Each year, while the rest of our friends and family are reveling in the high holidays of food—Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas—we’re feasting, too. But most of our bingeing has to do with the “Best Restaurants” issue. Starting in October, we actually visit every restaurant on last year’s list, while checking out new restaurants and other spots with a strong buzz, to make our decisions on who makes the cut. We focus on places that serve dinner, looking for stellar food, service, and ambiance. This past year was particularly fun and challenging, as we had a bumper crop of really good restaurants open, changing the eating landscape quite a bit. The results? Look for some upsets (see No. 1). It’s exciting to welcome the newcomers and to congratulate the perennials who continue to dazzle us with their cooking chops. But ranking the restaurants is never easy. And while it’s as difficult to choose number one as it is to pick number 50, we realize this lineup may change in the future. Before we know it, frost and pumpkins will dot the landscape again, and we’ll be back out there, munching our way through town. Until then, we salute the winners for this year. Along with our picks, we’ve also tackled answers to pressing restaurant-etiquette questions you’ve always wanted to know, like “Is it ever okay to stiff a waiter?” And we check in with various chefs and restaurateurs around town to find out where they go to eat when they’re not cooking. Their responses may surprise you.
1. Ouzo Bay
We love Baltimore’s Greektown with its nest of cozy restaurants, friendly servers, and bounteous portions. So, we weren’t quite prepared for the glamour and glitz at the new Ouzo Bay. The Greek restaurant—already a favorite among Baltimore’s see-and-be-seen crowd—is simply one of the most exciting and impressive dining establishments to open in a long time. The contemporary space is gorgeous with mosaic tiles, cherry woods, and colorful hand-blown glass lights, creating a sumptuous atmosphere where money doesn’t seem to matter. But it will come into play when you’re ordering your meal. With entrees soaring to $75, you may want to check your bank account before you arrive. The food is worth every penny—from the charcoal-grilled whole fish that is flown in daily to the succulent calamari, lamb chops, spanakopita, and jumbo heads-on prawns. Traditional desserts are made festive with spun-sugar creations that make you ooh and ah. And the excellent wait staff will make sure you have just the right ouzo to enjoy your evening. 1000 Lancaster Street, 443-708-5818.
Just because this award-winning restaurant slipped to number two, doesn’t mean it’s slipped at all. A night at Charleston rewards a leisurely pace and the willingness to savor and concentrate on the marvelous flavors happening in your mouth. Forget dining here for the big business deal or the first date (unless you’re both devoted connoisseurs of fine cuisine). Food and wine are the main events, and you won’t want to miss a beat. Renowned chef and co-owner Cindy Wolf is a wizard whose exacting technique turns a simple dish of sweet shrimp and creamy stone-ground grits, laced with tasso ham and studded with andouille sausage, into a revelation——you’ll understand the subtleties of contemporary American cooking in one bite. A potently flavored game bird, practically melting under its crisp skin, sits atop a shimmer of luscious Cognac reduction. You’d be hard-pressed to find any offering on the seasonal menu that’s less than brilliant. Choose from three or more courses, and your expert, knowledgeable waiter will arrange a progressive dinner for you, with suggested wine pairings from co-owner Tony Foreman’s world-class cellar. Take your time; be attentive. You’ll want to remember every bite. 1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373.
3. Woodberry Kitchen
For serious foodies in Baltimore (and beyond), eating at Woodberry Kitchen is a seminal experience. From the remarkably refurbished mill building to one of the city’s most consistently inventive menus, there’s always something pleasing to look at and something spectacular to taste. Some concepts wow us more than others, but the quality of the restaurant’s ingredients and the perfection of their preparations never disappoint. On a frigid Friday night, we couldn’t get a table until 8:45. It was worth the wait. A Kitchen Toddy—made with Oregon whisky, house bitters, and apple cider—from the bar warmed us up immediately, as did piping-hot roasted Chesapeake oysters topped with a fried short rib, sour cream, pickled ramps, and watercress. Seared Cape May scallops and a tavern steak with butterball potatoes were also stellar—a word we use after every visit to describe Woodberry Kitchen itself. 2010 Clipper Park Road, 410-464-8000.
4. Fleet Street Kitchen
The Bagby Restaurant Group is quickly becoming a household name. It first scored success with Bagby Pizza Co.; then, with the stylish bistro Ten Ten. Its third entity, Fleet Street Kitchen, opened in September last year in the same venue as its siblings——the repurposed Bagby Building. The new restaurant has a more upscale price tag than the other two, but offers a relaxed atmosphere in eclectic surroundings that include an exhibition kitchen, rough-hewn wood, and crystal chandeliers. Executive chef Chris Becker has composed a farm-to-table menu that includes many seasonal items grown on restaurant owner David Smith’s Cunningham Farms in Baltimore County. And he has fun with the food as evidenced by halibut “chowda,” mimicking the New England stew without the soupiness. The braised beef short ribs went above and beyond with farro, date purée, and roasted heirloom carrots. But do not leave without sampling pastry chef Bettina Perry’s delectable creations. She’s a dessert impresario with offerings like chocolate rum soup and fromage blanc cheesecake. We can’t wait until restaurant number four, Cunningham’s, opens in Towson this summer. 1012 Fleet Street, 410-244-5830.
