Yup, we did it again—ranked what we consider the area's 50 best restaurants. The surprise this year is how many newcomers made the list and how many of last year's contenders (like The Brass Elephant) closed due to the economic downturn.
We always start the reviewing process with everyone on an equal playing field—sort of like the start of baseball and football season. The past rankings are history. Then, our reviewers make their way around town, devouring pounds of beef, seafood, pasta, and desserts, even when waistlines scream for mercy.
It's not an exact science, but we rate a restaurant on four criteria: food, service, ambiance, and price. There's also a fifth, more elusive element—creativity.
We focus on restaurants that serve dinner. And, this year, we didn't include steakhouse chains because they are getting their own special issue in October when we pick the top carnivore spots.
Now, it's time to meet our winners. Go ahead. Take a look. We think you'll feel good about Baltimore's restaurant scene. More places are offering entrees under $20, placing emphasis on local and seasonal fare, and adding small plates to their menus. Also, check out the results of our online readers restaurant poll here.
1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373
It doesn't matter how many awards Charleston and chef Cindy Wolf garner, the restaurant never takes itself for granted. We always marvel at the stellar service (it almost seems as if the wait staff is telepathic at times); the plush surroundings in soothing shades of peach, apricot, and cinnamon; and, of course, the French-inspired, Low-Country cuisine. The prix-fixe tasting menu allows diners to sample from three to six courses, with added wine pairings if desired. Tony Foreman, Wolf's husband and business partner, pays a great deal of attention to the restaurant's 700-plus labels. An exquisite Chardonnay is paired with the delectable shrimp and grits. A rich Burgundy sets off the flavors of the roasted salmon. But it's the extra touches that make a difference: A host plumps a pillow behind a guest seated at a banquette; a vase with two red rosebuds beautifies the table; an amuse-bouche (on a recent night, tempura-battered shrimp) is generously presented in the beginning as is a silver tray of miniature cookies (macaroons, chocolate gingerbread, tiny opera cakes) at the end of the meal. The valet is alerted before you leave, so your car is waiting for you. If you happened to do your own parking, an attendant offers to walk you to your car. Stellar through and through.
2. Antrim 1844
30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 410-756-6812
Visiting this former grand manor home turned hotel and restaurant is like being entertained at a swanky party. Servers pass hors d'oeuvres—endive with a dollop of guacamole, tomato bruschetta, and seared ahi tuna on one evening—in the drawing room while a pianist lulls you with music. Diners are then shown to their seats in various dining rooms. We especially like the Smokehouse area with its working fireplace, adding warmth and ambiance. The six-course, prix-fixe menu, prepared by award-winning executive chef Michael Gettier, changes often to capture the seasons and whims of the kitchen. There are choices—perhaps chilled shrimp with Roquefort cheese or a velouté of butternut squash to begin, or filet mignon wrapped in bacon or diver sea scallops for an entree. A plate of desserts, including a Godiva chocolate cup chantilly and miniature plum cake, ends the feast. But it's not over yet. You leave with a personalized menu signed by the chef!
3. The Black Olive
814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141
Plan on spending plenty of time and more than a little money at The Black Olive, the artfully rustic Fells Point restaurant offering a spare, sun-splashed Greek menu and the freshest seafood. Before you order, you'll be invited on a "fish tour." You leave your seat and trot over to the display of gleaming whole fish in ice. Once you choose your meal, it will be prepared to order. You might start with a house favorite—large calamari stuffed with mild, salty cheeses and grilled to create a particularly heady combination of flavors and textures—or perhaps hummus, mussels in ouzo, or a salad of grilled octopus. Then comes the main course—deliriously sweet fish deboned tableside and served with just a drizzle of lemon-olive oil sauce. Other possibilities include lobster, shrimp, scallops, rack of lamb, or beef tenderloin. Desserts include ice cream and baklava made in-house, and other Greek treats. Simple and perfect.
4. Woodberry Kitchen
2010 Clipper Park Road, No. 126, 410-464-8000
There's a festive air within the soaring rough-hewn interior of Woodberry Kitchen, where distressed brick and timber do nothing to still the clatter or diffuse the immutable scent of wood smoke. It's like going to a wedding in a barn, where diners delight over "carrots and their tops"—sweet carrots braised in butter and maple syrup, with a topping of liquefied greens. Chef Spike Gjerde bestows plenty of whimsical touches: a list of "snacks" that includes salty popcorn, a dish of pickles, sliced pears with buckwheat honey, and a cocktail of Kentucky bourbon with pumpkin-spice syrup in a mini copper mug. But there's also serious eating here, and Gjerde's locavore conceit is sincere. Greens are from the Baltimore City Schools' Great Kids Farm, oysters—chilled on the half-shell or roasted in the wood oven—are from the Chesapeake. A tender pork chop (Truck Patch Farm in New Windsor) has been brined in apple cider and comes topped with crisp cabbage. After a shot of exquisite espresso or artisinal hot chocolate, you're ready to embrace the night.
822 Lancaster Street, 410-547-8282
We love Cinghiale with its big-city ambiance, noisy enoteca (wine bar), soothing osteria (dining room), and modern take on Italian. We revel in the bittersweet Cinghiale cocktail, a blend of Aperol orange liqueur, fresh orange, basil, and fizz. We crave the crisp Roman fried chicken, the simple guitar-string spaghetti with clams, and the amazingly rich risotto-style pasta. All of which arrive in diminutive, perhaps sparse, portions. But on Sunday nights, the restaurant loosens its belt. Drop in early (seatings from 5:30 to 8 p.m. only) for a family-style dinner. Choose all the antipasti you'd like—spicy salami, green olives, crisp apple and walnut salad, flavorful rice with tuna, or pesto-tossed garbanzo beans. Then, select an entree: pasta or polenta. The menu changes weekly. One recent Sunday, the linguini arrived super thin, tossed with a simple broth, mushrooms, and spinach. The creamy-style polenta came topped with fontina and shredded chicken, and accompanied by nicely caramelized beets. End with miniature chocolate walnut cakes topped with mascarpone. This is a decidedly friendly (and, at $25 a head, budget-friendly) way to close out the weekend.
