Let’s just say you were to enter a typical Baltimore restaurant circa 1961. Cocktails would be had before dinner: a martini for him, maybe a Tom Collins for her. The first course would come out, a bowl of iceberg lettuce doused in bright-orange French dressing, followed by cream-of-crab soup. Her main course might be crab imperial, drenched in a rich cream sauce laced with Sherry. He would order a steak—well done, of course—with a baked potato topped with sour cream and butter. The accompanying vegetables might come from a can. For dessert? Ice cream sundaes or perhaps a slice of pie.
Oh, the olden days. A lot has changed since then. We’ve become more health conscious, more aware of global cuisine, and there have been several food revolutions along the way. It was the ’90s—and something called New American cuisine—that really changed the way we ate. In truth, that simply meant adding a twist to a conventional dish. For example, it was somewhat radical when chef Cindy Wolf served a grilled chicken breast with pickled peaches and black beans at her restaurant Savannah, which opened in Fells Point in 1995. (Wow. She was certainly ahead of today’s pickling craze.) Over at Spike & Charlie’s, which opened four years earlier in 1991, chef Spike Gjerde dressed up a butterflied lamb chop with cannellini beans and fresh plum tomatoes (no tin-tasting canned ones for him). It was revelatory.
In a recent interview with firstweeat.com, Gjerde recalled making a ratatouille pizza at Spike & Charlie’s: “We cooked each finely diced vegetable individually, crumbled local goat cheese over it, and put it in the wood-burning oven. It was my first stab at something original.”
We take those additions for granted now. But that was before ratatouille was the name of a popular Pixar film. In fact, many Baltimoreans didn’t know what it was. It was quite bold to douse eggplant with balsamic vinegar before grilling as Gjerde did then. Most restaurants today serve this type of cuisine, with more reliance on the freshest and most local ingredients possible. Many grow their own vegetables, whether they’re tomatoes in container pots on outdoor patios or, like the newest juggernaut, Bagby Restaurant Group, from its own Cockeysville farm for its cadre of restaurants, including Fleet Street Kitchen in Harbor East and Cunningham’s in Towson.
Of course, a lot of other culinary influences were taking place in the pivotal ’90s. We traveled more, exposing us to varied cuisines. The Food Network created a big interest in cooking and chefs. More ingredients were available. And, really, our taste buds were becoming more sophisticated, as David Kamp points out in his excellent book, The United States of Arugula. Suddenly, iceberg was the pariah of the lettuce family.
(Ironically, many of those preparations have come back in vogue. A wedge of iceberg with blue-cheese dressing and crumbled bacon is considered charmingly retro.)
When you look back, there were far fewer restaurants in the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s. And, in true Baltimore fashion, we were loyal to our favorites, tending to latch onto an eating place until the aging owners, beaten down by the 24/7 grind, gave up and retired—Martick’s Restaurant Francais, Caesar’s Den, and Hersh’s Orchard Inn, to name a few.
For various reasons, we’ve lost many icons over the decades, including popular grand dames like Marconi’s, Haussner’s, Danny’s, Connolly’s, Miller Brothers, and Chesapeake Restaurant. Some, like the Chesapeake, have been re-invented into more casual affairs. It’s always nice to see a comeback, as we have for Peerce’s (now The Grille at Peerce’s) in Phoenix, Manor Tavern in Monkton, and the recently opened The Valley Inn in Brooklandville.
We’re still Crabtown, hon—except now we have many other options available. In a 2006 interview with Baltimore magazine, Afghan Qayum Karzai of The Helmand said, “Baltimore is becoming more cosmopolitan in what it accepts, in terms of food and different cuisines from various countries.”
In the same story, Joey Chiu, who operated the long-running and now defunct Bamboo House and, currently, his eponymous Greenspring Inn, concurred. “Now, more people in Baltimore eat out. Besides Chinese food, more and more people like sushi.”
That wasn’t always the case. Chiu recalled that in the late ’80s when he first offered the now ubiquitous fish-rice rolls, “People would say, ‘Ewww’ . . . People have become more educated.”
Now, it’s not unusual to find Asian fusion at many mainstream restaurants or events. For instance, chef Chris Becker, chief operations officer for the Bagby group, makes a great pork-belly steam bun. And Cyrus Keefer of The Fork & Wrench in Canton is known for infusing ingredients like yuzu powder and shochu into his dishes.
These days, most chefs like changing up their cooking style. Recently, Chad Gauss of The Food Market created a Mexican-inspired pop-up with dishes like smoked-trout taquitos, shrimp a la plancha, and rib-eye vieja. With our growing Latino population, it’s easy to find the real deal north of Broadway and Eastern Avenue. But it’s a cuisine that’s finding an inspired niche in Fells Point, including Charlie Gjerde’s new taco joint, Papi’s; Willow (by Stuggy’s owners); and the upcoming Barcocina in the old Shuckers space.
While we have many more diverse ethnic choices than we did when the MTV generation was born—from Lebanese and Persian to Thai and Korean—Italian has always been a mainstay. In fact, if it wasn’t for Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano in Little Italy, actor Chazz Palminteri of The Bronx Tale might not have considered locating his first restaurant in Baltimore. But he connected with Aldo’s Vitale family, and, before you knew it, they were partners in Chazz: A Bronx Original, which opened in Harbor East in 2011. Palmintieri is a frequent visitor at the restaurant.
But it’s safe to say that chefs Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen and Cindy Wolf of Charleston were the true torchbearers. (But even they probably didn’t guess that they both would be 2014 James Beard Award finalists in the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic category. The winner will be announced on May 5.)
The chefs’ early efforts certainly paved the gustatory way for creative takes on cuisine in Baltimore by the likes of Ted Stelzenmuller of Jack’s Bistro (chocolate mac and cheese, sous vide), Jason Ambrose of Salt (duck-fat fries, Kobe beef sliders), and Joe Edwardsen of Joe Squared (gourmet coal-fired square pizza).
Baltimore also got a big bump on the national culinary scene when award-winning chef Michael Mina, who runs almost two dozen restaurants around the country, opened Wit & Wisdom: A Tavern by Michael Mina and Pabu at the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore. We’re also expecting actor Woody Harrelson’s recent acquisition of the Inn at the Black Olive with the rooftop Olive Room restaurant to create a stir in the world beyond the Susquehanna.
It’s exciting not because we have stars in our eyes. We’re thrilled because Baltimore deserves recognition as a food town. Spike and Cindy have been admirable ambassadors through their cooking and previous James Beard nominations prior to this year. But we also know it takes a village of chefs to put Baltimore on the national dining map. And we’re definitely on it.