What makes a good neighborhood restaurant? It's a question we discussed at length while working on this story. And it turned out that a lot of different elements went into making a place not just good, but locally good. A good neighborhood restaurant, we decided, shouldn't require dressing up. But it shouldn't be just a bar or diner, either—it should be a place you could take a friend for his or her birthday and not feel like a cheapskate. It should be open for dinner. It should be reasonably priced (with most entrées under the $20 mark, and plenty of $10-range sandwiches and light fare) but it should still offer carefully prepared, high-quality food—food you would not be ashamed to offer an out-of-town guest, for instance. A good neighborhood restaurant should be popular (which knocked out a couple great places that unfortunately seem constantly empty) but should not require weeknight reservations (there went some hotspots with hour-long waits, like Nacho Mama's and our beloved Samos). It should belong to your neighborhood and yours alone—meaning some very worthy chains (Donna's, Edo, Olive & Sesame, and that endless array of interrelated Egyptian pizzerias) weren't eligible. For our purposes, we also decided that any place on our annual Best Restaurants list didn't need double billing here—sorry, Aida Bistro, b, and Peter's Inn (among others), but you already get plenty of love from us. And then we looked for that intangible quality of being truly part of a community. You can see it in the way servers greet customers—or in the way customers greet each other. You see it in aesthetics that match those of the surrounding neighborhood (could the Golden West Cafe exist anywhere other than Hampden?) and in notices for community events posted on the walls. We talked with residents of the neighborhoods we featured to find out what they considered to be their favorite spots. The result is as varied as the city's many neighborhoods. Some places serve sushi; others, ribs. What they all share is good food, good cheer, and a sense of belonging to the people who live nearby.
1105 S. Charles Street, 410-752-8561
It's as simple as this: If you live in Federal Hill, you've probably eaten at Matsuri at least once. Maybe you've grabbed a late-night round of alcohol-absorbing tempura with your friends; maybe you've met a friend there for some shared sushi; maybe you just got addicted to their ridiculously rich and creamy baked sushi roll (hey, it's understandable). And once there, you probably found something to intrigue you—that crazy-sounding spiced beer, perhaps, or the choose-your-own bento box. Plus, you couldn't help noticing the place's cheerful, bustling vibe (a little more relaxed in the airy second floor) and the friendly, attentive service. In fact, given the convivial atmosphere and excellent Japanese food, it's a fair bet that you've been to Matsuri on plenty of occasions. And so have your neighbors—which is why you always wind up seeing someone to wave to on your way in or out.
Metropolitan Coffee House and Wine Bar
902 S. Charles Street, 410-234-0235
While away an afternoon at Metropolitan and you'll see a steady stream of everyday regulars, weekly locals, and businesspeople pass through this two-story jack-of-all-trades to have a beer, suck down a coffee, or shoot the breeze with each other. Once dinner time rolls around, this same eclectic mix of patrons tucks into Chef Tony's homestyle menu that includes comfortable choices like vegetable lasagna, crab cakes, and steak burritos. A surprising array of wine choices is available to pair with your food, as is a constantly rotating selection of craft beers on tap. Owner Bruce Dorsey sponsors wine and beer tastings in the upstairs bar regularly, and it is the regulars who gleefully respond to his email announcements.
Regi's American Bistro
1002 Light Street, 410-539-7344
On any given night during warm-weather months, you'll find every sidewalk table at Regi's taken—runaway cars be damned! (The restaurant was the site of an unfortunate incident earlier this year.) It's evidently worth a frisson of danger to eat gloriously over-the-top renditions of American favorites, like the tater tot appetizer that is topped with gooey melted brie and oh-so-good bits of applewood-smoked bacon. Regi's hates to think of its diners going hungry: Here, have another slab of meatloaf on your pile of buttery smashed potatoes. Even salads are massive islands of greenery topped with a hefty dose of shrimp and cheese (or seared tuna and fried onions, if you so choose). The atmosphere in the small side dining room is cozy and quiet; the sidewalk seating tends to be where people go for intertable socializing—often waving hello to diners at Ten-O-Six next door (a worthy establishment in its own right).
6 W. Cross Street, 410-752-1518
On our most recent visit to SoBo Cafe, a friend asked, "Why haven't I been here before?" We couldn't answer—after all, it's not like we haven't been singing the small Federal Hill spot's praises since it opened some 10 years ago. (Heck, we even put it on our cover!) But SoBo continues to glide under the radar of much of this city, content to keep serving up homey, creative comfort food like its ultra-rich mac'n'cheese and its adorable muffin-shaped meatloaves. SoBo keeps things casual: Someone scratches out items on the Xeroxed menu as they run out, desserts are served only when someone feels like making one, and servers range from beatific to slightly daffy. It's not the world's best date spot—the small, bare room can get seriously loud—but for a group of friends, it's hard to beat. An always-interesting selection of local artwork on the walls provides visual interest, and there's a good selection of beers on tap. Best of all, the food always features good, fresh ingredients—a lot of times, the cooks plan the menu based on what they were able to buy at Cross Street that morning. Seriously. Why haven't you been there before?
Thai Arroy Restaurant
1019 Light Street, 410-385-8587
"If I didn't know any better, I'd think I was back in Thailand," said a dinner companion just back from vacation as he happily heaped some green curry with tofu and mixed vegetables onto his plate during our most recent visit to this small, charming eatery. A mural reproduced from the walls of Bangkok's The Royal Grand Palace and a photograph of Thailand's beloved King and Queen proudly preside over this casual, inviting place. With the exception of too much salt in our tom yum lemongrass soup, every dish we sampled was a winner. The pad Thai—with tender bits of chicken, sweet shrimp, and crunchy sprouts—was one of the best versions of this traditional Thai noodle dish we've had this side of the Pacific. The menu is extensive; many of the curry, noodle, and rice dishes can be topped with your choice of beef, pork, shrimp, chicken, duck, or tofu. Then there are the mouthwatering house specialties, such as pu nim, softshell crab with yellow curry or gang dang pra, a crispy fish in red curry with coconut milk. Our servers were eager to please and lightning quick when they forgot one of our entrées. Thai Arroy is BYOB, so bring a crisp white or some Thai Singha beer to help douse the fire from spicier fare.
Hull Street Blues Cafe
1222 Hull Street, 410-727-7476
This Locust Point stalwart and homage to Commodore Isaac Hull prides itself on being one of Baltimore's best neighborhood eateries, and justifiably so. A welcoming, comfy environment emanates from the exposed brick, rich wood accents, and airy main dining room; the joint could easily sit back and bang out burgers and people would still be happy here. Luckily for us, patrons can help themselves to spicy delights like shrimp and chorizo brouchette, a kabob of grilled shrimp, sweet peppers, onion, and spicy sausage (although on our last visit, we're pretty sure "chorizo" should have been spelled "andouille") or grilled buffalo wings; we were shocked at how succulent and sinful the baby back ribs are here, too. Lobster ravioli suffered from an utterly dominating marinara, but we're looking forward to going back for the Bangkok Tilapia, featuring sweet chili sauce and fresh basil. Service is friendly, prompt, and helpful, and we easily forgave the so-so chocolate cake for the utterly relaxed and contented feeling we were left with.