6. The Prime Rib
1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804
This temple of beef goes all out to cater to your every whim. Really, how can you not feel special when the maître d' greets you with, "We're so happy you're here"? We're glad, too. After all, we've stepped into a rarified atmosphere paying homage to the glam '40s. It's a place made for power brokers and lovers alike. Black-and-gold lacquered panels, leopard-print carpet, tuxedoed staff, and a grand piano capture the environs of an exclusive New York supper club. The larger-than-life food lives up to expectations, too. The two-inch-thick eponymous cut of meat with freshly grated horseradish is a medium-rare wonder. The crisp Greenberg potato skins taste as flavorful today as when the recipe was introduced here in 1965. Add a dollop of sour cream and horseradish sauce, and you wonder why everyone doesn't make these. Wild salmon—as well as other lovely cuts of fish—will quell your seafood desires. After the wedge of homemade apple pie à la mode, you'll leave this retro haven and reluctantly step back into 2010.
7. Kali's Court
1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700
Kali's deserves its reputation for providing an elegant seafood experience (with its interior of carved wood accents, soft lighting, and deferential service). We were impressed by the thoughtful, fish-friendly wine list and charmed by an amuse-bouche of smoked trout on a teeny Belgian endive leaf—a triumphant signal of a great meal to come. An appetizer of succulent crayfish gnocchi was enrobed in a delicate butter sauce flecked with tasso ham; the high-toned albino anchovy salad, supported by a bass note of earthy truffle oil bath, whets appetites even more. Good thing, too, because we were nearly done in by the bouillabaisse, featuring half a lobster tail, a multitude of mussels, and loads of fish. If you prefer lighter dining, consider the royale dorade, a mouthwatering Mediterranean fish, grilled whole.
1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296
In spite of its extant hipness, Pazo is the most inviting—and accommodating—of restaurants. You can settle in at the long bar for a $5 wine and tapas menu at happy hour; you can recline endlessly on an overstuffed sofa in the adjacent lounge; or you can choose a table in the busy dining room. There, a well-informed wait staff leads you through a menu of Mediterranean-influenced small plates, ranging from a row of salty sardines tangy with lemon to a Kobe beef brisket, lamb meatballs, or chard sautéed with garlic. The menu is easy to navigate, divided by land, sea, and field, with additional categories for Neopolitan-style pizzas (three cheeses with shiitake mushrooms, spicy cured pork, and buffalo mozzarella), and for those who insist, there are "big plates." You'll find hearty portions of New York strip or hanger steak, grilled tuna, and duck. The breads are not to be missed: pretzel-shaped fougasse sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt, available with an eggplant dip, or pugliese, the crunchy "purgatory" bread. The Charleston Group's baker Dale Dugan died in late 2009, but the recipes and techniques he passed on are the stuff of legend.
25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030
During bad economic times, Linwoods perseveres, drawing loyalists and newcomers alike with delicious fare, elegant surroundings, and impeccable service. The restaurant will help you through the tough times with savory values like wood-oven pizzas, offer you solace in comfort foods like roast chicken, and dazzle you with lilting wonders like watermelon gazpacho. A sophisticated cocktail menu, impressive wine list, and beer offerings heavy on the locals are reminders that Linwoods isn't relying on past praise to ensure its future. Whether you settle into a table, sidle up to the chef's bar that overlooks the kitchen, or slip into outside seating, you're sure to be well fed and well cared for.
10. B&O American Brasserie
2 N. Charles Street, 443-692-6172
With its name-brand chef (E. Michael Reidt, who has a bunch of cooking creds) and smartly refurbished digs once housing B&O railroad headquarters, the restaurant opened with much fanfare last year. And the buildup was not a disappointment. Reidt presents an adventurous take on the classics in a sophisticated dining room with elegant banquettes and velvet cushions. (The downstairs bar area with its soaring ceiling has a more casual ambiance with mod wood furniture.) Whether you go all out with cornmeal-crusted oysters, steak frites, pictured, page 94, and "wicked pissa" cupcakes or get one of the flatbreads (we love the BBQ pork-caramelized onion) or fat cheeseburgers, you'll appreciate the well-thought out offerings at the Brasserie, which is fittingly next to the posh Hotel Monaco.
11. The Oregon Grille
1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505
This horse country mainstay, with its clubby, stately rooms, is perfect for those seeking refuge from the cold—whether we're talking weather, economics, or general global gloom. Within these tradition-bound walls (jackets very much required in the evening), troubles melt, and it's easy to feel pampered, wealthy, and privileged, no matter what's going down outside. A jazz pianist tickles the ivories in the corner as you peruse a menu stocked appropriately with classic preparations of dry-aged prime sirloin strip and massive jumbo lump crab cakes, expertly prepared with quality ingredients and served with panache by a wait staff exuding professionalism. Simple luxuries, such as the lobster cocktail paired with a buttery Sonoma-Cutrer Chardonnay, will make you feel to the manor born, and by the time you've made your way through dinner to the dessert selection, any case of the doldrums will be long gone. Sigh.