5. The Black Olive
The charm of this Greek taverna with the killer selection of seafood has never dimmed over the years, perhaps because it does something simple and timeless and does it very, very well. The drill remains the same since the restaurant opened in 1997. Take the requisite tour of the refrigerated case full of pristine fish culled from the sea that very day; pick from among the bronzini, the Dover sole, the turbo, or any of the numerous offerings. Then, prepare to be transported to heaven when said fish arrives at your table, perfectly grilled or sautéed and accompanied by a squeeze of lemon and a drizzle of olive oil. It’s a ritual that has consistently won The Black Olive kudos, along with the top-notch service, the award-winning wine list, and the intimately informal surroundings. Do not hesitate to partake of the beginnings and endings that complete the main event: a platter of grilled sardines in grape leaves or the supernal grilled calamari stuffed with feta and goat cheese, and excellent baklava or——our favorite——the warm, rich Greek yogurt laced with honey and garnished with fresh fruit and walnuts for dessert. It’s a circle of perfection we never tire of, and which we highly recommend you partake of as often as possible. 814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141.
One of the best parties in town is at Pazo, a restaurant of thumping but not-too-loud music, parades of attractive people, and fabulous food. Part of the Tony Foreman-Cindy Wolf restaurant empire, the restaurant shines, from a multi-leveled interior with seating tucked into corners and along a veranda to nuanced food with sunny Spanish influences and layers of flavor. The prix-fixe, three-course meal includes dishes like a trio of citrusy ceviche variations, a charred-outside-buttery-inside hangar steak atop squiggles of garlicky green chimichurri sauce, tender rounds of rabbit ravioli in a soothing brown-butter-and-lemon sauce, and potato-and-manchego croquettes. Desserts are just as fanciful, and include hazelnut chocolate bars that are like the best Kit Kat you ever had, served with salted-caramel ice cream. After your meal, you will marvel at the play of flavors——and start planning your next visit. 1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296.
7. The Oregon Grille
With its tuxedoed waiters, white tablecloths, jackets-for-gentleman requirement after 5 p.m. in the dining room, and menu featuring foie gras, veal, and plenty of red meat, The Oregon Grille is definitely old-school. Which is not to say it’s old-fashioned. It’s quite refreshing to dine in a restaurant that takes every facet of the meal——from service to cuisine to ambiance——so seriously. Once seated, the food becomes the focus. The menu includes a variety of traditional and inventive appetizers, like roasted quail and wild mushrooms. The entrees are big in flavor, size, and price. Lobster fra diablo arrives with an eight-ounce Brazilian lobster tail atop a bed of linguini. The contrast of the filet mignon’s charred exterior and pink interior looked as beautiful as it tasted. Our waiter, whose service was exemplary and personality charming, put it perfectly at one point as we chatted throughout the evening: “I hear there are a lot of mediocre restaurants out there. I’m glad I don’t work at one.” 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505.
8. Sotto Sopra
There are few Italian restaurants in Baltimore where the food is as consistently fine, authentic, and interesting as it is at Sotto Sopra, where chef/owner Riccardo Bosio works contemporary touches and ingredients into his classic Northern Italian cuisine that keep it creative and fresh. Another bonus that makes the place ever-young: After 16 years, Sotto has managed to maintain its eminently chic, dark, and sexy La Dolce Vita aura along with its culinary expertise; it’s the perfect place for romantic dinners a deux. A recent wintry evening found us swooning over an antipasto special of smoked foie gras and sweetbread terrine, a perfectly toothsome butternut squash risotto embellished with scallops and crispy pancetta, and a delicate veal tenderloin crusted with herbs. The house-made pastas are always a treat (our favorite: the straccetti al funghi, torn sheets of delicate pasta topped with a wild-mushroom sauce), and the wine list is similarly rewarding, stocked, of course, with intriguing Italians. 405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534.
9. Wit & Wisdom: A Tavern by Michael Mina
Wit & Wisdom may be the most elegant tavern you’ve ever seen, starting with the grand entrance through the Four Seasons’s eye-poppingly opulent lobby, past the always-buzzing lounge, and into the chic space with its distinctly Arts & Crafts vibe. The accoutrements, together with the dramatic windowed expanse overlooking the harbor, make this one of the most knockout spaces in town. Certainly, when news arrived that Michelin-starred chef Michael Mina was opening an outpost of his 20-restaurant empire in Baltimore, locals were thrilled and eager. Early reviews were mixed, but more than a year in, the kitchen has found its footing and the service couldn’t be more accommodating. Wood fire——the intoxicating scent of which wafts up from the open kitchen as you enter——lends its sweetly smoky undertones to many of the offerings, like a starter of wood-roasted bone marrow with mushroom jam and pickled ramps, a creamy slab of wild rockfish, or the luscious duo of lamb loin and leg with Swiss chard cannelloni and Medjool dates. Ingredients are mostly local, and the preparations are elegantly simple, letting the flavors shine. This is the place to indulge your love of a great hunk of meat and a fine bottle of wine——the sommelier will skillfully guide you through a list studded with hard-to-find American vintners. Afterward, you’ll want to linger over a C.C.C., an addictive concoction of chocolate caramel pudding and coconut sorbet, and ponder musings both witty and wise. Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, 200 International Drive, 410-223-1456.
10. Thames Street Oyster House
After a year and a half, this quaint row-house restaurant continues to charm patrons with a taste of New England as well as all manner of oysters. The oysters Rockefeller showcases the dish’s plump namesake, dressed regally with creamed spinach, Pernod, and Parmesan. The wilted whole-leaf-spinach-and-fried-oyster salad becomes irresistible with cremini mushrooms, crispy leeks, and warm applewood-bacon vinaigrette. The seared Block Island scallops have been on chef Eric Houseknecht’s menu since the beginning in July 2011, and they never waiver in their burnished goodness. The Cape Cod fluke (flounder) gets fancy with littleneck clams, house-made fettuccine, yellow tomatoes, clam broth, and bacon. Desserts are also made in house. There always seems to be a warm, seasonal cobbler, like blueberry, peach, or, recently, figs and white chocolate. The downstairs bar is fun, but try to score a table on the second floor by a window with one of the most romantic views of the harbor. 1728 Thames Street, 443-449-7726.
