Visiting Baltimore

Interior of Peabody Library, showing the very ornate, aesthetic stacks and skylight.

This post is through the lens of leaving a relationship that was ending particularly badly in 2012 and only coming back once for a very short visit, a few days, in the intervening time.

It’s also for an adventurous foodie friend of mine so there’ll be some content meant loosely for him. But I wanted to post this to share with anyone who’d find it useful.


  • Woodberry Kitchen: Used to be a really great locavore high touch fine dining venue. I hear it’s now under new ownership and having trouble living up to the high mark it previously set. My current partner and I went there several years ago, and it was fabulous and they treated us like celebrities for even mentioning we were visiting from California (where this style of dining sort of originated with Chez Panisse and The French Laundry). It’s a shame to hear about its potential decline. Still may be worth a visit if it’s in your budget. (NOTE: My friend Kevin recommends against Woodberry Kitchen and instead suggests of Love and Regret. Bonus: they do burlesque and drag shows!)
  • Gertrude’s Chesapeake Kitchen is located inside the Baltimore Museum of Fine Arts, and last I visited, it was a pretty good fine, casual dining spot, especially for brunch and drinks, that represented southern cooking well. Though they did do grits with cheese, which is a touchy subject in Baltimore (whether it should be cooked with milk, butter, and/or cheese). Still a good spot.
  • The Brewer’s Art: This comes recommended, but I don’t think I’ve eaten there yet. It’s possible that I did during the really bad times of my breakup – I can’t remember those times very clearly.
  • The Food Market: I never visited it (it was under construction as I was preparing to leave Baltimore) but it is/was VERY popular when I was getting ready to skedaddle.
  • Rocket to Venus: In Hampden but not on the main drag on W 36th Street. Another early introduction to the delicious deep fried brussels sprouts with balsamic vinegar dressing. They also had other good foods. 🙂
  • Grano Pasta Bar: Quick service, made to order pasta dishes. Was very high quality and good customer experience when I visited. Looks like they had a short move or a remodel/expansion. When I went it was just a lunch counter, but now it looks like it has additional seating. Anyway, they did par-cooked pasta that they finished in pans with the sauce. Nice kitchen process! Quick to the plate, and high quality service.
  • Union Craft Brewing: Visit their Beer Garden for tasting options. I was there once and had a very good time. Excellent brews.
  • Neopol Savory Smokery: This place figured strongly in my food culture. It was one reason I learned to make and experiment with my own gravlax. The owner and I used to compare notes. And I would buy and enjoy his cheese pies, his Platonic Ideal smoked bacon, his divine smoked egg salad, and yes, even his silky gravlax even while I was curing my own. Just excellent all around.
  • Miss Shirley’s Cafe, Roland Park: There are two locations for this eatery. I always preferred the Roland Park location (even though they threw me out once for trying to bring my own coffee) because it wasn’t in a busy tourist area. But they did good Southern, especially brunch.
  • The Helmand: Old school, classic Afghan restaurant in Baltimore. Last time I ate there it was profoundly good. Its owner also has active political connections to Afghanistan and even ran for president in Afghanistan in 2013, and given the traumatic ending of the war in Afghanistan for the US, for other allies, and for the Afghani people, it’d be understandable if you had _feelings_ about it. Here’s a recent article from Politico about it.
  • Thames Street Oyster House: Very well known, highly regarded seafood joint in Baltimore. I think I went there once and didn’t appreciate it as much as it deserved. Decent Bar, great reputation.
  • Petit Louis: Classic French dining. I haven’t eaten there but I know it comes very highly recommended. It’s in Roland Park, a few blocks north of Miss Shirley’s.
  • Himalayan House (Locust Point, near Fort McHenry): A very solid Himalayan, Indian, Nepalese restaurant. They do (or did) momos, and they’re located in an interesting part of Baltimore, Locust Point, near Fort McHenry, where my ex and I used to walk our dog. I lived in Stone Hill, near Hampden in Baltimore, but I found myself really enjoying the parts of the city closer to the water, and Locust Point was one of those areas.
  • Paper Moon Diner: Sort of like Saturn Cafe in Santa Cruz. Very eclectic decor, interesting, sort of downhome Baltimore, MD diner menu.
  • Golden West Cafe: Casual, Southwestern American food. One of my first encounters with deep fried brussels sprouts, and certainly not my last. Eclectic decor (sort of like an old west saloon sometimes).
  • Victoria Gastro Pub, Columbia, MD: Columbia is a suburb of Baltimore, south of the city along highway 95. This is the place where I talked about their poutine, made with duck fat fries, served with duck confit, and a duck fat gravy. They have other intriguing dishes and a good beer selection. May be a bit far away from where you’re staying if in Downtown Baltimore, but if you’re looking for such a rich taste, check it out.