12. Petit Louis Bistro
4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393
Cross the threshold at Petit Louis Bistro, and you'll feel transported to a top-notch Parisian brasserie, the kind that's located every block or so on la rive droite. The restaurant manages to be many things all at once—a jovial neighborhood spot for the dapper Roland Park crowd and a fabulous special-occasion restaurant for everyone who doesn't live in walking distance. Marble tabletops, dark wood walls, and giant mirrors set the mood. The thoughtful wine list and spot-on, knowledgeable service add to the experience. But the food is the star. Seasonal offerings, like the late summer tomato-centric menu, show off the kitchen's talent, and bistro mainstays like savory onion soup, steak frites, and decadent duck confit live up to expectations. We're also impressed by Petit Louis's silky soups, finished with a touch of cream; the puffy profiteroles; and the wonderful cheese cart.
13. Trattoria Alberto
1660 Crain Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-761-0922
Tucked into a shopping center on a busy stretch of highway, Trattoria Alberto's location is an unlikely spot for one of the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast. Service is exceptional—don't be surprised when the personable owner sidles up to the table, glass of wine in hand, to share Tuscan vacation tales. Start with seafood—the octopus is tender and smoky, dressed in a sweet balsamic reduction. Next, go for pasta, possibly the delicate spinach-stuffed ravioli in a mild red sauce, pictured, or impressive gnocchi in creamy blue cheese. The grilled veal chop covered in crispy rosemary and soft roasted garlic is a favorite entree, though the impossibly thick and expertly butchered T-bone is a close second. Finish the meal with outstanding coffee and homemade tiramisu, as good as any Tuscan nonna's.
2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480
In the placid, residential neighborhood near Patterson Park, Salt's stark-white, corner row-house façade beckons diners with its fine New American cuisine—once you've found a place to park your car, that is. The festive space—part old-fashioned brasserie with wood floors and bare tables and part hip lounge with stark photos and mod green light fixtures— fills up quickly. Chef/co-owner Jason Ambrose puts his masterful touch on creative appetizer combinations like a delectable grilled seafood sausage topped with shreds of jicama and apple, and an open-face oxtail ravioli gussied up with whiffs of truffle-and-chive butter. Comfort food comes in the guise of a cast-iron pot, nestled with fall-apart bison brisket, fingerling potatoes, cipollini onions, and roasted carrots. The regal lemon-glazed black grouper fillet is stacked on a soft pool of risotto studded with chunks of oysters and tasso ham, offering a subtle salty note. (Interestingly, for a restaurant named Salt, there are no shakers on the tables.) We can never leave without indulging in the house-made doughnut rounds hiding creamy goat-cheese centers and drizzled with lavender honey and a hint of vanilla sea salt—of course!
15. Tersiguel's French Country Restaurant
8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004
Original chef Fernand Tersiguel is semi-retired now, so he's free to roam the historic building housing his eponymous restaurant, charming guests, while his son, Michel, helms the kitchen. Tersiguel's, at its current location nearly 20 years, takes diners back to a slower-paced, more customer-focused time, pampering them with attention, excellent wines, and flourishes like an amuse-bouche (or two) from the kitchen. Escargot and pâté are among the appetizers, but a special one night was not to be missed—a table-filling array of garlicky shrimp, clams with diced chorizo, mussels in mild curry, and fried calamari. Order the viande du marché (featured meat of the day), and you'll be treated to a tableside show of warming, slicing, and arranging before digging into tender meat with béarnaise sauce, creamy potatoes, and asparagus. We always like a Napoleon for dessert. And this one is given an update with tart lemon curd and chopped kaki (Japanese) persimmons.
16. Aldo's Ristorante Italiano
306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700
Aldo's is one of those old-school Little Italy spots with linen-covered tables, impeccable service, and formal décor (complete with stately columns). The mood is dignified and hushed as you contemplate the menu. We're crazy about the whole-wheat flatbread topped with broccoli rabe, mild Italian sausage, and Parmigiano Reggiano. In fact, we'd be happy to make a meal of it. But there's plenty of other richly flavorful regional Italian cuisine offered. Aldo's butter-poached lobster risotto, deglazed with Highland Scotch, is intoxicating. The salad of sweet red beets, mixed greens, crumbled Gorgonzola, and toasted walnuts with Champagne vinaigrette is innovative and satisfying. The hearty double-cut prime Wisconsin veal chop comes with a wild mushroom polenta galetti, and the zuppa di pesce alla Calabrese has plenty of ocean charm. The tiramisu stands as an espresso-soaked classic.
17. The Wine Market
921 E. Fort Avenue, 410-244-6166
The Wine Market is near perfect for a group evening out or a fun first date. What's on tap? An ever-changing roster of excellent small bites and large entrees, a convivial but coolly post-industrial interior, and—best of all—a fabulous array of wines to sample by the glass or to choose from the 900-plus-bottle adjoining wine shop (available for a $9 corkage fee). But the attraction is also about the eats, which range from the simplicity of a braised chestnut soup with roasted apple cream, and comforting shrimp and pork dumplings, to big-bang items like a mammoth beer-braised pork shank with house-made curry noodles or a hunk of pan-seared monkfish in Parmesan broth. It's all good. In fact, every time we come here, we find ourselves delighted and bewitched by the array of fabulous choices. The Wine Market is just . . . fun.
18. Blue Hill Tavern
938 S. Conkling Street, 443-388-9363
The name may be unassuming, but this new Brewers Hill restaurant turns out to be anything but a typical "tavern." The place is gorgeous for starters. There's a sophisticated spaciousness highlighted by huge windows and cerulean blue accents. On the bottom level, you'll find a Zen waterfall in the bar and a well-appointed dining room. On the top floor, there are more dining rooms, another bar, a balcony, and a patio with couches. The New American food follows suit with surprises. For instance, steamed clams "casino" has one-upmanship over the original with chorizo, peppers, and onions. And the deeply amber Maryland crab soup, chock full of veggies, comes with a miniature crab cake on toast floating atop the broth. Main dishes can range from wild boar ragout to halibut over soba noodles to lamb chops in a chèvre crust. And don't miss pastry chef Bettina Claire's captivating creations. The intensely dense chocolate silken pie is like no other.