1401 Clement Street, 410-962-1212
Pazza Luna is another one of those places that easily can wind up being outside our designated price range for this feature—there's a $34 veal chop on the entrée list. But you can stay well within budget if you stick with this corner restaurant's pastas—and really, why wouldn't you, when they're all homemade? Casoncelli alla Bergamasca—tender pillows of ground pork, beef, and lamb in a buttery sauce drizzled with truffle oil and dotted with prosciutto and asparagus—is as soft and rich as a cashmere shawl. Meanwhile, specials like rosemary-grilled shrimp over lemon sorbet show off the kitchen's creativity. Fans of the old Pazza Luna should know that since Sotto Sopra owner Ricardo Bosio took over the place, its old Sinatra-and-stars theme is gone. Rather, look for a comfortable but somewhat formal room, with warm yellow walls and sparkling white linens. Service is attentive and knowledgeable. The restaurant still suffers a little from being hidden away in the back of Locust Point's narrow streets, but that makes it all the more perfect as a neighborhood treasure.
Patrick's of Pratt Street
934 W. Pratt Street, 410-244-5000.
Say it isn't so! Owners Anne and Patrick Rowley won't deny it: They're considering opening a second Patrick's out in Frederick, and many fear that once they do so, the Pratt Street location—the oldest Irish bar in America—might not be worth their while. (The Rowleys tell us that won't be the case, but we've heard differently from regulars.) That would be tragic, not just because of the loss to Baltimore's history, but also because of the loss of those big, lumpy crab cakes and Anne Rowley's other, more imaginative takes on Irish bar fare. The shepherd's pie features hand-cut vegetables; the appetizer list includes handmade mini samosas; the menu endearingly promises that the cod with Thai lime sauce will "whisper thoughts of happiness in your mouth." And it just might, at that. If nothing else, the boisterous goodwill on evidence here will shout happiness. This is the place to go to sing along with a live band (and the entire bar) to "The Wild Rover" while drinking Guinness and eating French-cut lamb chops—and, whether we know it or not, we need such a place. So please, get on down there and do what you can to persuade the Rowleys to keep this institution going for another 155 years.
Kooper's Tavern and Slainte Irish Pub
1700-1702 Thames Street, 410-563-5423 and 410-563-6600
We hate to lump these two joints together, seeing as they both have their own separate collections of regular patrons. But then again, Patrick Russell owns and runs both, so there's a similar spirit shared between them—not to mention the same excellent burgers at either place. Of the two, Kooper's is older—and, perhaps for that reason, more mellow. The cozy room upstairs offers a fireplace during the winter and a little bar of its own, so drinks are never too far. Next door, Slainte offers an airy dining area and bar upstairs and a more traditional Irish pub experience downstairs. But it's during "football" (i.e. soccer) season when the place really fills up—they open early on Saturdays for the English Premier League matches, and a Scotsman friend of ours called the full breakfast "the best British style breakfast I've ever had in the States." Our other favorites are the burgers and, of course, Baltimore's Best gumbo (so good, it got promoted from special to regular status).
One Eyed Mike's
708 S. Bond Street, 410-327-9823
Many people, if they know One-Eyed Mike's at all, know about it because of the Grand Marnier Club that allows customers to keep their own personal bottle of the liqueur behind glass at this Fells Point tavern. But Mike's is more than shots of sweet booze; it's a super-friendly pub with food and environs that also make it a full-scale restaurant. Food is inexpensive—plenty of options are under the $10 mark—but done with a little more thought than usual. The potato chips that come with all sandwiches are freshly fried and tossed with parmesan cheese; a meatball sub features tender (albeit small) spheres in a mellow, long-simmered tomato sauce. In warm months, the patio is a relaxing, casual place for a good meal; in the winter, the dining room's old tin ceiling and burnished wood floors give the place an old-timey coziness. In fact, our only complaint is that the city's health department has forbidden Duke, the owner's dog, from the premises. We miss our four-legged greeter—and, we've been told, he misses us.
1710 Thames Street, 410-537-5055
If you've ever glanced in the Waterfront's frequently hopping bar, you might not have realized that upstairs lies a lovely dining room, complete with fireplace. (For parents, definitely leave the stroller at home—those stairs are steep!) One of the oldest brick buildings in Baltimore (it was built in 1771), it looks good for its age, with a rotating selection of art on the walls and a vibe that hovers between "bar crawl" and "date night." Jeans are more than okay, as are kids. Service is friendly and, for the most part, stellar. Weekly specials—like the $10 entrées on Tuesdays—help to keep the room full. The food ranges from the traditional (crab cakes, smashed potatoes) to the more ambitious and adventurous (crab risotto, chocolate quesadilla). You're better off opting for the latter, as this obviously is where the kitchen's interest lies and the more prosaic standards are done with distinctly less enthusiam. That quesadilla is well worth ordering; it's the Waterfront's manly take on the French crêpe.
641 S. Montford Avenue, 410-732-3000
Birches is, in some ways, the quintessential neighborhood restaurant, in that it can't really be appreciated on the first try. Newcomers won't know when they can and can't order a burger (not on weekends), or what time the dining room closes (it varies), or why they should order a pizza (they're baked in a wood-fired oven). And service for strangers can be hit-or-miss. Once you've crossed into regular status, though, all that changes. Servers will know your name (and you'll know theirs), as well as your favorite dishes and tables. You'll find yourself waving to fellow diners you recognize. And you'll begin to appreciate the way Birches caters to its clientele, with monthly Baby Nights for parents and lots of great specials. Birches has ambitious, upscale food for your splurge nights, and casual pub grub for game nights. It has a great beer selection. It may take you a while to learn to love it, but once you do, it will become your go-to place.
2318 Fleet Street, 410-732-1961
If you are not already a regular at Geckos, we recommend that you bring a friend who is one. Because, really, it's impossible to appreciate this place—to get the Full Gecko, if you will—without a regular in tow. It's not just a matter of everyone knowing your friend's name. It's actually a matter of your friend being treated like some sort of conquering hero when she walks in. Bartenders sing out a hearty chorus of hellos, waiters usher her quickly to a great table on the second floor, the chef comes over and personally recommends the special swordfish, and co-owner Nick Marrero swings by looking pleased as punch that she's arrived. It's enough to make a dining companion feel . . . unnecessary. But don't be jealous: Your friend assures you that after one or two visits, you, too, can achieve most-favored-customer status. So what else, besides Geckos' irresistible bonhomie, makes the regulars so loyal? Many things you'd expect—TVs tuned to the Ravens and Orioles, lots of Mexican beers (and 40 tequilas!), pool tables—and some things you wouldn't—like some of the best Southwestern food in town (try the mango chipotle enchiladas, and don't shy away from the daily specials) and even a Sunday champagne brunch. All in all, you'll feel compelled to start cementing your status as a regular straight away.