11. The Prime Rib
Baltimore’s steakhouse bastion continues to impress its legions of fans. Regular diners are in abundance, ordering without even looking at the menu. Occasional diners are also treated like valued guests. Our waiter, Bob, familiarly called “Bobby” by a nearby table, couldn’t have been more jovial, bantering that we could call him on his cell phone when we were ready to order. Of course, that wasn’t necessary. He was at our table at the appropriate time. Appetizers are luxuriant: a silky lobster bisque in a regal white tureen and thin folds of smoked salmon with the appropriate accompaniments (though we thought that the honey-mustard sauce was unnecessary). The sumptuous, signature prime rib was as fork-tender delicious as always. Our steak au poivre gave us pause, arriving more medium-well than the medium-rare requested. Even the beloved Greenberg potato skins were a tad too crispy. But the kitchen had a firm grasp on dessert. The homemade bread pudding was a proud finish. 1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804.
12. Antrim 1844
Antrim 1844’s Smokehouse Restaurant is deservedly popular for weddings, but even non-wedding meals here feel like momentous events. The dining experience starts with cocktails in the drawing room or in the pub, with servers carrying trays of savory hors d’oeuvres like a macaroni-and-cheese ball and seared tuna on a crisp wonton with a swab of wasabi. When it’s time for the main course, diners are escorted to the dining rooms. Then the wait staff marches in, each carrying a dish aloft, arranging themselves so one is at the right shoulder of each diner. At a signal, they place the food down at the same time. Dishes tend to be full-bodied and delightful. We particularly liked the crunchy fried oysters, superb lamb chops, and a chocolate-enrobed pumpkin cheesecake. The six-course, prix-fixe meal can take hours and may leave diners sated and sleepy, which works out well for those staying at the historic inn. 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 410-756-6812.
13. Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano
Its soaring interior columns, intimate tables, and overall special-occasion atmosphere have long made Aldo’s one of the most elegant restaurants in Little Italy. And its menu, crafted originally by namesake Aldo Vitale and now shepherded by his son Sergio, continues to ensure its status as one of the neighborhood’s most dazzling culinary experiences. Start with the shrimp St. Andrea, large, fresh shrimp plunged into lobster-saffron mashed potatoes. A recent special of house-made pappardella topped with wild boar ragù demonstrated Aldo’s commitment to both traditional Italian concepts and contemporary cuisine. Beef, veal, lamb, and risotto are highlighted along with pasta and, of course, the requisite crab cakes, which are packed with flavor and worth ordering even though you’re at an Italian restaurant. Satisfy your Italiano fix at dessert——Aldo’s tiramisu is among the best in the city. 306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700.
Even on weeknights, the Baltimore County restaurant is packed with diners. It hasn’t lost its zeal or appeal after 25 years. The sleek décor exudes sophistication, the wait staff moves with grace and authority, and the open kitchen with toque-wearing chefs pulses with energy——perhaps none more than chef/owner Linwood Dame, whose towering 6-foot-3-inch presence ensures beautifully plated food and creative takes on old favorites. Not that the restaurant is frozen in time. You can sip an au-courant infused pineapple martini while savoring a spicy tuna tartar wrapped inside a sesame tuille or giant sea scallops in brown butter with risotto. And those are just the appetizers. Entrees go all out with offerings like a glorious sea bass with chilled lemon crab salad and horseradish potatoes or a hefty steak au poivre with pomme frites in a fashionable cone holder. We also like that you can just as easily get a wood-burning-oven pizza or a burger, making Linwoods a neighborhood spot as well as a special-occasion destination. 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030.
Even the Washington restaurant critics are heading to Charm City to praise Pabu. But we already knew the attractions of this Japanese Izakaya (or pub) with its sake sommelier and menu of intriguing charcoal-grilled skewers, fish flown in from the famous Tsukiji Market in Tokyo, sushi, and numerous small plates. It’s pricey but worth it. The dining room is elegant in its simplicity, with honey-colored wood, bamboo ceilings, and shelves of white-ceramic sake casks. And the staff couldn’t be more accommodating, starting your meal with warmed towels so you can freshen up for the dishes to follow. We recommend the six-course satori menu ($44.88 at press time) to explore a wide range of the kitchen’s offerings, from the “happy spoon” appetizer with an oyster draped with uni, salmon roe, and crème fraîche to the panna cotta with tapioca pearls for dessert. The restaurant also has a prime view of sunset over the harbor to complete the evening. Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, 725 Aliceanna St., 410-223-1460.
Though it sits on the outskirts of Little Italy, the brash and earthy Cinghiale, like its namesake mammal (wild boar), makes its presence known. The enoteca, with its 40-foot bar flanked by a pair of almost-friendly sculpted boars, is bustling, even on a Tuesday, when customers indulge in discounted bottles from the weekly “cellar raid.” Young chefs are busy at the salumeria station, assembling a sampling of cheese from the Italian Alps and other regions, slicing near-transparent slivers of ham, and composing plates of salami and pickled vegetables. In the meantime, the kitchen brings forth courses in the proper order: a primi of fresh-cut pasta, lobster-filled ravioli or gnocchi with short-rib ragù; secondi of grilled orata with shaved fennel and tangy bagna cauda, or a tender breast of veal with fondita cream. Two steps up, in the sedate osteria (serving the same menu), carpeted floors, white-clothed tables, and multi-tiered service establish a more formal——but no less authentic——ambiance. 822 Lancaster Street, 410-547-8282.