19. The Ambassador Dining Room
3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484
If you're used to the kind of casual Indian restaurant where jeans and sneakers are de rigeur, the Ambassador Dining Room might take some getting used to. First, it's an upscale restaurant, with a flower centerpiece in the entranceway, tuxedoed waiters, and two fireplaces on the romantic covered deck. (People have been known to celebrate major life milestones there.) What's more, the food is plated, not served family-style, so when you order, say, your chicken vindaloo, it'll come with a side vegetable (sometimes spinach or lentils) and rice on the plate. Start with the creamy vegetable cuddy (fritters in a turmeric yogurt sauce) or the garlicky bengan khas (eggplant dip). Move on to the addictive garlic naan. For your entree, you can't go wrong with the murgh tikka, big chunks of moist chicken cooked in lime juice and chiles in a tandoori oven and served with grilled vegetables and a small pool of masala dipping sauce. Or try the Charm City-approved crab Malabar (chunks of backfin with vegetables like tomato and cucumber). And be sure to introduce yourself to gracious co-owner/host Binda Singh. After just one or two visits to the Ambassador, he'll treat you like a VIP and treasured friend.
20. The Brewer's Art
1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9310
Baltimore's favorite brewpub returns to our roster with a vengeance this year. We've always been fans of the muted wood tones and formal feel of the dining room, the pretention-free atmosphere, and the progressively priced wine list. But the seasonal menu is also appealing. On one visit, we found the watermelon consommé with crab and sweetly pickled rind feather light and engaging, with a subtle spice note that energized the entire affair. Light and slightly spicy was a theme reprised on a dish of grilled peaches, garnished with goat cheese and spicy roasted pecans. The restaurant has also joined the ranks of those that use Marvesta Farms's sustainably raised local shrimp—here, with fava beans and a remoulade that sparks with a little Cajun heat. Classic steak frites could do without the clunky brown sauce, but we were impressed by the enormous portion size. The same can be said for the succulent 18-hour braised pork, served with a comfy side of cornbread pudding. House-made desserts were a hit, too, particularly the sun-drenched peach upside-down cake.
21. Sotto Sopra
405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534
There's just something special about strolling through the bustle of activity that is Charles Street on a weekend night and stepping into a tony dining room that's all candlelight and clinking glasses, knowing you're about to have excellent Italian food. It's a bit misleading to call the preparations understated. But indeed, Sotto Sopra, especially in the case of its well-made pastas, mercifully avoids an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink mentality, allowing diners to savor superb ingredients that have been expertly and carefully crafted. The kitchen showcases its talents with dishes like saffron fettuccine dressed with osso-buco ragù, gnocchi stuffed with foie gras, and duck-filled ravioli in a mushroom-truffle-oil sauce. Though large parties tend to raise the volume significantly, the atmosphere is generally cozy and inviting. Service is genial and mostly efficient. (The young staff could use a bit more polish.) There are daily happy-hour specials at the roomy, attractive bar, always a plus for us.
1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600
A lot of places call themselves a "bistro," but b in Bolton Hill can truly claim the title with its charming black-and-white tile floor, ceiling fans, intimate space, and white paper over white tablecloths. Its down-to-earth but clever menu also bolsters the designation, complete with specials written on a blackboard. The entrees—many with a seasonal emphasis—live up to expectations. A mound of Prince Edward Island mussels in lambic beer with leeks and potato chunks will keep you happy until the roasted halibut over sautéed spinach with raisins and pine nuts arrives. Or spoon into a slightly zingy roasted pumpkin soup to prepare for the Springfield Farms roasted half-chicken with crispy Parmesan polenta and Swiss chard. Finish with a cheese course or homemade dessert. The rich-textured almond cake with white chocolate sauce and cardamom ice cream almost made us forget how difficult street parking is here.
23. The Helmand
806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311
The 20-year-old Helmand restaurant, named for a river and a region, has firmly established Afghan cuisine as one of Baltimore's favorite ethnic comfort foods. We always crave the aushak—strips of pasta layered with ground beef and leeks and flavored with mint; the tender chicken kebab, pleasantly charred, with a side of cinnamon-infused rice; and flaky bowlani pastries stuffed with spicy potatoes. The signature appetizer, kaddo borawni, pictured, is superb in its simplicity: bright orange pumpkin flesh sprinkled with sugar and topped with garlic-spiked yogurt. The décor—hand-knotted rugs, pottery and travel posters, a handsome embroidered dress—is a further reminder that Afghanistan has many rich traditions.
24. The Milton Inn
14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366
The nearly 300-year-old building has been a restaurant since 1947 and definitely has old-fashioned elements, including dishes like clams casino and roasted pork tenderloin. Yet, each plate feels thoughtful. The "seafood martini" served over a bed of Asian slaw in a cocktail glass has been on the menu for years, but it still works because each shrimp, large lump of crab meat, and chunk of lobster is cold, sweet, and cooked with care. Oyster stew is loaded with sweet bivalves. The kitchen doesn't do anything particularly fancy with the steak or swordfish, but they are well executed. The fish, for instance, comes with a thyme butter sauce imbued with lobster chunks, a creamy-crunchy polenta cake, and just-wilted spinach. Desserts are mostly standards like cheesecake and tiramisu, but a torte layered with chocolate and macadamia nuts hits the spot despite its richness.