Helen's Garden Cafe
2908 O'Donnell Street, 410-276-2233
Even after expanding into the rowhouse next door, Helen's remains almost consistently packed. It's easy to see why: The place neatly positions itself between casual and fancy, modern and comfortable. The exposed brick and extensive wine list make it feel like a proper city restaurant; the closely spaced tables and informal servers give the sense of a neighborhood hangout. The menu cheerfully trots all over the globe, heading to Latin America for chicken tostadas, then zipping over to Greece for ouzo-scented shrimp, with plenty of Italian and even a little Thai to round things out. But for those more domestically inclined, there are plenty of steaks and crab cakes and overflowing bowls of entrée-sized salads. Most of it is done quite well, though the unending crush of patrons does seem to strain the kitchen at times. We loved the contrast between sweet, mild seared scallops and the spicy kick of their accompanying creamy tomato sauce, as well as the tart simplicity of a raspberry-rhubarb pie. With a revolving roster of weekly specials and a justly popular brunch, we're willing to cool our heels at the bar for a few minutes to wait for a table here.
3123 Elliott Street, 410-878-6542
You'd think Canton, waterfront hub of massive gentrification, would be riddled with great neighborhood restaurants. Well, not so much. With few exceptions, bars—with their requisite bar food and, um, bar-hoppers—far outnumber venues for serious food. So when Jack's Bistro opened last winter on a corner well off the noisy Square, locals embraced chef/owner Ted Stelzenmuller's serious but playful approach to the neighborhood joint: yes, you can get bar fare here (Tuesday is soft-pretzel night), but the global menu is dotted with ingredients like truffle oil, smoked gouda, and habanero glaze. Oh, and the occasional pop rocks on your ahi or Belgian chocolate in your mac'n'cheese. (Some have grumbled that the menu doesn't always announce these oddball ingredients ahead of time.) The waitstaff is very much in tune with the menu's sense of fun, and the liquor choices run from the staid to the exotic. Perks like $12 Sunday-night entrées for bar customers encourage you to get to know your neighbor; a prix fixe menu featuring a different national cuisine each month assures that regulars will never be bored.
900 S. Kenwood Avenue, 410-327-8100
This comfortable Italian-American restaurant off the beaten track in Canton has been through a few changes lately. Some of the original family members involved have left the restaurant, and the remaining Tiburzis shut the place down for a few months to remodel the upstairs. There are things we like about Tiburzi's 2.0: The small upstairs deck allows for outdoor dining, and we do appreciate the sprucing-up of the second floor. But there are things we miss: Prices have gone up, making Tiburzi's no longer the bargain that it once was, and some of our favorite servers seem to have left. But then there are the things that remain the same, the things that made us love this restaurant in the first place: Those tender, flavorful meatballs; that massive slice of lasagna oozing rich, gooey mozzarella; and a staff that's so friendly and eager to please that we wind up willing to forgive them and their establishment anything.
611 S. Fagley Street, 410-563-7577
It might not make anyone's "trendy restaurant" list, but a place like Eichenkranz is tailor-made for a neighborhood restaurant roundup like this one. It's been open for just over a century, during which time most of the other old-school German-American restaurants on the east side of town have shuttered. But "Ike's" (as we've heard Highlandtowners call it) keeps plugging away. On our last visit, we were pretty obviously the only folks not from the immediate neighborhood. A pair of police officers were in one corner grabbing dinner; a family of four sat nearby, while a few tables away, a young couple were taking grandparents out to dinner. As for us, we were there for some nice, heavy comfort food. And boy, is the food comforting: Four kinds of schnitzel pretty much cover all your possible needs there. And the Schwinkoteletten mit Apfeln meets our requirements for a perfect autumn dish: pork, apples, and liqueur. If those dishes sound daunting, it's okay, you can take your time here. Staff are as friendly and laid back as you could want.
4805 Eastern Avenue, 410-633-3750
"I haven't seen you guys in a while!" said our waitress to another table while taking our order. We weren't offended; Ikaros has been around since 1969, and it's getting the grandkids of its original customers coming in for graduation dinners now. The long narrow rooms, with their blue-and-white paint jobs and pictures of Greek islands on the walls, feel like an East Baltimore rec room gone Aegean . . . which isn't all that far from the case, come to think of it. Regulars get treated like family—and newcomers like amusingly wayward children. "You want to get some calamari, yes?" our waitress asked/instructed us moments later. "It's very good." We'd never want to hurt her feelings, but truthfully, the big rings of slightly overcooked squid weren't our favorite part of the meal. Ikaros's greatest strength is its casserole dishes, like the hearty pastitsio or the more unusual guvetsaki, beef stewed with herbs and rose wine. Everything is homey and comforting—and impossible to finish, though the motherly servers will let you order dessert, even if you don't finish dinner.
2901 E. Baltimore Street, 410-327-3333
You know a restaurant is off to a great start when, right off the bat, it glides triumphantly through potential disaster. Within weeks of opening this summer, Patterson Park's Three lost one of its three (get it?) partners when Jack Starr left the enterprise. Unfortunately, he was also the chef. Luckily, the remainder of the triumvirate are old pros (One-Eyed Mike's Richard Carroll and Michael Harmel), who quickly hired chef Peter Livolsi (of Pazo fame), revamped the menu, and reopened in the blink of an eye. Those smarts are matched by the pair's enthusiastic and friendly presence in the front of the house, which inspires a rollicking neighborhood atmosphere. Three has already become the place to be in Patterson Park, and Livolsi's sophisticated Mediterranean cuisine—mostly small plates, sandwiches, and salads—will keep them coming. Bring friends so you can share all the stellar offerings on the daily seafood menu—and spread the party vibe.
1001 Cathedral Street, 410-539-4252
"On any given day, you can have a drag queen at one table and [Maryland First Lady and Judge] Katie O'Malley at another," says City Cafe co-owner Bruce Bodie. And therein lies the charm. For a midtown restaurant to truly qualify as a neighborhood fave, it has to appeal to all of midtown—from the MICA students, to the Penn Station commuters, to the seniors at the Waxter Center, to the gay residents who flock to the nearby Hippo and Central Station. So how does City Cafe achieve such a melting pot? By providing what everyone wants: A stylish, comfortable respite, a place that does breakfast, lunch, and dinner with equal aplomb, where comfort food like meatloaf and lasagna sits on the menu alongside more upscale fare like pan-seared tuna with wasabi aioli and Moroccan lamb burger; a place that serves delicious lattes and muffins as well as mojitos and cosmopolitans. Oh, and don't forget about the specials: Monday night, half-price burgers; Tuesdays and Wednesdays, $15 New York strip with onions, mushrooms, and homemade mashed potatoes. Really, people, what's not to like?