Another pizza place, you sniff? Au contraire. Yes, the restored millhouse serves up awesome stone-fired artisan pies—like the Duck Duck Goose with duck confit, fig-onion jam, balsamic vinegar, fontina and Asiago cheeses, and a duck egg—but the rest of its Italian-influenced menu will also have you craving many return visits. Chef Cyrus Keefer is the mastermind in the kitchen. Chef Robbin Haas, a national restaurant consultant, is the owner and originator of the concept. Together, they’ve created a super power in a tucked-away city location that quickly packed in patrons in the dining room and bar area when it opened in October last year. In recent months, seasonal offerings featured dishes like pappardelle with aromatic wild-boar Bolognese and lush butternut-squash ravioli with Madeira sausage. The crudos, salumi, and cheeses are must-trys, too. Some advice: Make reservations to avoid a wait at this popular hot spot. 1520 Clipper Road, 443-708-1934.
18. Lewnes’ Steakhouse
To nestle into a high-backed banquette at Lewnes’ Steakhouse is to travel to a pre-chain era when dining out was an occasion that called for oysters Rockefeller and a Manhattan up, when a good steak was all a classy menu really needed. The background music is Tony Bennett and Michael Bublé, the white linens are starched, and there’s a narrow window from your booth into an extravagantly stocked wine cellar. About that steak: The USDA prime-aged beef is tender and flavorful; a New York strip charred on the outside, cooked to juicy red within. Sublime sides——sautéed spinach laced with garlic and bits of onions, perfectly smooth mashed potatoes——are classic complements. If fish is your thing, try a tuna steak or salmon filet——your server might suggest a crab cake on the side. Desserts cleave to the classics: New York cheesecake, pecan pie, a brownie topped with Häagen Dazs——a throwback to our first exposure to premium ice cream, the flavor of nostalgia. 401 Fourth Street, Annapolis, 410-263-1617.
19. Blue Hill Tavern
Just beneath Mr. Boh’s knowing wink, this chic, spacious spot serves up dishes as pretty——and nearly as ample——as the environs. The stylishly renovated building has dining rooms on multiple levels, dark stained wood, electric-blue fabrics, and a backlit waterfall behind the bar. The eclectic, New American menu, while artfully presented, means business. A long rectangular appetizer plate bears three fat seared shrimp, each balanced on a dollop of stone-ground grits with andouille sausage. The New York strip is enough for a family, resting on a bed of spinach-and-potato “lasagna” and adorned with crispy onions. Fat oysters peep from a creamy stew, surrounding a wedge of monkfish. The “candy bar” dessert is a composition of peanut butter and chocolate with a pretzel crunch crust, embellished with chocolate straws and ice cream——almost too beautiful to eat. Almost. 938 S. Conkling Street, 443-388-9363.
20. The Milton Inn
Nestled in the bucolic hills of northern Baltimore County, The Milton Inn continues to swaddle guests in a cozy blanket of country charm and classic, timeless cuisine. Here, you find tasty culinary anachronisms like oysters Rockefeller, resting on a plush pillow of Pernod-infused cream, and the equally classic veal sweetbreads, glistening with Marsala mushroom cream. Each main course is a tribute to old-school haute cuisine, like a massive pork chop with braised cabbage and apples, or a succulent filet mignon served with lobster Thermidor. And if steak really is your thing, The Milton Inn delivers with a formidable offering of cuts and traditional sauces. 14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366.
21. Fork & Wrench
The restaurant was a labor of love for owners Andy Gruver and Jason Sanchez, who spent two years rehabbing and transforming two combined row houses into a dreamy ’20s-era speakeasy with vintage furnishings like birdcages, billowing curtains, and old bookshelves. Chef Sajin Renae added her retro charm in the kitchen with creative takes on local and seasonal foods. One year later, the gastro pub is thriving. The menu changes to reflect the market. But make sure you get something pickled like the F&W pickles-and-pâté dish, which features a variety of local brined vegetables, including julienne beets, mushrooms, and even pumpkin along with a house-made pork pâté. Even the scallops entree comes with pickled wild mushrooms. The smoked pork chop glazed with beer jam is another winner with kohlrabi purée. Finish off the meal with a chocolate tart that tastes like a deliciously dense brownie or head to the bar for an after-dinner drink and snag a seat on one of the red-and-gold brocade sofas. You will be sure you are in another era. 2322 Boston Street, 443-759-9360.
22. The Food Market
Chef/co-owner Chad Gauss joined the parade of entrepreneurs opening new restaurants last year in Baltimore. And given his previous success at City Cafe, diners eagerly awaited its June opening on The Avenue. They quickly embraced Gauss’s value-driven, upscale cuisine——from small plates like cracked fried oysters and pork carnitas tacos to larger entrees like steak frites and “The Chickens,” offering a breast and leg confit. The space, once a grocery store, is industrial-chic with black-walnut tables, aluminum chairs, and white-brick and steel walls. The open kitchen at the end of the big rectangular room is a focal point. Chefs scurry around, making fare like lobster rolls, burgers, and the Baltimore club, a Gauss specialty with a crab cake and shrimp salad on the whopper sandwich. Even the snacks make you happy. Who can resist Amish soft pretzels in beer-cheese fondue or risotto-crusted mozzarella? Judging from the crowds, Gauss’s comments before The Food Market opened ring true: “I understand people and what they are looking for.” 1017 W. 36th Street, 410-366-0606.