25. Restaurant Sabor
12240 Tullamore Road, Lutherville, 410-628-7227
Finally, the dearth of good restaurants in the Lutherville-Timonium neck of the woods has been rectified a bit by Restaurant Sabor. From the looks of it, Sabor seems pretty much like your average family-friendly neighborhood hangout. But beneath that bland exterior lurks a chef with a taste for bold, out-of-the-ordinary flavors, who concocts dishes with exceptional flare. Rodolfo "Roddy" Domacassé, a Puerto Rican native, has been cooking around town for years (Linwoods, Brasserie Tatin, Gertrude's) and now has his own place to experiment in the kitchen. Much of the cuisine is very well-made New American comfort food, like Cornish hen with white bean mushroom fricassee or the most decadent lobster pot pie you've ever tasted. But Domacassé mixes it up with Latino specialties like the bacalaitos fritos appetizer—crispy, savory, batter-fried salt cod—and a special of pastelon, a Latin lasagna made with ground beef and plantains. Best of all, Sabor is BYOB and charges a meager $5 corkage fee. Suburban dining at its best.
26. O'Learys Seafood Restaurant
310 Third Street, Annapolis, 410-263-0884
At O'Learys, seafood is transformed into sophisticated dishes. Housed in a cozy, Art Deco-influenced space in the busy maritime district of Eastport, the restaurant serves inspired starters such as a frothy, rich lobster cappuccino and crispy, lightly fried "Virginia Count" oysters with a spicy mustard sauce—a nice alternative to traditional cocktail sauce. The kitchen expertly prepares a variety of seafood entrees—our favorites include the lobster-packed shellfish medley, pictured, in a surprisingly light lobster-stock-based cream sauce and a Southern-influenced Carolina pike paired with collard greens and savory grits. Finish the meal with sweet, homemade coconut cloud cake, a local favorite.
27. Meli American Bistro
1636 Thames Street, 410-534-6354
Meli means honey, and this sweet spot in the heart of Fells Point is abuzz with action. So much so, that it's hard to secure a seat—even if you're holding a reservation. Which must be why we spent one recent Saturday night squeezed against the bar, slurping a fancy pink drink called the Marilyn Monroe. Eventually, we gave up on the table and settled in at the bar for the long haul. Meli calls itself an American bistro, but the menu has a hint of Greek. This night, we started with seared diver scallops with honey powder and pancetta, crusted with green apple polenta and acacia honey. We always like the homemade roasted butternut squash ravioli with candied almonds, greens, and honey butter. For entrees, you'll find offerings like a duo of duck, which includes braised confit leg and duck bread pudding, and braised lamb shank, which is happily accompanied by candied bacon. Sides include sweet potato fries, grilled asparagus, and huge, delightfully crisp beer-battered onion rings. Meli offers a takeout pastry counter—handy if you're simply looking for a sweet treat!
28. Peter's Inn
504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313
We're the first to acknowledge that Peter's Inn isn't for everyone. We realize one person's cozy is another person's cramped, and that others expect to be waited on hand and foot in order to have a good time. But we are charmed by the inn's laid-back atmosphere and casual approach. We appreciate owners Bud and Karin Tiffany's take on relaxed hospitality and settle into our seats with a sigh of relief and a hint of expectation. We are never disappointed. On our last visit, we indulged in plump fried oysters with a remoulade redolent of ground black pepper and were overwhelmed by super-sized scallops glistening in a rich beurre-blanc sauce. Carnivores won't go hungry either, as there is always a big steak on the menu, as well as specials like beautifully braised short ribs that are long on flavor. The wine list reflects a devotion to affordable esoterica, a relief in a city increasingly overtaken by corporate lists. Some nights, there's a dessert to be had; our recent encounter with the apple pie left us duly impressed.
500 Harborview Drive, 410-727-3663
Finding Tabrizi's is a little tricky if you're a first-time visitor (it involves entering a gated community between Federal Hill and Locust Point), but it's worth any brief confusion. The restaurant juts out to the harbor, with views of Fells Point as well as the Domino Sugars sign, and you feel as if you're at a yacht club, or even on a boat itself. As awesome as the water views may be, gazing in the opposite direction to the open kitchen, where chef Michael Tabrizi is hard at work, reveals the reason you're here. His menu jumps pleasantly back and forth across the Mediterranean. An appetizer of velvety hummus drizzled with olive oil and pine nuts might precede a plate of spaghetti carbonara with eggs expertly dispersed, tossed with crisp bits of pancetta. There's also couscous salad with kalamata olives, mozzarella Caprese with heirloom tomatoes, a juicy lamb kebab with rice, and a rack of lamb with porcini-Parmesan risotto. Also, don't miss the seared scallops, skewered with rosemary and resting in a sublime pool of beurre blanc. The results are enchanting.
30. The Iron Bridge Wine Company
10435 State Route 108, Columbia, 410-997-3456
Columbia's Iron Bridge Wine Company sets a high standard for the suburban wine bar. The wine shop/bar/restaurant's walls are lined with bottles (to purchase or drink in-house for a $10 corkage fee, except Thursdays when there's no corking charge), and the wines by the glass are interesting and diverse. The staff knows its stuff, and the menu can be downright decadent. But a casual vibe keeps the restaurant from crossing into wine and food snob territory. Order a variety of small plates to share—like the spicy pumpkin with goat cheese or lobster mash, chunks of sweet lobster scattered over savory cheddar mashed potatoes. Espresso-rubbed lamb loin arrives cooked to an appreciated medium rare, partnered with a sweet blackberry sauce and crunchy, tangy pickled onions. A creamy crème brûlée, with rich dark chocolate, caps the evening.