818 N. Calvert Street, 410-528-0818
News flash: there's not a lot of good pizza in this town. And there aren't too many places to eat on the east side of Mount Vernon. Iggies is solving both problems, and in doing so it's developed a devoted clientele. Now, Iggie's doesn't ameliorate the city's dearth of New York or Chicago-style pizzerias, but it does make a very good, thin, gourmet Neopolitan pizza with an excellent selection of toppers: soppresatta, duck confit, garlic spinach, broccoli. There are also some fine salads built on fresh greens, and must-try sides like the mac'n'cheese and the piselli (peas) paired with pancetta. The dining room's tall ceilings and long community tables (plus plenty of normal four-tops) lead to a loud, vibrant scene, especially on weekend nights. In good weather, the outdoor tables are always filled with diners, many of whom have brought their dogs. Part of Iggies' charm is its self-service nature: You set and clear your own tables, and while soft drinks and juices are available, it's BYO beer and wine (an ample supply of corkscrews and glasses are available).
1013 N. Charles Street, 410-332-0332
Recently relocated to the old Belvedere Florist shop, Minato Sushi Bar is shiny new. The crowd is young, the wait staff engaging ("Miami Ink is eating here tomorrow," our giddy waitress told us) and the decor hip—right down to the bathroom faucets. You can bring a date and cozy on up to the sushi bar for sashimi and sake, or come with pals and lay claim to one of the cool black tables and chartreuse chairs. A patio is in the works for next spring. The food is tasty, but is sometimes outshone by the giant rainbow light fixture that takes up almost the entire ceiling—somewhat reminiscent of the light show at Morimoto in Philadelphia (not a bad role model). The sashimi was fresh and meaty (in a good way). The bento box (pick three options at lunch, four at dinner) is the best way to sample the menu—though the noodle dishes (including soba, udon, and ramen) are hard to pass up. The only solution? Eat there a lot.
1726 N. Charles Street, 410-727-8815
Drive past Penn Station, and you can't help but notice the makeover undergone by the nearby Station North neighborhood. Shiny new townhomes have sprouted up on Calvert, and the Charles Street entertainment block is teeming with theatergoers and diners at all hours. We're happy to report that Zodiac seems to have gone through a similar transformation. Our most recent visit found that the service and consistency problems that plagued the hip eatery during its first years seem to have been resolved. Prices seem more in line with those of its peers than previously (though we suspect that's more due to general menu creep than to Zodiac's charging less). We've always loved the bi-level room, with its art-deco-style, zodiac-themed mural and slightly disheveled supper-club vibe. And the food is great—we loved the "Aries," where tender lamb chops were graced with a potent mint chutney. The mountainous piles of thin fries that accompany every sandwich are a treat in themselves. In keeping with this neighborhood's arty, alternative aesthetic, there are plenty of vegetarian and even vegan offerings. Add in a wicked cocktail list and some very reasonably priced wines, and it looks like Zodiac's star is rising.
One World Cafe
100 W. University Parkway, 410-235-5777
Every college should have one nearby—that comfortable hangout with plenty of espresso for the studious and plenty of good beer for the, er, not-so-studious, where even cash-strapped students can afford massive plates of food that you'd never see served in a campus cafeteria. Lucky for Hopkins, it's got One World, which fills all those requirements. It manages to be bar, coffee shop, and vegetarian restaurant all in one compact, wedge-shaped space. The menu ranges across the globe, from a soothing miso soup to crabless, zucchini-based "crab" cakes that come with a distinctly non-soothing, jalapeño-heavy corn salsa. Things aren't perfect here—servers can seem more interested in their dissertations than in getting your order straight, and seriously, did anyone taste that corn salsa before sending it out?—but the problems are ones that you'd expect in this sort of establishment, and the benefits (oh, those delicious goat-cheese omelets on the weekends!) outweigh its few deficiencies. Mark our words: When the class of '07 has its 10-year reunion, One World is the place alumni will want to go to reminisce about their college days.
Paper Moon Diner
227 W. 29th Street, 410-889-4444
If the Paper Moon didn't already exist, we'd have to invent it. Indeed, sometimes we thank our lucky stars that owner Un Kim did invent it. First of all: Hooray for 24 hours. Baltimore so desperately needs more restaurants to follow suit (or at least stay open past 10 p.m., guys!). Second, the kitschy, whimsical, oh-so-Baltimore décor makes us proud to show off the place to out-of-town friends. Third, the location: Right by Hopkins, but also near Hampden and Roland Park, with more than ample parking—it's not only convenient, but visionary (who would've thought that Remington could attract yuppies?). Of course, the food is good, too, in a diner-with-a-healthy-twist sort of way. We are enormously fond of the milk shakes and tater-tot-like home fries (okay, not all the food is healthy) but you can also get "vegetarian delight" sandwiches and lots of things involving sprouts. Paper Moon is the kind of place you can take your grandmother for pancakes at 9 a.m. or your highly pierced rocker nephew for post-Ottobar meatloaf at 2 in the morning. And they're both likely to say the same thing: "Cool!"
3316 Greenmount, Avenue, 410-889-6002
Sure, they sometimes keep the front door locked—this area, on the outskirts of Waverly, can get a little sketchy—but once inside, the owners greet each customer as a long-lost friend. The interior of the restaurant looks like, well, every other Thai restaurant (not a bad thing!). The expansive menu accommodates a range of eaters. For the novice: pad Thai and various stir-fried dishes that allow you pick shrimp, chicken, pork, duck, or tofu and add everything from shiitake mushrooms to pineapple and baby corn. For the veteran: a deep-fried whole fish or a red, green, or yellow curry—fragrant and delicious. The dishes come beautifully plated. Our one grumble: The meat is often hard to find. A recent order of crispy egg noodles topped with shrimp, chicken, and various vegetables had exactly two shrimp in the entire dish. But we're still dreaming about the steamed dumplings, an appetizer special on our last visit. The chopped shrimp and chicken were enveloped in plump, delicious shells. So scrumptious, we almost ordered a second plate for dessert! (Though, for traditionalists, there is the standard rice pudding and mango with sticky rice.)
