As a first time visitor this November, Baltimore was not what I imagined after years of crime reports and The Wire. Founded in 1729, the city’s industrial past and poverty are present, to be sure, but what dominates is its waterside setting, Colonial architecture, cobblestone streets in historic areas like Fells Point and the largest number of public monuments of any US city. Locals are down to earth and I received a warm, unpretentious welcome at many a Baltimore restaurant and bar.
In dining and the modern day cocktail renaissance, Baltimore may be playing catch-up to many US cities and is far from the recent sophistication and forward-thinking dining found in nearby D.C. but the city is fast on the rise.
Stay tuned for my articles on the top bars and cocktails of Baltimore, as well as interviews with a top local distiller and bar manager, in Distiller Magazine, which I will link to here this Spring as the print issue comes out.
For now, here are my top seven restaurant recommendations in Baltimore now.
The BIG ONE: WOODBERRY KITCHEN
As one of the most lauded, awarded restaurants in Baltimore, Woodberry Kitchen is the one restaurant I visited that could define Baltimore dining style. Friendly, excellent service and a lofty, barn-like space with an inviting outdoor patio and firepit evokes both urban and countryside aesthetics. Woodberry is rustic and hip, farm-to-table but not in the way that pioneering NorCal is, pulling from both California and Old World Europe. This feels more like Northeast US farm with a gourmet slant.
Unfortunately, in my experience both dishes and drinks (more on the cocktails here at Liquor.com) were inconsistent: a couple were excellent, the rest mediocre or unfocused. But the high points were high and the entire experience and atmosphere feels essential to and definitive of Baltimore’s unique role in food and drink. Refreshingly, the intimate bar stocks ONLY small batch, thoughtfully made spirits, while dishes employ “it” ingredients long popular in leading food cities, from black garlic to benne seeds (note: reserve well ahead).
And ITS MEATY SISTER: PARTS & LABOR
In many ways, Woodberry Kitchen’s sister restaurant, Parts & Labor, is more consistent though less “unique” than Woodberry, with its whole animal butchery, meat-heavy focus, done in excellent fashion but something us constant international travelers and food writers have seen everywhere since Fergus Henderson first popularized the craze in London at St. John in the 1990s.
In a hot, bustling space centered around open flame and kitchen, dishes are consistently strong from robust house sausages, like a blood sausage or boudin blanc-reminiscent kielbasa, to the showstopper: a raw cheeseburger ($14) of raw, crumbled beef served on a bun with pickles, onion and tomato. It dissolves dreamily in soft, meaty glory, an unusual interpretation of both burgers and beef tartare. While basic cocktails are just ok, there is a winning range of Maryland and New England farm beers, ciders and meads.
MODERN VENEZUELAN: ALMA COCINA
Though service was lackluster and disinterested during my visit, Alma Cocina‘s airy, white, sunny space and modern Venezuelan food with lovely cocktails was one of my best meals in Baltimore.
Standouts included a heartwarming cazuela de huevos y chorizo (eggs and sausage casserole) and their “arepa bar”, a menu of sandwiches packed in the traditional corn/maize cakes of Colombia and Venezuela (I loved the “black and white” arepa, packed with black beans, Oaxacan cheese, avocado, caramelized sweet plantains, cilantro).
From ceviches to house pork chorizo, the food topped what I ate over 10 days in Venezuela years back, a forward-thinking example of what is possible in this cuisine.
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CLASSIC SEAFOOD HOUSE: THAMES STREET OYSTER HOUSE
Rightfully one of Baltimore’s most beloved seafood restaurants and located in a historic, Colonial building on the waterfront in Fells Point, Thames Street Oyster House feels like an idyllic New England seafood house with Maryland soul, right down to friendly waiters who take good care of you in the narrow, wood-lined space. From lobster and clam rolls to cast iron Maryland crab cakes, they step it up by sourcing sustainably and domestically whenever possible.
“REAL DEAL” MEXICAN: CLAVEL
As a Californian and frequent traveler to Mexico who was weaned on real and regional Mexican food, Mexican restaurants around the country (and world) are often a gross disappointment, if not a travesty to the cuisine. While excellent Mexican isn’t destination-worthy on the East Coast as a whole, there are recently some signs of life and Clavel is one of them, a casual bar/eatery opened in 2015 by Lane Harlan (stay tuned for my interview with her and more about her stellar Baltimore bars, Clavel and WC Harlan in Distiller Magazine and Liquor.com). From a superb (and educational for the uninformed) mezcal selection to lengua (tongue) and huitlacoche (corn fungus) tacos with housemade tortillas, Clavel felt and tasted like home.
GLOBAL INFLUENCE in a HISTORIC HOUSE: THE ELEPHANT
Over the summer of 2016, new owners opened The Elephant, reviving the gorgeous Victorian home with Indian wood carvings and upstairs and downstairs bar.
The globally influenced dishes may seem disjointed (tamales to sushi) but there are unexpected gems on the menu that may not jump out at first glance, like delicately fried zucchini fritters ($10) accented with feta and mint, dipped in dill mustard sauce, or a crispy chickpea crepe ($13), dotted with yogurt cucumber and cilantro lime sauces.
COCKTAIL DESTINATION with QUALITY FOOD: BOOKMAKERS COCKTAIL CLUB
Open in 2014, Bookmakers Cocktail Club (which I cover in Distiller Magazine and Liquor.com this spring) is easily one of Baltimores most sophisticated bars and first and foremost, a destination for cocktails and spirits. Thankfully, the food is also worthwhile, whether their raved about Bookies burger laden with smoked tomato and onion, to perfectly fried cornmeal oysters accompanied by smoked bacon, tomato, pickled red onion and remoulade sauce on toast points.