31. Chameleon Café
4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376
We continue to marvel that such a rewarding dining experience can be tucked away in a nondescript block of Harford Road next to a Safeway. But make your way past the unpromising exterior, and this tiny row house gem transports you to a culinary haven, where the comforting but enticingly clever New American seasonal cuisine is top notch. Chameleon's expert staff can cite the provenance of pretty much everything on the menu, from the excellent platter of house-made charcuterie (a nightly combo of sausages, terrines, and pâtés) to the perfectly prepared Ferguson Farm free-range chicken and Marvesta shrimp bathed in cognac and tomato fondue. A simple starter like the beet and apple salad sings with local flavor—from the earthy roasted beets and sweet-tart Reid's Orchard apples to the dots of soft Cherry Glen goat cheese and smoky bites of Truck Patch Farm bacon. Yum. The softly lit dining room, with its pumpkin-colored walls and champagne-hued tablecloths, manages to be both homey and special. Partake of the offerings on the well-thought out wine list and do not forego the house-made desserts, like a divine chocolate tart or the "smear case," a local turn on cheesecake. They are seriously good and passionately made—like everything at this lovely neighborhood bistro.
32. Jack's Bistro
3123 Elliott Street, 410-878-6542
The restaurant is an oasis of friendly warmth on a somewhat lonely corner in Canton. The small and bright space bubbles with chattering customers and a staff that cares deeply about the food and making patrons happy. The menu—with just a smattering of appetizers and a meat-centric handful of main courses (there are a few seafood options and a vegetarian dish, too)—finds room for artful silliness in the hands of chef/co-owner Ted Stelzenmuller. Yes, there's the expected, like a fine grilled Caesar salad, but also mac and cheese topped with dark Belgian chocolate (an appetizer that works because the chocolate cuts the sauce's richness). Several of the entrees are prepared sous vide, meaning they are sealed in bags and cooked at low temperatures for long periods of time. The resulting dishes, including braised short ribs and a signature Guinness-braised filet mignon, are intensely flavorful and melt in your mouth. Desserts range from an over-the-top version of s'mores to an elegant ice cream with lavender and peppercorns. Fanciful drinks, such as a buttered popcorn martini, just add to the charm.
510 E. Belvedere Avenue, 443-278-9001
The restaurant knows how to do things right. It's got drinks covered, from creative cocktails to an interesting wine selection. (The name refers to the point during harvest when grapes are crushed to make wine.) Add a modern, casual décor, and you've got a great atmosphere for the local designer jeans crowd to meet for drinks. Crush is more than just an upscale happy-hour venue, though. The menu includes serious, taste-driven dishes, like the shrimp, grits, and andouille appetizer, and tender chicken, served on the bone with a tangy red-pepper purée over creamy mushroom risotto. There's a touch of whimsy, too—try the bison sliders (adorable and flavor packed) and the old-school root beer float with cookies for dessert. And don't skip the truffle fries—the scent alone will have your mouth watering and your dining companions begging for a taste.
1026 S. Charles Street, 410-752-3810
Ham-and-cheese sandwiches? Egg salad? The menu at Corks reads like diner fare. But chef Jerry Pellegrino reinvents comfort food, like the good ol' BLT, by elevating each ingredient. Add a thoughtful wine list, sophisticated setting, lively bar scene, and excellent service, and it's easy to see why Corks lures crowds. Meatloaf spiked with black truffles falls deliciously apart at the touch of a fork and is captivating with green-topped baby carrots, an intense mushroom gravy, and addictive mashed potatoes. A creamy risotto special also proves innovative with sweet scallops in the mix. The charcuterie appetizer features cubes of cured meats, tiny cornichon pickles, and whole-grain mustard. Corn dogs are made with lamb sausage; burgers with ground bison. Classic desserts like crème brûlée and chocolate mousse aren't fancy. They are just really, really good.
35. Mari Luna Latin Grill
1010 Reisterstown Road, 410-653-5151
Some wondered why the successful Mari Luna Mexican Grill would open a Latin counterpart, just a few blocks away. Easy answer: It's all about the food. Latin America covers 14 percent of Earth's land surface and embraces a wide range of ingredients and cooking styles. At the new Mari Luna, there's Honduran conch stew with coconut milk; Peruvian-style ceviche, tangy with lime; and chicken tamales wrapped in banana leaf. Even so, the preparations are geared to northern palates. Chef Jaime Luna is light-handed with the chilis, and the menu offers mussels steamed in beer, batter-fried coconut shrimp, and rack of lamb with frizzled onion rings. The fuchsia chair cushions and citrus-hued walls, the Spanish-style carved wooden doors, and brightly tiled bar all complement the festive tone set by the menu. You may want to start with a frozen guava margarita paired with luscious popovers slathered in honey mango and papaya butter. Wind down your meal with a fruit-topped flan or crêpes with coconut ice cream.
5402 Harford Road, 410-444-1497
Clementine's menu logo says it all. The simple drawing of a colander perfectly captures the spirit of the place—friendly, comfortable, family-oriented, and dedicated to good food. With soothing blue walls covered in works by local artists, a children's play area stocked with toys and books handed down from the owners' four-year-old son, and sturdy wooden tables scattered throughout the dining room, this neighborhood restaurant couldn't be more inviting. The ever-evolving seasonal menu boasts locally sourced meats and vegetables combined in interesting ways. The rabbit pot pie is spectacular, as are gently sautéed escargot in a savory Dijon cream sauce with shallots and shiitake mushrooms. The mac and cheese tastes just like mom used to make (if mom was amazing in the kitchen), and the house-made charcuterie platter is everything you want it to be.