Golden West Cafe
1105 W. 36th Street, 410-889-8891
People either love the Golden West or hate it. If they're part of the latter category, they cite the place's notoriously slow service and stubborn idiosyncracies (do not even think of trying to order off the menu here). But its fans—and we fall squarely into that populous camp—point to the casual eatery's eclectic décor, relaxed atmosphere, and simple-but-satisfying food. We love starting a meal with a paper cone of those fabulous tater tots and following it with a mint-flecked Thai chicken (or shrimp) salad. We love how the uncompromisingly spicy carne adovada makes both our mouths and our eyes water. We love that the cafe's superlative breakfasts are available all day long. And we love how everyone around us—half of whom, it always seems, we recognize from somewhere—appears to be having an equally good time, even if they're still nursing that first coffee while waiting for a table to open up during the weekend brunch rush. The Golden West may not be for everyone, but for those who love it, nothing in town can quite compare.
Rocket to Venus
3360 Chestnut Avenue, 410-235-7887
Okay, R2V comes seriously close to violating some of our rules for a neighborhood restaurant. The horseshoe-shaped bar dominates the space so much that it feels more like a bar than a restaurant, and the wait for a table can get pretty long, even on weeknights. But the thing is, it's undeniably the social hub of much of Hampden (go ahead, try going there without running into someone you know) because it accommodates the neighborhood's varied denizens—it's a sedate, blue-walled eatery during the early dinner hours; a happy-hour haven in the evening; and a smoky, divey watering hole that's SRO with hipsters until bar close. The menu also gives everyone something to love—meat'n'potatoes types can get their fix in either burger or steak frites form, while vegetarians can indulge in grilled portabellas over quinoa, and the more adventurous eaters get items like wasabi-pea-encrusted seared tuna over tangy soba noodles. A recent kitchen rehab should help fix some timing problems, but don't expect the service to ever become exactly professional; like its neighborhood, R2V will always be a little rough around the edges.
3845 Falls Road, 410-467-1000
Good luck getting a table here on a weekend. That's okay, because we prefer to sit at the bar—that's the spot for overhearing conversations between regulars and employees, all of whom seem to have known each other for at least a couple generations. Even so, newcomers are welcome, perhaps on the theory that if you know enough to find this inauspicious-looking tavern, you can't be all bad. Expect to hear about Lucy's second cousin, Mister Tommy's lost cat, and the insanity of Hampden housing prices during your meal. And about that meal—McCabe's cooks plain American food, but cooks it well. The shrimp salad is excellent, as are the (admittedly pricey) crab cakes, and we're big fans of the kitchen's housemade salad dressings. But to tell the truth, we hardly ever can resist the lure of the McCabe's burger: big, meaty, cooked to order, with those extra-bad (and therefore extra-good) battered french fries. Sadly, it never seems to leave us with room for the bread pudding we always promise ourselves—maddening, since McCabe's version is one of our favorites. We guess that gives us something to chat with the regulars about on our next visit.
1009 W. 36th Street, 410-243-0051
Suzie's tends to get overlooked by some people strolling Hampden's Avenue. It doesn't have the big wide inviting windows of some places, and not everyone is perhaps enthralled by the idea of "buckwheat noodles served cold with soy dipping sauce." But those who have ventured past the restaurant's multicolored façade almost always wind up walking back out as fans. We can never resist the spicy tuna tartare, served in an avocado half—but take it from us, anything marked "spicy" here is really spicy, so be careful. Prices can get a tad steep, in part because owner Suzie Hong is very particular about her ingredients. But the good news is that we actually prefer the $12 bibim bap (a layered bowl of rice, vegetables, egg, and spicy minced beef) over the $19 bul goh gee (marinated sliced rib-eye served with greens and rice). As the name suggests, noodles are big here, whether in Vietnamese pho soup or in classic pad Thai. And while there always seem to be a few creative cocktails listed on the specials board, we're suckers for the homemade limeade and (yum!) ginger limeade. They're best enjoyed in the peaceful back patio—if Hong will let you sit out there. The woman can be a little brusque, but she runs a mighty nice restaurant all the same.
415 W. Cold Spring Lane, 410-235-3433
It's one thing to reside in a neighborhood; it's another to have an entire neighborhood actually named after you. Newcomers to Baltimore may think that Alonso's, the bar and grill, was named after Alonsoville, the neighborhood between Evergreen and Tuscany-Canterbury. But indeed, the restaurant came first. And why not? Alonso's has all the qualities requisite for a popular neighborhood joint: It's friendly; it has an extensive, sure-to-please-everyone menu (while famous for its burgers, Alonso's also serves up pizza, pasta, Mexican faves, ribs, crab cakes, and all manner of salads); its multiple TVs are always turned to the local game; and it seems to always be open. (The official hours are 11 a.m. to 10:30 during the week; it stays open until 11:30 on weekends.) And then there's Alonso's secret weapon: Packaged goods. In other words, you can get beer and wine to go on Sundays. Which seems like more than ample reason to name a neighborhood after the place, if you ask us.
438 E. Belvedere Avenue, 410-532-0022
The revitalized Belvedere Square is a vibrant place to shop and to eat—unless you've got kids in tow and everyone wants to sit down, take a load off, and be waited on. At that point, head just one block west to Cafe Zen. There, you'll find neighborhood families of similar disposition tucking into all manner of Asian-inspired fare—happily, the owners' new Tex-Mex restaurant, Zen West, hasn't drawn their (or their customers') attention away from the original restaurant, which we still tend to prefer. Adults can satisfy a sushi craving while the kids chow down on, dare we say, juvenile faves like General Tsao's. Many dishes here are Chinese infused, like the signature Fan and Tsai; we recommend getting the combo version, featuring loads of fresh vegetables, plump shrimp, tender chicken, and earthy beef in a light sauce. Indeed, there is so much Chinese influence here that we struggled to find the "Thai" in our pad Thai. But it all tastes good nonetheless. The lack of dessert choices faded quickly from our minds when we got our check, too—its sweet lightness was an entirely acceptable substitute.
1605 Sulgrave Avenue, 410-367-5808
It might take a few visits, but stop by this Mt. Washington icon often enough and you'll begin to be greeted with a hug. You'll spot plenty of your neighbors at this converted house's tables, which fill up quickly at mealtimes (and generally make for a charming, well-packed intimacy). The cafe's menu takes a quick, smart tour of Middle Eastern and Northern African staples, all freshly made in the tiny kitchen that hides behind the glowing dessert case. The interior is decorated with huge copper pots imported from the Middle East, and the music . . . well, it's New Agey Middle Eastern, and it's a little distracting. (What's more pleasantly distracting is the Saturday night belly dancer!) But you won't care about the noodly tunes the moment your food arrives—start with fresh, smooth, and vibrant hummus and warm pita slices, then head for one of the popular entrées, like the mango curry chicken salad. And don't forget the treats you saw in that lighted dessert case: Sampling a piece of the restaurant's house-made pie or cake is imperative. (Besides, you're probably walking back home, and South Avenue's a steep hill!)