Chef/co-owner Jason Ambrose’s Pratt Street tavern offers creative, thoughtful dishes that are quite delicious. One could geek out about the interplay of textures present in the roasted chestnut-and-pear ravioli with boar sausage and fennel, but that’s hard to do when the brain is going bananas over how good it all tastes. Balsamic braised veal short rib with veal sweetbreads is an indulgently rich creation that is mercifully restrained by the inclusion of apples and fresh figs. Save room for dessert, too, because you haven’t had doughnuts until you’ve had Salt’s goat-cheese version——succulent spheres of sweet and tangy perfection. The neighborhood vibe; comfy, modern American ambiance; and a smart wine list all contribute to a satisfying, relaxed dining experience. 2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480.
24. Corner BYOB
There’s something irresistible about this plucky, quirky enterprise in the heart of Hampden, where once a greasy-spoon diner resided. Co-owner and executive chef Bernard Dehaene has carved a charmingly intimate space out of this hole in the wall, and he turns out some of the most ambitious cuisine around, including crazy wild game like kangaroo as well as tamer, more familiar dishes like heavenly sweet mussels by the kilo, pan-seared and roasted duck over applewood bacon hash, and a casserole composed of chunks of lobster, shrimp, and huge scallops in a cream sauce. Actually, it’s nearly impossible to pigeonhole or suggest the breadth of Dehaene’s offerings, as the menu changes constantly, showing off the kitchen’s dazzling variety and invention. The young and eager wait staff revels in describing the specials in loving detail, right down to the preparation, and their enthusiasm is infectious. It helps that the food itself is clean-your-plate delicious, especially desserts——the bittersweet chocolate pot de crème is one of the best we’ve ever had. Even if you don’t brave the kangaroo, eating at Corner BYOB is a culinary adventure of the best kind. Bring your bottle and your cash——credit cards are accepted, but you’ll pay a $2 charge for the privilege. 850 W. 36th Street, 443-869-5075.
25. Kali’s Court
Even in winter, the garden entranceway with a trickling fountain is beautiful in an Andrew Wyeth way. It’s a welcoming segue to the darkened, romantic dining rooms, where a host warmly greets diners, shepherds them to their tables, and fluffs open napkins for their laps. The mostly Mediterranean menu continues the nurturing. This is a restaurant where you’ll find caviar and escargot as well as skate wing and bouillabaisse. The grilled calamari is a remarkable appetizer with a fennel-apple-red-onion slaw. The Asian tuna tartare teases the tongue with wasabi aioli and gets a crunch from fried lotus chips. For entrees, the whole bronzini, deboned in the kitchen, is a signature dish with its sweet, white meat. Even though seafood is predominant, don’t ignore the meat offerings. The braised lamb shanks are meltingly tender atop a purée of sweet potatoes and surrounded by sweet-and-sour spinach and mashed potatoes. With all the rich flavors, we settled on a Tahitian vanilla crème brûlée for dessert——a fine choice before exiting past the outdoor foliage into the night. 1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700.
26. The Olive Room
The view from the restaurant is so breathtaking and vast you can almost imagine that you can see all the way to the Mediterranean. The Greek influences in this fifth-floor, small dining room are obvious, yet the menu tends more toward land than sea. Lamb, pork, beef, and chicken are the entree hits. Kleftiko is one of the showiest and most remarkable dishes in the city. Chunks of lamb are cooked with an olive oil, herb, lemon, and garlic sauce in sealed parchment paper, which is opened and plated tableside along with couscous. Seafood is more readily available among the appetizers. Lobster saganaki arrives on an extremely hot plate. Three pieces of lobster tail sit atop sharp Greek cheese surrounded by warm and crispy pita triangles. It’s among the most decadent and delicious small plates we’ve tried recently. The Olive Room quickly has become that rarest breed of restaurant: an eatery whose kitchen matches its spectacular views. 803 S. Caroline Street, 443-681-6316.
27. Level Small Plates Lounge
You might think this lively, trendy hotspot in Annapolis would be happy with its reputation for hosting a wildly popular dance scene in its upstairs lounge or for handcrafting some of the most innovative cocktails around. (Try the smoked margarita, “cured” in-house with mesquite and mixed with organic agave and limes.) But downstairs, the folks in the exhibition kitchen are mixing up their own brand of fun——a menu’s worth of small-plate food that just may represent some of Annapolis’s best. Try not to be greedy with the Cuban pork spring rolls, crispy little packets stuffed with juicy braised pork and pickles. Hearty offerings like lamb osso buco with roasted figs and fluffy gnocchi in caramelized onion soubise can double as entrees with, say, the cress and roasted beet salad; or you and your friends can sample a host of the house flatbreads and artisanal cheeses. Whatever you do, bring plenty of aforesaid friends to share the bounty of Level’s locally sourced and beautifully executed plates. Load up——afterwards you can always head upstairs and dance your dinner away. 69 West Street, Annapolis, 410-268-0003.
