Restaurateur and Retriever Lane Harlan goes back for seconds

Published: Apr 2, 2024

Harlan stands in a white and khaki outfit in a cutout of brick walls next to a green plant
Lane Harlan at her restaurant Clavel. (Marlayna Demond '11/UMBC)

Some have dark wood and cozy corners, some have bright, natural light and textured walls—but each of Lane Harlan’s establishments can be looked at like a love letter to the people of Baltimore, thoughtfully decorated with hand-chosen, local pieces and, in some cases, even the decor from her own living room. 

The different vibes, each sumptuous in their own ways, are transporting for patrons. Harlan says that’s intentional. “I want them to feel like they’re elsewhere. They’re not in Baltimore, they’re somewhere else. I think it’s important if you can feel like you’re on an adventure.”

To say Harlan ’21, political science—the highly-accomplished restaurateur who opened W.C. Harlan, Clavel Mescaleria, Fadensonnen, the Coral Wig, and more—is well-known throughout Baltimore would be an understatement. Her acclaim continues to grow after the recent announcement that Clavel is a finalist for a coveted James Beard Award for “Outstanding Bar” (one step and one sip inside the unique taqueria and within a second, you’ll understand why). But while we all know of her success, it may come as a surprise that just like many students, she hit some academic roadblocks along the way. 

The first course

When Harlan joined UMBC as a political science major in 2005, she was already a little different than your average first-year student. Growing up in a military family, she spent her childhood often moving. After graduating high school early, Harlan took her own version of a gap year, traveling to Spain to start her informal education in the hospitality industry. Upon return to Baltimore, she decided to set down roots at UMBC and experience life as an independent adult living in the city. 

Brian Grodsky, political science chair, was one of the professors who helped Harlan connect with her major, especially in his classes about international justice.

“That class made me want to go to school forever. I felt like it was so fascinating and challenging at the same time,” says Harlan. 

A younger version of the same woman, Lane Harlan, stands in a winter coat, slightly smiling and posing for a photo on a bridge in France
Harlan enjoys a trip abroad in France in 2010. (Photo courtesy of Harlan)

Reflecting back on the student he taught nearly 15 years prior, Grodsky remembers Harlan as “one of those students for whom class didn’t just stop when she went home—she was always grappling with issues long after we walked out of the classroom.” 

But if her childhood taught her anything, Harlan knew she still had a lot of the world to explore. “Studying abroad was one of the most important things I did in college. And if I hadn’t gone to UMBC, I wouldn’t have had that opportunity,” says Harlan. 

Harlan spent a year studying abroad in France, learning the restaurant and bar business from the ground up. While she excelled academically in her upper-level courses through UMBC, she struggled with her math requirement. And so, when the opportunity to return to France through a teaching assistantship arose, she jumped at the chance and eventually decided to leave her formal education at UMBC behind. 

Recipe for success

Over the next several years, Harlan worked with partners to build her growing restaurant dynasty, starting with W.C. Harlan, a foreclosed upon former dive bar turned accidental speakeasy. But she harkened back to lessons she learned at UMBC to help her during the exhaustive process. 

Harlan and her two colleagues take a second to stand behind a bar in front of a green painted wall, smelling mezcal
Behind the bar is where the magic happens and Harlan and her colleagues are testing out what they’ll serve patrons at Clavel that night. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

“I used my sense of political science in that I was walking around with the petition to the neighbors, getting people to sign, saying that they supported the reopening of the bar, as well as taking it to the neighborhood associations and speaking with the council people,” she says. 

A woman in a white shirt and glasses stands reaching for a small drinking container on a shelf with several rows of the same
Harlan reaches for a functional and pleasingly aesthetic vessel for serving mezcal behind the bar. (Marlayna Demond ’11/UMBC)

After all this success, how is it that Harlan found herself back in the (virtual) UMBC classroom? In short—COVID. 

“In the pandemic, businesses had to close, restaurants became carry-out operations, and suddenly there was more time in my life,” says Harlan. “I started to think about my time at UMBC, and I felt like I didn’t have closure from that period.” 

Through UMBC’s Finish Line Program, Harlan re-enrolled and found herself again coming face to face with her one-time nemesis—the math requirement. She hired a tutor to come to Clavel once a week to help her study and go over homework. And though she admits it was difficult getting back into the swing of academia after so many years away, she persisted and completed her degree. 

“I texted a photo of my diploma to my parents, and I said, ‘Dad, hang it on your wall! Be proud of me,’” she jokes. “But really, the reason I wanted to finish also was because everyone in life, you have many chapters, and I might want to have another chapter. And I knew I couldn’t do that without my undergraduate degree.” 

While Harlan spends her free time traveling the world and even expanding her business ventures globally, she’s not going anywhere any time soon. “I love Baltimore. I can’t imagine my restaurants anywhere else, actually. I think Baltimore is filled with artists and opportunities and people who do things and they own them.”

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