37. Alizée boutique bistro and wine bar
4 W. University Parkway, 443-449-6200
Thankfully, Alizée survived its early-on growing pains. After opening earlier last year, two chefs promptly left. Diners shook their heads. Was this a replay of the failed restaurants that had been trying to get a footing since the wildly successful Polo Grill closed in 2002? But the story has a happy ending (for now). Executive chef Christian deLutis (formerly of The Wine Market, The Dogwood, Corks) came on board late last summer, and, suddenly, things started looking up. Lightly smoked raw oysters and house-made charcuterie are the right beginning notes. The poulet—a tender, crisp-skinned thigh, leg, and breast—is a roasted masterpiece, and the moist wild salmon benefits from excellent sides: a crème-fraîche-glazed bundle of shredded cabbage, candy-like chiogga beets, and a crispy wedge of potato rosti. Desserts, also made in the kitchen, complement the innovative Continental dishes—like the chocolate mousse cake with a bourbon-infused vanilla ice cream.
38. Della Notte
801 Eastern Avenue, 410-837-5500
If there's a one-size-fits-all Italian dining experience to be had in Baltimore, the spacious Little Italy stronghold Della Notte wins top honors. How many restaurants can satisfy the demands of the most exacting oenophile (Ted Julio's award-winning, 1,300-bottle cellar will see to that), the fussiest Italian gourmet (entrees like prosciutto-wrapped quail in pomegranate reduction will sate the foodie in your party), and the no-frills diner who just wants some straightforward Italian-American food (like ravioli in tomato sauce)? The décor is distinctive, too, including a collection of faux-Roman busts from the defunct Haussner's and a gigantic tree growing from the middle of the roundhouse dining room (that should keep the kiddies intrigued). Throw in a friendly, eager-to-please wait staff, an array of fabulous desserts (the cannoli is among the best we've had), and an unprecedented-for-the-area parking lot, and you can't go wrong at this impressive ristorante.
10 Art Museum Drive, 410-889-3399
A classy museum deserves a stylish restaurant, and Gertrude's at The Baltimore Museum of Art meets the challenge successfully. Chef/owner John Shields created a handsome oasis when he opened the restaurant, named for his grandmother, in 1998. Gertrude's sticks to regional fare and shines brightest with simple preparations. The heart of the menu is a mix-and-match listing of seafood, chicken, or steak, prepared with a choice of sauces, including a light lemon beurre blanc and a mango-chutney aioli. Add uncomplicated sides such as potatoes infused with rosemary or a tangle of apple and fennel coleslaw. Appetizers and desserts tend to be fussier, with some more successful than others. We devoured the luscious goat-cheese cheesecake and loved the appetizer of plump fried oysters. In nice weather, few Baltimore experiences are finer than eating outdoors in the sculpture garden.
40. Tio Pepe
10 E. Franklin Street, 410-539-4675
Walk downstairs into Tío Pepe, where the arched brick doorways and iron light fixtures pinned tight to the ceiling offer wine-cellar intimacy. This is the place for Spanish standards, like fruity red sangría and salty cured ham laid over delightful melon. You can count on oysters Rockefeller to arrive bubbly hot and delicious. A complimentary plate of potatoes—puffy and delicious—was a winning dish. Paella a la Valenciana for two is a house specialty and comes teeming with mussels, clams, shrimp, lobster, saffron-hued chicken, veal chunks, and a spare green bean or two. It's abundant, but not intensely nuanced. The suckling pig, accompanied by flavorful and thick stewed black beans, was crackling crisp outside and wonderfully moist inside. The dessert tray is heavy with choices. The popular brazo de gitano a los pinones is a slice of cake log studded with pine nuts and a mysteriously delicious orange pastry cream.
41. Christopher Daniel
106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-308-1800
For some reason, this restaurant often gets overlooked, and we don't know why. We usually can count on a great meal here. Our only minor gripe would be that the interior looks dated—basic wood chairs with unexciting blue cushions, yesterday's plum/mustard color scheme, and dining areas with little personality. But the place is comfortable, the service is pleasant, and the food surpasses the lack of verve in the room. The menu promotes beef (although there are many other items listed), and, indeed, the eight-ounce Angus New York strip merits attention. Medium rare, slightly charred, it's a slab that speaks to meat eaters. Fish lovers won't be disappointed either with choices like the Chilean Parmesan-crusted sea bass as an entree or starters like BBQ shrimp with creamy smoked-Gouda grits. Save room for the car bomb Guinness chocolate bread pudding with the Jameson sauce and Bailey's ice cream that will knock you off your feet.
42. Osteria 177
177 Main Street, Annapolis, 410-267-7700
An osteria is the Italian version of a tavern, a place where people hang out for hours, enjoying delicious and unpretentious food and wine. Osteria 177 takes that concept to the next level with an elegant dining room, long list of Italian wines, and inspired presentations of classic offerings. Throughout the menu, simple dishes are given added oomph, yet avoid fussiness. An arugula salad achieves liftoff with roasted pine nuts, sliced hearts of palm, and Gorgonzola; an appetizer of prosciutto and melon relies on flavorfully aged imported meat. Seafood and pasta dominate the entrees, though pheasant, duck, and veal are also offered. Gnocchi is lapped in a rich tomato sauce bolstered with boar's meat, and the grilled salmon is sweet and moist. The restaurant's interior, with its vibrant colors and dark woods, is warm and appealing. Comfortable seating invites lingering, and large windows offer great views of the bustling street scene.
43. Tark's Grill
2360 Joppa Road, Lutherville, 410-583-8275
Tark's has broken the curse. Previously, the space at Green Spring Station had changed hands faster than a poker player. Then, Tark's came up with a winning deal to attract and keep the Valley folks—a sophisticated bar that practically screams "important people hang out here," an outdoor gathering spot with a fireplace, and a bistro dining room that offers a traditional menu with generous portions—although we think it's a bit pricey. But the food is straightforward and well prepared. You can get a hearty 20-ounce rib-eye steak and succulent herb-grilled salmon with side dishes that mound the plate, or homey food like a chicken pot pie and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. There's also light fare. It would be a challenge to not find something you'd like to eat here. The soft lighting, white-aproned servers, and cushy banquettes make it a place to linger for a special occasion or stop on your way home from work.