Ethel & Ramone's
1615 Sulgrave Avenue, 410-664-2971
Ethel & Ramone's is one of those places that are so obviously labors of love, you're half-surprised to find they charge money. (They do, by the way—and, in fact, most of their entrées press pretty close to our $20 ceiling.) Regulars are greeted with cries of delight; newcomers are offered relaxed waves. Small children? No need to fret—the staff will bring you a selection of toys, and the chef may well come out to show you pictures of his own young darlings. Meanwhile, the mostly Creole/Cajun menu keeps things simple but exuberant. A wilted field-green salad packs a puckery punch, thanks to its potent balsamic vinaigrette; gumbo hits that wonderfully dangerous point of perfect smokiness—any more, and it would taste burnt. The laid-back staff is happy to discuss their favorite wines of the moment with you, and to give you their honest opinion of the constantly changing dessert options. It's all so charmingly quirky that it makes eating here feel like you've stumbled into a stranger's house, and unexpectedly been invited to stay for dinner. (But, you know, they do charge money.)
4301 Harford Road, 410-426-3519
This stretch of Harford Road—just north of Herring Run Park—is undergoing something of a renaissance, courtesy of the new businesses and streetscaping that have freshened up the area. But one local institution has been drawing diners to its tables for more than two decades: the brightly colored Koco's Pub. It's been a draw for neighbors (and worth the drive for non-locals) because it does a few things incredibly well. Weeknight specials (wings, ribs, and crab cakes) keep the place packed to the rafters even on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. (You might want to make a reservation, even if you're a die-hard regular.) We heartily recommend the stunning, perfectly cooked crab cakes, which we hail as some of the city's best. The medium-sized dining room is painted in cheerful yellows and pastels, and a multitude of TVs hang from the walls. As we assessed Koco's popularity, we noticed two things: First, Baltimore City's finest like to eat there, which is always a good sign. Second, there's a small children's corner for toddlers to play in while waiting for their food. And few things, we've learned, say "neighborhood restaurant" like the presence of cops and kids.
5506 Harford Road, 410-444-4220
Transplants from the southwestern part of the country who have been searching for the Tex-Mex they left behind need look no further than Los Amigos. The unpretentious mish-mash of knickknacks that feels so comforting, and is so difficult for marketers to recapture, is here. So too is a menu crammed with delicious favorites, like ceviche packed with squid, shrimp, fish, cilantro, and garlic, or sizzling fajitas served with steaming plump flour tortillas, or carne asada. There is even a vegetarian menu that features combo platters of burritos, tostadas, and enchiladas—so long as one is down with gobs of finger-licking queso. On our last visit, it was evident that neighborhood patrons had their regular tables, and a few seemed to be working out their Spanish. It wasn't long after our first margarita that we were working on ours, too.
Kiko's Cocina Mexicana
8806 Bel Air Road, 410-529-4215
"The food here is pretty authentic," we overhear our waitress telling another table. "Most of our cooks don't even speak English." And thankfully, they haven't lost their ability to put a Mexican accent on such homemade specialties as beef gorditas—thick, deep-fried corn tortillas stuffed with skirt steak, potatoes, and shredded cabbage and doused with tomatillo sauce—and a moist red snapper drenched in crushed tomato salsa, green olives, and capers. Given Kiko's location along a busy stretch of Bel Air Road, it is surprisingly intimate and festive, with Mexican tile tables and bright yellow walls. The great Mexican songstress Lucia Mendez croons over the sound system. It's a place you can eat alone, bring the kids (they'll love the complimentary basket of chips and salsa) or the grandparents (who will love the large portions, low prices, and BYOB policy), or come out with friends (they'll love the fiesta atmosphere). You won't believe you're only south of the Mason-Dixon, instead of the border.
Orchard Market and Cafe
8815 Orchard Tree Lane, 410-339-7700
Orchard Market always feels like such a find when we go there—how clever of us to have discovered this small Persian restaurant tucked in a strip mall off of Joppa Road! But once inside, we realize that pretty much everyone who lives in the Towson/Parkville area has already made the same discovery. For almost 20 years, locals have flocked to the restaurant (the "market" part of the moniker is no longer accurate) to sample aromatic dishes like haleem bademjune, a warm, garlicky eggplant dip enriched with walnuts. Many of the entrées tend toward the sweet—duck fesenjune in its creamy pomegranate-walnut sauce, hearty chunks of lamb stewed with prunes (so much better than that sounds), and the intriguing honey-based advieh sauce that unites a generous sampling of fresh seafood with a spicy mixture that includes ground rose petals. But there are savory kebobs aplenty for those who want to avoid sugar. Prices are reasonable (forget $20, most entrées here stay under the $15 mark), and the place's BYOB status makes it even more of a bargain. No wonder it's not much of a secret.
6 E. Pennsylvania Avenue, 410-823-0372
What is it with Towson and sushi? The folks up there can't seem to get enough raw fish, because there are at least three Japanese restaurants within a stone's throw of each other on Pennsylvania (see the Thai One On review below). That's fine with us, if they all are as tasty as Sushi Hana. This always-hopping joint serves up a delectable selection of specialty rolls (and, much to our joy, has a laminated cheat sheet to help you navigate their ingredients), as well as generously cut sashimi and nigiri. Sushi Hana is also one of the few places in town to try shabu shabu, the cook-it-yourself meat-and-noodle dish that perplexed Bill Murray so thoroughly in Lost in Translation. The staff is kept on its toes by tables of rowdy college kids and large family parties—a quiet date spot this ain't—but they handle the crush with only the occasional lapse. Also—and this can't be said of every sushi joint—their bartender knows a thing or two about how a cocktail is put together. If every sushi restaurant were like this one, we'd want three on a block in our neighborhood, too.
Thai One On/San Sushi Too
10 W. Pennsylvania Avenue, 410-825-0907
Thai One On and San Sushi Too are two restaurants that merged into one, swallowing a third dining room between the establishments in the process. That's why the place has two bars—a sushi bar in the original San Sushi Too, and a larger one with more TVs and devoted to drinks in the Thai One On space. And that, in turn, is why the restaurant is so popular: No matter what your mood, they're able to accommodate you here. The original SST room, with its graffiti-esque airbrushed murals of sharks and geishas, is a fun, casual spot for beers and spider rolls with your buddies; the TOO bar is for defusing a bad day at work with just one buddy; and the deep red room in between the two is a quieter spot for a casual date. And, of course, the Thai-Japanese menu resolves that age-old debate: massaman or sushi? We've found that the Japanese fare (other than the sushi, which includes an amusing list of specialty rolls) tends to be the weak link here, but the Thai curries are nicely done, and the lunchtime specials make this place a popular spot for county government employees.