28. Wine Market Bistro
Strolling past the restaurant’s bottle-lined shelves on the way into the bistro is kind of like moving through a line for a rollercoaster——you know a thrill awaits. The menu also has a flair for the dramatic. Braised pork is served with Jerusalem artichoke purée, Brussels sprouts, peanut miso broth, and Korean chili. The pork is pulled, moistened with au jus, formed, and seared again. It’s fantastic. A fresh, flaky piece of grouper is blackened with a deft touch not routinely found north of Florida. A wine suggestion accompanies most menu items; 30 are served by the glass, another 900 are sold in the shop (and can be enjoyed with your meal for a small corkage fee). The restaurant retains its foundry roots with exposed steel beams and high ceilings that can make the main space quite loud when it’s crowded, which it usually is. Eat here just once and you’ll understand why. 921 E. Fort Avenue, 410-244-6166.
29. Ten Ten
Billed as “an American bistro,” Ten Ten is the second entry in the Bagby Restaurant Group’s trio of successful eateries in the beautifully renovated Bagby Building. But this middle child takes a back seat to neither sibling. Less casual than Bagby Pizza Co. but more casual than its new sister next door (the elegant Fleet Street Kitchen), it boasts a price point somewhere in between the two, as well as a rollicking vibe, a hip, young clientele, and a menu laden with bold Southern flavors. Shrimp and grits with braised greens and crispy pork belly get a kick of smoky deliciousness with a blast from the wood grill; country pork ribs boast finger-lickin’ goodness from thick molasses barbecue sauce and a side of down-home, honey-sage cornbread. But there’s plenty of sophistication, with deft preparations, locally sourced products, and some of the best handcrafted cocktails around. The vibrant tastes match the warmth of Ten Ten’s exposed brick and hardwood interior, making it an eminently enjoyable night out. 1010 Fleet Street, 410-244-6867.
30. Petit Louis
The whole point of bistro-style food is to keep it simple, straightforward, and honest. And that’s exactly what Petit Louis does, using quality components in basic configurations, often just a protein and a starch comprising an entree. The meats are well seasoned; the Gruyère is properly pungent and browned on the onion soup; even the humble white beans are noticeably well-cooked. Petit Louis excels in the details——thoughtful flourishes like excellent butter for the table accompanied by a tiny jar of good salt, an almond cake with cappuccino, and business cards that servers use to jot down info about the amazing wine you’ve just had. Combine that with excellent service, a huge wine list, and fair pricing, and it’s no surprise that Petit Louis remains a favorite neighborhood staple. 4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393.
31. Peter’s Inn
There’s some kind of magic going on here. Maybe it’s the quirky décor—a hodgepodge of photos (from babies to celebs and dogs), a duckpin bowling pin, antlers, and a stuffed marlin draped in lights hang on the walls. Maybe it’s the bad-boy history—as a former bikers’ bar. Or perhaps it’s being an insider-in-the-know when you enter one of the city’s most fascinating bar/restaurants. It’s probably all of the above plus the ever-changing, always satisfying menu prepared by chef Karin Tiffany, who owns the restaurant with her husband Bud. The thoughtful offerings showcase her stylish cooking and vision. The day-boat scallops in clementine beurre blanc, for instance, are piled around moist black lentils resembling caviar. The succulent braised veal cheeks get even better with mint gremolata and ravioli stuffed with Swiss chard and leeks. And a colorful mix of red and gold beets is mingled with blue cheese and pistachios in an appetizer. You’ll want to linger. So go ahead and indulge in a pecan-pie sundae with a cup of always appreciated French-press coffee. 504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313.
32. Tio Pepe
Forty-four years old and still partying strong, this venerable Baltimore favorite continues to pack ’em in with its old-school style and an enduring roster of Spanish favorites: enormous seafood-laden paella á la Valenciana, roast suckling pig Segovia-style, shrimp in garlic sauce, and, oh yes, those inevitable bottomless pitchers of sangria. Descend into Tio’s whitewashed warren of cavernous dining rooms and you’ll find yourself in the midst of an ongoing festival of revelers from all walks of Baltimore life, from big-time business types to first-date teens. Noisy, crowded, boisterous? You bet. But the celebratory vibe is so infectious, you’ll find yourself joining the chorus of oohs and ahs as your Continentally suave waiter prepares flaming Spanish coffee tableside. Enjoy the show. There’s nothing quite like it anywhere in town. 10 E. Franklin Street, 410-539-4675.
33. The Capital Grille
The Capital Grille is a go-to spot for power lunchers with its clubby leather banquettes, where corporate types can drink from their private wine cabinets under the watchful gazes of portraits of such local heroes as Thurgood Marshall and Johnny Unitas. Here, a mid-day cocktail never seems out of place, and waiters offer the option of a black napkin, lest the white leave lint on a dark suit. But when evening draws in and the neighborhood has packed its briefcase for the night, the venerable downtown spot can just as easily accommodate a hushed rendezvous. The menu is rich with classics: chopped salad with artichokes and green beans or an iceberg wedge with crumbles of bacon. You can share a plate of oysters on the half shell or calamari, lightly fried with a smattering of sweet and hot peppers. And, of course, there’s the steak: a thick sirloin, simple and meaty, or the steak au poivre, studded with peppercorns in a pool of rich Courvoisier-spiked cream sauce. There are fish options, too: seared sushi-grade tuna and broiled lobsters. The dense flourless chocolate cake is the perfect finale——whether you’re here for business or pleasure. 500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064.
