up the ghost—I’m exactly where I want to be as I cultivate a community.”