9942 York Road, 410-666-8722
If the Corner Stable ever changed—or even thought about changing—we might have to cry. You see, we like the Corner Stable exactly the way it is (and has always been): Big, delicious racks of slow-cooked ribs slathered in their tasty barbecue sauce; those crunchy french fries that taste that much better when they "accidentally" get stuck to the ribs; the jumbo lump crab cakes that rival anyone's in town; and that mysteriously moist broasted chicken (that's broiled and roasted), so good, it just might make someone's southern grandma sit up and take notice. We like the it's-1972-all-over-again atmosphere, too: sorta dark and very cozy, with big comfy booths and sturdy wooden tables (not to mention those Keno machines!). But what we like best is the inviting warmth of the place, which extends from owner Chip Reed, down to the waiters, bartenders, and even the customers. Okay, there is one positive change that occurred recently—the Corner Stable preemptively made the bar non-smoking in anticipation of the coming law change. To which we say: Hey, sometimes, change is good.
JJ's Everyday Cafe
2141 York Road, 410-308-2700
When you think Timonium strip mall, you don't necessarily think quaint dining nook, but that's exactly what JJ's is. The cafe feels more like the kind of secret place you would accidentally stumble across on a rural vacation than a popular restaurant across from the Timonium Fair Grounds. But that, of course, is the family-run JJ's charm. It has that countrified feel—right down to the tiny framed watercolors on the walls and the adjacent gift store selling knick-knacks. The fresh-faced wait staff seem just as likely to babysit your kids as serve you a burger. Still, all the cuteness in the world would amount to naught if JJ's didn't deliver the goods—and they do. The food—from sautéed rainbow trout with toasted pine nuts, to an extremely respectable Black Angus steak, to their Best of Baltimore-winning crab cakes—is surprisingly strong; they just got a long-awaited liquor license; and the service, while perhaps gravitas-impaired, is enthusiastic and more than competent. Everyday? Maybe not. But JJ's is certainly worth at least a couple of visits a week.
2119 York Road, 410-252-2022
You want to know how popular Michael's Cafe and Raw Bar is? Despite their sizeable parking lot and street parking, they still have valets working, even on weeknights, to keep up with the place's popularity. Fortunately, their dining rooms and bar areas are also pretty sizeable. The main bar offers sports on TV, plenty of stools, plenty of booths, and often live music. The front bar is our favorite, with the kind of dark-wood décor that feels as cool and shaded in summer as it is warm and cozy in the winter. They snagged a Best Of Baltimore award from us two months ago for their sublime Old Bay wings, but the rest of their menu is strong as well—seafood and the raw bar obviously being the strength. The place has a ton of regulars, and you'll probably make it one more after a visit or two.
NORTHWEST BALTIMORE COUNTY
The Artful Gourmet Bistro
9433 Common Brook Road, Owings Mills, 410-356-0363
This cafe is a welcome addition to a neighborhood populated by chain restaurants and fast-food joints. The theme of "artfulness" is played out with framed masterwork posters by Picasso, Cézanne, and Klimpt; dishes bear names like Dali Calamari, Monet Mussels (mussels in a garlic, lemon wine sauce), and The Escher (a grilled chicken Caesar wrap), though the names have more to do with alliteration and rhyme than they do with aesthetics. Still, the large patio and spacious dining rooms make this a great place to grab a bite in the 'burbs. The Murillo lettuce wrap appetizer—with grilled chicken, cucumbers, sprouts, carrots, and noodles you can doctor with Thai peanut and mandarin-sesame sauces—has just the right amount of texture and crunch. The menu is continental, with something for everyone (from pork chops to fish and pasta) and a nice children's selection, including cheese tortellini and grilled chicken. Our nightly special of salmon coated in cornmeal and served with a chipotle sauce was perfectly prepared. We also tried The Cézanne, a heaping serving of al dente angel hair pasta tossed with tomatoes, capers, garlic and fresh mozzarella. For dessert, Reese's peanut butter pie, though not terribly unique, ably satisfied our sweet tooth.
Cibo Bar & Grille
100 Painter's Mill Road Owings Mills, 410-902-2426
Even on a Monday night, Cibo's bar is thrumming with people ready to party until midnight. Of course, it doesn't hurt that bottles of wine are half price, and a bevy of sexy bartenders and karaoke turn up the fun quotient on everyone's least favorite day of the week. But even if you don't want to party, Cibo is a fine place to grab a light bite or more substantial meal. We highly recommend the Cibo Salad—mixed greens, feta, red onion, pepperoncini, and fried onions in a homemade pepper-parmesan dressing. Entrées range from tasty crab cakes to chicken marsala to crisp-crusted pizzas. One caveat: For a neighborhood restaurant, prices tend to be on the high side. The budget-minded might want to stick to the many sandwiches (such as the grilled chicken Caesar wrap or the filet mignon steak sub) or take advantage of the many weekly specials (Tuesdays are two-for-one pizzas, Thursdays are half-priced pastas). Desserts, including a mile-high piece of carrot cake and molten lava chocolate cake, are substantial in size, but not worth the calories unless you're a really energetic karaoke performer.
102 Reisterstown Road, 410-486-9910
In the spirit of full disclosure, we must admit that our only complaint about Mari Luna is really self-inflicted—every time we leave this Pikesville eatery, our necks are stiff from craning to the left and the right of us to see what other people are eating. But it turns that out no matter what we order, everything is our favorite, from tortilla-encrusted grouper to brick-sized burritos, shredded-beef gorditas, fried corn tortillas stuffed with potato and cheese, and generous sides of melt-in-your-mouth plantains, fried yucca root, and even "Mexican fries" (crunchy delights made with cornmeal and potato). We've visited this neighborhood gem many times through the years and it never disappoints: Food, décor, and service are all comforting and well-done. Plus, the prices (and the place's BYOB status) make this a bargain-lover's delight. Go often and go early—what used to be a well-kept neighborhood secret is now busy for lunch and dinner six days a week.
4844 Butler Road, 410-526-5711
At press time, Mia Carolina was closing for a month to remodel the dining room, expand the wine list, and freshen up the décor; it should be back open by the time you read this. But we're crossing our fingers that owner Jay Cohen (the former head chef at Linwoods) will not fiddle with the near-flawless take on Northern Italian cuisine. Our latest visit to Mia Carolina, situated in a quaint shopping center in historic Glyndon, left us dreaming of our next visit. Was it the incredibly tasty Insalata Cara Mia with chopped mixed greens, chickpeas, egg, and onion? The fresh-from-the oven pizza with a heap of wild mushrooms, tangy goat cheese, and sweet roasted garlic? The perfectly executed chicken marsala with pearl onions and creamy garlic mashed potatoes? The made-from-scratch chocolate-chip gelato? The homemade butter and crusty rolls? Or was it simply the seamless service? Whatever the reason, we're in love. And we weren't the only ones who decided not to cook on a Wednesday night—not surprisingly, with food this good, the bar area and large dining room were filled to capacity.