34. The Brewer’s Art
There has been some house cleaning since our last visit——the ambiance of the main dining area is now a clear step up from the hip-grunge feel of the basement lounge and the relaxed gastro-pub vibe of the bar. Additionally, the arrival of chef Ray Kumm (formerly of Bluegrass Tavern) has injected a dose of energy and verve into an already engaging dining experience. On a recent visit, we savored the white rabbit Bolognese, which was rich, opulent, and served over house-made pasta. We also fell for the Broken Arrow Ranch quail stuffed with sausage and paired with gingerbread spaetzle and a Scotch egg; it was the perfect dish for a chilly evening visit. The Teutonic/Belgian theme is carried on in a succulent beef-cheek sauerbraten with crispy, glazed Brussels sprouts. As always, the peerless beer list and well-priced, well-chosen wines round out a delectable encounter. 1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-6925.
35. Tapas Adela
The restaurant——from the people behind Kali’s Court and Mezze——is a crowd pleaser, though sometimes the crowd is so pleased the noise becomes overwhelming. But the Spanish-themed menu of small plates, including olives, cheeses, and cured meats, invites lingering. We especially liked the lamb shank in a rich tomato-wine sauce, studded with chickpeas; a vegetarian flatbread with a creamy Caña de Cabra cheese, marinated mushrooms, roasted peppers, artichokes, and arugula; and decadent fried artichoke hearts splashed with a tart wine reduction. Even the salad, with a light, piquant dressing and dried fruit, was memorable. For dessert, we recommend the delectable rice pudding. 814 S. Broadway, 410-534-6262.
36. The Ambassador Dining Room
Stepping into the main foyer of the building known as The Ambassador is like stepping through a portal in time. Everything, right down to the sign for “manager,” is seemingly original to the building’s 1930 completion date. Mount the small set of stairs to the dining room to be greeted by a quietly deferential staff and the smells of fantastic Indian fare. Feast your eyes on the carved-wood and crushed-velvet surroundings while satisfying your tandoori cravings on any number of Indian favorites. The service is excellent, the food is delicious, and, weather permitting, the outdoor dining in the garden is unparalleled. No wonder The Ambassador rolls on in 2013 as one of Baltimore’s classic dining destinations. 3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484.
This dream of owners Winston Blick and Cristin Dadant started out as a tiny neighborhood restaurant before quickly expanding into the space next door to accommodate the people queued up for tables. Since then, chef Blick has added the Green Onion market a block away and a sister restaurant at the Creative Alliance in Highlandtown to his holdings. He’s also turned over the reins of Clementine’s kitchen to former Top Chef contestant Jill Snyder, who follows her boss’s locavore, make-it-from-scratch philosophy. The results are noteworthy. On a recent visit, the charcuterie platter was a mouthwatering tasting of chicken liver pâté with vanilla and hazelnuts, rabbit terrine, jaegerwurst, tasso ham, and pickled vegetables. Entrees succeeded with a New York rockfish in a sweet sunchoke cream and a locally raised rabbit-and-linguine dish with foraged mushrooms and acorn squash. It’s no surprise that Clementine is getting ready to celebrate its fifth anniversary in April. 5402 Harford Road, 410-444-1497.
38. Waterfront Kitchen
A meal at Waterfront Kitchen leaves the impression that the kitchen has stepped out of the way, allowing ingredients to simply speak for themselves. Here, a bone-in monkfish “osso buco” tastes moments from the sea, resting in a stewed tomato broth that could be fresh picked, adorned with curls of kale. A juicy pork rib-eye is seasoned like an afterthought, a fresh sprig of thyme placed alongside, accompanied by a frill of oyster mushrooms.And a steaming tart apple cobbler in a cast-iron pan is sweetened with local ice cream. However, the food does, in fact, reflect its chef—Jerry Pellegrino, whose farm-to-fork creed puts local produce and proteins front and center. Meanwhile, the setting is as good as it gets in Baltimore; the water laps at the outdoor deck, and the porthole motifs, upholstered walls, and dark-wood accents make you feel like you could be dining on a private yacht. 1417 Thames Street, 443-681-5310.
39. b bistro
Peppy servers, chalkboard specials, and a well-lighted place define the bistro experience at b, as well as a passionately curated wine list that is impressive enough to highlight upfront. In a town where many places fill their lists with corporate jetsam, the list at b challenges the diner to try something off the beaten path; and it all goes so well with the attractive, carefully prepared food. Starters include safe choices like duck-fat frites, and adventurous fare like roasted bone marrow. That theme carries over to the main courses——a house-ground burger for comfort-seekers, pumpkin-and-kale agnolotti with pine nuts for the seasoned diner. No matter the path you choose, count on local ingredients and flawless execution. 1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600.
40. Mr. Rain’s Fun House
Befitting a restaurant that sits atop the American Visionary Art Museum, Mr. Rain’s interior is cheerful and fun, with sparkle-covered animal heads and a wall painted in swirls of pink and yellow. Food and drinks keep the vibe going, with fresh ingredients and bold flavors. Taste buds are put on alert with warm pretzel knots served with crocks of mustard instead of a traditional breadbasket. A pickle plate offers six variations on the theme, including a spicy kimchi. The tuna-poke appetizer gets extra dazzle from avocado ice cream. A duck entree was also impressive, and a chocolate torte topped with homemade marshmallow took a simple dessert to a higher level. Mr. Rain’s brings its exuberant experimentation to cocktails, too, including a bracing, apple-tinged treat called Fetch and Dig. You’ll dig it. American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, 443-524-7379.