Adventure Food:

For these, you may have to ask your family or local friends, or bartenders or other parasocial connections you make during your Baltimore visit, but I promise you these adventures may well be worth it.

  • Any crab shack: Unfortunately, I’m not familiar with the current best choices here, but you want a shack with an attached kitchen. They should have an enormous boiling kettle for shrimp boil, shelves and shelves full of Old Bay, and coolers and cookers full of blue crab (this is probably seasonal, good luck with that). What you ought to do is go to the current favorite _starving_. You will order a pound or two of shrimp and ask them how many crab. Order a beer. Don’t draw attention by specifying which brand. Wear the bib they give you. They’ll put down clean butcher paper, give you a crab cracker, and dump your order in the middle of the butcher paper. Bring your hungry family and drink your drink and dig in. Get messy with Old Bay. I promise it’s worth it.
  • The best crab cakes: This is a matter of intense debate. Ask around. Get the top 3 or 5 picks and flip a coin to figure out your final selection. You’re looking for picked clean crabmeat and an astounding proportion of crab to fillers. The ideal crab cake should be abound baseball sized, maybe a bit smaller, and your portion should be either one mega crabcake, or maybe two or three normal sized ones.
  • Timbuktu Restaurant: At one time, Timbuktu was in the running for best crab cake. It’s in Hanover, MD, close to Columbia, MD, and is an all around restaurant, package store, and convenience store. I think it was in a bit better business situation when it was right across the street from a Red Roof Inn. Landscapers and other tradesmen would stay at the motel and get some liquor and buy some scratchoffs, and eat the blue plate special with the bluehairs (older customers) and get really drunk and then stagger back to the motel to sleep it all off. But if you do want this food adventure, you can at least try out one of the classic Blue Plate Special eateries in the region.
  • Haitian/Carribean/African Lunch Plates: You should be able to have this adventure in Baltimore, proper. These cuisines were just starting to take off as I was leaving the Baltimore area, but in my limited experience, the food was varied, rib-sticking, and very well seasoned and tasty. Watch out for spiciness, and maybe ask for white spice levels. In many Baltimore eateries, if you ask for Double Black or Double X spice levels, you and your guts will pay for it if you’re not used to it. Be especially careful if you’re ordering BBQ.
  • (fried) Seafood Sandwiches: My go-to for a seafood sandwich with a 40 of a light beer to eat on my (or someone else’s) stoop (the stairs leading up to the front door) was Sterling’s which has unfortunately closed. But ask around for a place like Sterling’s. I think there are some of them still in Baltimore.
  • Seafood restaurant near Baltimore Aquarium: For an ironic twist, go visit the really excellent Baltimore Aquarium (same architect as the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California). And after you’re tired of dealing with all the obnoxious tourists, go and have a nice seafood meal in the nearby Phillips Seafood Restaurant. In my day it was Boston Legal. But it’s just ironic and silly. And a bit decadent.
  • BBQ: Another contentious food topic, given that Baltimore is partly Northern and partly Southern. Baltimore is south of the Mason-Dixon line, keep in mind. But we were often able to get really good BBQ from a corner vendor, just keep your eyes peeled.
  • The Hub Asian Food Hall (and Lotte Plaza Market and H Mart and Asia Supermarket MD), Catonsville: All within a few miles of each other on highway 40, heading West from Baltimore, near the Beltway. These are generally Korean markets and food halls, but pretty good.

