The first Coal Fire opened in Ellicott City in early 2009, and I loved it at first. The last few visits have been good, but unspectacular. One was bad enough not to finish my slices.
I had been thinking about why I hadn't felt inspired to return to Coal Fire, and the issue arose again last week with Tim Carman's review of Coal Fire Pizza's new Gaithersburg location. Lydia R mentioned the City Paper review on Don Rockwell, and she was disappointed that Coal Fire purposefully limits the char and pops air bubbles to make the pizzas more consistent. I get that. Who feels special about a place that consciously makes everything more uniform? Why shouldn't I be more excited by thoughts of dinner at Grace Garden?
But every restaurant can't be a Grace Garden -- so spare that it's run by a handful of people and offers inspired food, but not really ambiance or high-end service. Coal Fire's concept was clearly born to franchise. They're built on the lovely conceit that they do something special, but they're running a business with kids and part-timers and all the other hassles that make restaurants so hard to oversee. It takes real skill to create unusual dishes -- to create char, but not burn or to create pizzas with individual flair, but never a failure that ruins a customer's night. Can a chain even try to make something unique? The Pizzablogger and I had talked about how Coal Fire's quality seemed to vary by the person running the oven, and uniform steps presumably help Coal Fire turn out more-uniform pies. But six months ago, the PB declared his heart broken and the pizza lackluster.
I'm bummed. I do like Coal Fire and respect the efforts to be more than a standard pizza place. I see them making its own mozzarella. They're sticking with their unusual sauces, which split commenters on the prior posts but certainly displays an individual flair. But it isn't the same place that I thought was worth a long drive and some extra money. I just hope that the artisanal efforts aren't fading as they rent more space in Frederick and beyond.