44. The Oceanaire Seafood Room
801 Aliceanna Street, 443-872-0000
The Oceanaire holds its own with a surprisingly extensive array of seafood preparations, ranging from old-school scampi to downright fusion-y miso-glazed sablefish with soba noodles. The daily selection of fish and shellfish is treated with minimally intrusive preparations, and the crab cakes are as delicate and as bafflingly moist as ever. Don't overlook menu gems like the creamy-tender calamari or sautéed wild mushrooms—if you are lucky enough to go on a night these are available. As a bonus, a reduced-price, happy-hour menu, as well as daily prix-fixe options, offer affordable reasons to visit the luxe Oceanaire.
11 W. Aylesbury Rd., Timonium, 410-561-1100
This brick hulk of a restaurant is in a category all by itself. It seems like a chain with its multiple rooms, rambling space, crowded bar, and noisy tables. But it isn't. It's locally owned, has an executive chef and a pastry chef, and puts a lot of care into its predominantly seafood menu. We've never had a bad meal here, though service can be erratic. We like starting with the baked seafood "fondue." This rich, gooey dip—enough for two or three—is chunky with scallops, crab, shrimp, and pepper Jack cheese, all to be scooped onto sturdy pita chips. Bluestone features fish of the day, and, this night, Chilean sea bass caught our attention. Thick and moist, the fish was dressed with a subtle tomato-and-shrimp-essence cream. The warm apple crisp with vanilla ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce was just the satisfying counterpoint we needed.
46. Victoria Gastro Pub
8201 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia, 410-750-1880
Victoria Gastro Pub enters 2010 firing on all cylinders. Delivering on the promise of upscale pub fare, it exudes casual public-house warmth while offering sophisticated food, a dizzying array of craft beers, and an engaging wine list. This tastefully converted fast-food space is divided into two basic areas. In the pub, you'll find a hardwood bar evocative of the British Isles and a lively atmosphere. In the dining room, settle into one of the intimate banquettes for a quieter gathering. Either way, your taste buds are in for a treat. We're addicted to the decadent duck fat frites. We're also impressed with the roasted duck breast and the hearty leg of venison. There's plenty of lighter fare, too.
47. Henninger's Tavern
1812 Bank Street, 410-342-2172
Henninger's Tavern is the antithesis of the hip minimalism or industrial earthiness of more recent arrivals to the Fells Point restaurant scene. Its no-nonsense plenitude is the kitchen of your great aunt, the place to flee when you've had enough sous-vide pork belly and fennel pollen. The dining room is reliably homey and filled with quirky artwork (such as a needlepoint wall hanging that pictures Jack and Bobby Kennedy with Martin Luther King Jr.). A waitress perches at the edge of your banquette to take your order with a familiarity that makes you feel like a regular. It's hard to resist the menu standards: pan-fried oysters sweetened with Pernod-and-fennel cream, and fall-apart braised short ribs with mashed potatoes. On a recent visit, we were pleasantly surprised to find a vegetarian dish on offer: chili-spiced red curry loaded with al dente vegetables and sticky rice. The bar menu has its own seafood-heavy offerings: crab cake and shrimp salad BLT sandwiches, a seafood sampler, and spicy gumbo.
48. La Famiglia
105 W. 39th Street, 443-449-5555
Owner Dino Zeytinoglu brought more than his charm to La Famiglia, the Italian restaurant he opened last year in the space once occupied by Brasserie Tatin. He created a smooth-running operation that caters to diners seeking hearty pasta dishes like spaghetti scattered with seafood and fettuccine bolognese. Other entrees include an impressive 14-ounce grilled veal chop and chicken breast fillets in a piccata caper sauce. The environs are comfy, too, with luxurious banquettes (and individual tables), a fireplace, and welcoming bar. The noise level can get loud as conversations bounce around the room. But you don't really need a quiet atmosphere when everyone seems to be having a good time.
720 B Aliceanna Street, 410-659-0099
The high-end chain, started in the affluent '80s by celebrity chef Roy Yamaguchi, combines elements of Hawaiian, Asian, and European cuisine in dishes that are a little bit interesting, yet mainstream enough for broad appeal. One of the best is an ahi appetizer with sesame-seasoned cubes of the fish, combined with avocado, and served over a sinus-clearing wasabi-sour-cream blend. Lobster-filled dim sum in a warm, creamy sauce is splendid, and a salad of greens and shrimp is dressed with a splash of tart lime vinaigrette. Much of the seafood is native to Hawaii, including the hearty ono, which is sliced in thick rounds and surrounded by prosciutto. It comes swathed in a sweet curry sauce with a handful of root vegetables and gnocchi. For dessert, go for the pineapple upside-down cake.
50. Cafe Troia
31 Allegheny Avenue, Towson. 410-337-0133
The nice thing about Cafe Troia is that it delivers what it promises—hearty Italian food with a touch of class. The tuxedoed servers add formality, the tablecloths are crisp and proper, the lighting romantic, and the music straight from the Frank Sinatra era. But it's the authentic dishes that bring in diners. Begin with the calamari Vesuvio to spice up your taste buds, or go lighter with marinated slices of eggplant with rounds of goat cheese. The homemade pasta—whether it's pappardelle or linguine—is always a delight. Pair it with plump shrimp with Swiss chard, prosciutto, and cream, or a comforting bolognese sauce. And there's no resisting the osso buco, one of the restaurant's signature dishes. The braised veal shank tastes like it's been cooking in grandma's kitchen for hours. A thoughtful bonus is the tiny fork to scoop out the golden marrow in the bone. An airy lemon Napoleon adds just the right citrusy touch.