Special Places:

  • Belvedere Square: Home to Neopol Savory Smokery (DO NOT MISS if you are around here – find a way to taste their gravlax, cheese pies, bacon, and/or smoked eggs), Atwater’s (bread, soups, salad, ice cream), and other fooderies that I’m not familiar with, though I’d vouch for them based purely on their location.
  • George Peabody Library (pictured in the banner for this post). There are visiting hours. Unsure what your borrowing rights may be, but it’s a gorgeous place to visit.
  • American Visionary Art Museum: An _excellent_ museum that showcases outsider art. It was one of the many places that provided solace for me while I navigated my difficult relationship and eventual breakup with my ex. Really good curation.
  • B&O Railroad Museum: Really good railroad museum. When I lived nearby, you could walk into some of the cars. Very well curated content. Be careful of your surroundings, though. Fine in the daytime, but the B&O is in a neighborhood where crossing the street can expose you to personal crime risk (e.g. mugging). A lot of Baltimore neighborhoods are just across the street from serious trouble, so be alert.
  • Atomic Books: The owners of this very eclectic bookstore often ran events, and also made John Waters very welcome (and were friends of his). I’m not sure if this is still true, but it was a place you might could see him visit from time to time.
  • Downtown Hampden (between Falls and Keswick on W 36th Street): It seems like there’s been a lot of turnover among the shops and eateries here, but it was always a good spot to check out local culture in one of the white neighborhoods in Baltimore. I used to live in Stone Hill, a very exclusive neighborhood that was sort of south of and within Hampden proper.
  • Ma Petite Shoe: Fancy designer women’s shoes and very fine chocolates (for eating, not cooking). I think this was the store where I had my first encounter with Vosges chocolates.
  • Red Emma’s Bookstore: A worker cooperative bookstore, for progressive politics and (I believe) vegan food.
  • Busboys and Poets: My ex really liked spending time in this restaurant after we broke up. As little as we got along during the last few months, she had very good taste in food, so I consider this highly recommended.
  • Little Italy: I, sadly, honestly can’t remember which of the Little Italy restaurants was our favorite. I kind of want to say La Scala since it was close to the Parking Garage (trivia: located where Baltimore’s Slave Market used to be), but I could be very wrong. In my experience, most of the Italian restaurants nearby were worth a visit. Also note, a lot of insiders to politics have remarked from time to time that Nancy Pelosi (yes, that one, the two-times Speaker of the House of Representatives of the US) got her hard hitting politics and forthright voice from growing up in Baltimore’s Little Italy, so there’s that, too.
  • Fells Point/Canton: I think I’m remembering correctly that there were some good dog parks and some shops we favored in Fells Point/Canton. For sure around 2012, those neighborhoods were changing into hipster and DC commuter neighborhoods (right next to the beltway, 895 South,  and to 95 South). It also seems like some of the newer restaurants got opened in these areas that may be worth a look.
  • Locust Point: I already mentioned this area for its Himalayan restaurant (there’s a different Himalayan place closer to downtown Baltimore too), but Locust Point also has Fort McHenry, which is an interesting dirt constructed fort that had rather a lot of strategic importance and big-ass cannons. Not a very popular site for tourists since it’s pretty far from the Inner Harbor area, but I liked visiting it and sometimes walking our akita around it.

Anyhow, let me know if you’ve got any questions or comments, and I hope the city treats you well. I lived there for about 10 or 11 years, and I felt like with my Berkeley background, I fit right in. Also, Frank Zappa was born there, I think quite notably.