Dimitri's International Grille
2205 Frederick Road, 410-747-1927
To begin with, they've got a huge mural of a Mediterranean cliffside seascape in their Aegean Room. That's enough for us, frankly. But if you want more, you'll probably find it here in Dimitri's menu, which is so large that it looks more like a diner menu than anything else. But as the place has expanded over the past 45 years, the menu has kept up, going from primarily Greek dishes to its current "international" offerings (hence the place's name). Their success at offering a broad range of food is evident in their recent Best Of Baltimore award for their decidedly un-Greek sour beef and dumplings. If you do come for the Greek specialties, though, you'll be well-served. The place is still run by the same family who founded it—Dimitri and Millie Coroneos get plenty of help from their children these days—and the standards like moussaka, spanakopita, and taramasalata are still there. Plus, a late-fare menu means you can get food until 1 a.m. on weekends. And though Frederick Road can't quite compare to that picturesque seaside in the dining room, Dimitri's does offer a ton of outdoor seating on two different patio decks.
622 Frederick Road, 410-744-4422
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but locals know that Indian Delight is worth seeking out. With its colorful murals and soothing music, this family-run Indian restaurant is an unexpected oasis near the music shops on Frederick Road. Service is generally something approaching doting and very observant—if another member joins your party, staff will quickly bring an extra wine glass (BYOB). The naan is nice here—try the Kashmiri style for a more unusual riff on the traditional flatbread. It's stuffed with raisins, cheese, and nuts. Kabobs can be a little dry, but curries and other stews are rich and flavorful. Surprisingly, for an Indian restaurant, there is a decent selection of beef dishes. Also worth trying are the vegetable pakora, crispy fried tangles of onion and spinach. Prices are beyond reasonable—three people can easily eat here for $50, and probably take home leftovers. No wonder people keep finding this place, no matter how diligently it seems to hide.
8480 Baltimore National Pike, 410-418-9076
Kelsey's may be angling to become an actual neighborhood one day, rather than just a neighborhood restaurant. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but still, what was once just a humble dining room in a suburban shopping center is now an expansive bar and restaurant with a whole lot of regular patrons. Good luck getting a spot at the bar on a weekend—especially during football season. But if it's not too crowded, you're all set—standout barman Cory Morrell manages to keep service moving even while chatting like an old friend. Fortunately, you usually don't have to wait long for a table in the dining room. And that's good, because the food is well done, if standard. The meatloaf and the Irish stew (definitely get the bread bowl) are our favorite dishes here.
Ellicott Mills Brewing Company
8308 Main Street, 410-313-8141
Enter Ellicott Mills Brewing's old stone building on Main Street and you'll see giant copper vats holding as much social lubricant as you might ever need: If you're a fan of German-style beers, you'll be very happy here. Even happier if you like dishes that are made with one of the house's Alpenhof beers, or at least pair well with them. The chicken Chesapeake benefits from the addition of the brewery's pilsner to its sauce and the barbecue sauce gets a shot of dunkel. Much of the place's menu works best in colder months, though, with heartier dishes like buffalo, sausage, and venison pairing well with heavier seasonal beers. Servers may skew a little younger, but they're universally friendly and accommodating—one recent trip with a party of 12 didn't faze our waitress in the least. Clientele, by contrast, is all over the map, with college kids rubbing elbows with local shop owners and families on a night out. And the basement bar—er, ratskeller—offers an even more casual spot to drop in for a drink or a bite to eat.
Hickory Ridge Village Center, 6420 Freetown Road, 410-531-0250
Luna Bella is located in one of those "village centers" that were intrinsic to Columbia's original planning, meaning it is (like many Columbian restaurants) almost impossible to stumble upon. Locals seek it out, though, because who doesn't love a welcoming Italian-American joint like this? We like customer-friendly touches such as offering two kinds of lasagna, one for vegetarians and one for meat-eaters. We like the freshly made pizza dough, whether we devour it in one of their pies or in the addictive cheese-bread appetizer. Nothing here is fancy, but it's all comforting and capably made—our trout and scallops sautéed in butter and lemon was unassailably moist and fresh, and the marinara on our pasta was properly zippy. Luna Bella is not quite on par with its fellow Columbian, Aida Bistro (which would have been on this list if it hadn't been disqualified by its presence in our Best Restaurants list), but it feels less like a special-treat sort of place and more like that homey hidden gem where neighbors can congregate and put the "village" in those village centers.
Mango Grove/Mirchi Wok
6365B Dobbin Center, 410-884-3426
Just when we thought we were going to have to give Indian food a break for a while, our most recent visit to Mango Grove re-energized our appreciation of it. We opted for the appetizer sampler, featuring several items from the menu together on one platter. All of them were tasty, but next time we'll stick with the star of the lineup, the batter-fried tuber-ific aloo bonda, fried balls of spiced mashed potato. The sheer volume of enticing choices on the menu is slightly overwhelming—despite the fact that the Grove is entirely vegetarian. You won't miss the meat with so many choices, but if you do have any adamant carnivores in your part, just head next door to Mirchi Wok, the owners' slightly smaller (and generally less crowded) restaurant serving many of the Grove's dishes, with a wide selection of meat- and seafood-based ones as well.
6490 Dobbin Road, 410-997-1269
Columbia, like Towson, is a suburb blessed with a multitude of excellent sushi restaurants (so many, we had to include two of them in this feature). Sushi King exemplifies one of the suburb's great strengths: really good restaurants tucked away in unlikely locales. It's amazing anyone can find this place, plunked near an office park by the MVA—but find it they do. You'll want reservations if you're coming here for dinner, especially on a weekend. That's because locals know they can count on Sushi King for delicately flavored Japanese fare made with a dedication to visual, as well as gastronomic, aesthetics. Tiny garnishes shaped like bonsai trees and other natural items adorn plates of fresh and creative sushi. Make sure to get their emerald-like seaweed salad, and don't forget to check out their alluring specialty rolls, like the Golden Roll (tempura shrimp, eel, and avocado). We can see why the line here frequently stretches out the door, and why the multiple private tatami rooms always seem to be full of celebrating Columbians.
10215 Wincopin Circle 410-997-6131
If Sushi King is that office-park hideaway that only locals know about, Sushi Sono is the very public hotspot that allows Columbians to enjoy (or show off to guests) one of their hometown's finest features: the lovely Lake Kittamaqundi, part of the late James Rouse's vision to create a scenic hub for his planned community. And after a meal at Sono, you might want to take a little stroll around that lake—the rolls and nigiri are generously cut here, and so fresh that it's hard not to order just a little bit more. Presentation is lovely—even the soy sauce containers are blue-and-white ceramics—and service is lightning-fast and attentive. True, servers may not seem the warmest at first, but then we overheard one tell a customer, "Here, your seat at the [sushi] bar is emp—oh, you brought your family tonight! Look how big the kids are! Let's get you all a table!" That's all the proof we need that Sono cares.