41. Jack’s Bistro
Ted Steltzenmuller opened his diminutive bistro going on five years ago with a kind of headstrong creativity that has consistently challenged and amused us——with dishes like a bacon burger (made with ground bacon, no beef) and chocolate mac ’n’ cheese. Those items linger like eccentric old friends, but the place has mellowed into a go-to neighborhood favorite with such regular weekly specials as Thursday beer and noodle-bowl pairings and $20 filet mignon on Sundays. This isn’t to say Steltzenmuller has in any way subdued his style. A pioneer of sous vide in these parts, and a guy who doesn’t hesitate to titillate—— think drizzling duck confit in blueberry gastrique or seared monkfish with bok choy in a spicy peanut-curry sauce——the chef makes his presence known, both in the open kitchen off the back dining room, and on every plate placed before eager diners. 3123 Elliott Street, 410-878-6542.
42. The Helmand
After more than two decades, little has changed about The Helmand. And thank goodness for that. It seems to be the least-known, must-go place in Baltimore, maybe due to the relative obscurity of Afghan cuisine. But it’s definitely a place to visit, with its deceptively large, attractive interior, excellent service, and absurdly low prices. The food here is homey, hearty, and, while distinctive, really not very exotic. The kaddo borwani is rightfully famous and perfectly exemplifies the menu here——a few hunks of translucent pumpkin, stewed soft and sweet, dressed with sharply garlicky yogurt sauce——simple, sublime, and memorable, like the rest of The Helmand. 806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311.
43. The Oceanaire Seafood Room
The Baltimore location of this chain is as sleek as the cruise ship it is designed to resemble, all wood, glass, and Art Deco touches. But its classic seafood dishes, made with top-notch ingredients, are the real stars. Rockfish pairs well with two kinds of beets, while grilled oysters boast a flavorful Parmesan crust. A Mediterranean stew provides a welcome dip into earthier flavors, with a mix of seafood in a heady broth of garlic and tomato. Sides vary from barely wilted spinach with fat cloves of browned garlic to macaroni and cheese with large lumps of crab. The dessert menu includes a pleasantly tart Key lime pie. The experience is smooth sailing on all accounts. 801 Aliceanna Street, 443-872-0000.
44. Towson Tavern
Occupying what was formerly the billiards area of The Rec Room, next to the Recher Theatre, Towson Tavern is an oasis of well-crafted, upscale fare, and a generally satisfying experience. Situated amid an ocean of chain, ethnic, themed, and student-centric eateries, the tavern powers through any lapses in nuance with solid preparations; careful, earnest execution; excellent, often local ingredients; and downright huge portions. The cream-of-crab soup is exceptionally well-seasoned and full of crab meat; braised short ribs are among the best we’ve had anywhere; and even staples like burgers are treated to upgrades with white-truffle oil, applewood-smoked-bacon ranch dressing, and brioche. 516 York Road, Towson, 410-337-7210.
When Langermann’s opened in The Can Company in December 2009, it was greeted by the wham-bam of two monster snowstorms a few weeks later. Executive chef/co-owner Neal Langermann told us at the time that he slept in his restaurant office so he would be on hand to feed the hungry neighbors. That says a lot about the chef’s dedication to his community and craft. We’re so impressed with Langermann’s shrimp and grits that we sometimes have to remind ourselves that there are other terrific choices on the Southern-influenced menu. Small plates include offerings like fried-green tomatoes, Low Country Louie, and Carolina gumbo. The “full plates” live up to expectations. They are giant portions, but you’ll be very happy to take leftovers home. On a recent visit, the bog-country chicken was a whopping dish of roasted chicken coated with a delectable spicy Cajun sauce, a mountain of mashed potatoes, and broccoli. Desserts are yummy, too. The Bourbon-infused bread pudding with crème anglaise and caramel sauce is just as decadent as it sounds. On Wednesdays, bottles of wine are half price, as if you needed another incentive to visit. 2400 Boston St., No. 101A, 410-534-3287.
46. Christopher Daniel
Christopher Daniel is back on our “Best Restaurants” list this year——and rightly so. New energy is pulsing through the dining room with updates to the furnishings, polished service, and food prepared with an eye to detail. The menu changes seasonally, although popular dishes remain a constant as does the mix-and-match steak option. Pick a cut of beef and pair it with a sauce and topping for a customized meal. The 14-ounce rib-eye, grilled medium-rare the way we like it, fulfilled our dreams with a rich demi-glace and sweet bourbon mushrooms. The Oriental BBQ salmon was another success story with sautéed vegetables and potato-scallion spring rolls. Start your meal with a kick with the spicy ahi tuna encircled with a cucumber ribbon and pools of wasabi sauce. Desserts are old-fashioned in nature and fun. The deconstructed banana split has all the essentials grouped on a plate: caramelized bananas, scoops of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, and walnuts. Just grab a spoon. 106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium, 410-308-1800.
47. The Dogwood
The descent from street level into the Dogwood marks a transition from The Avenue’s culinary status quo into the very heart of its future. Using fresh and local ingredients, the restaurant serves dishes that burst with flavor and ingenuity. Take the whole, boneless trout, for example. A mild fish, it often can bore taste buds. But here, any blandness is banished by wheat berries and red Himalayan rice, red grapes, oranges, toasted almonds, and a red-wine gastrique that tops it. Similar sentiment is found throughout the various dishes, which change seasonally. A small plate of braised calamari is served in a spicy tomato broth, a pleasant take on a standard starter. Salmon is glazed with hints of maple and ginger. The food reflects the restaurant’s stellar service and casually inviting ambiance. 911 W. 36th Street, 410-889-0952.
48. Victoria Gastro Pub
It’s a rare night at Victoria Gastro Pub that you won’t find at least one member of the Marriner family prowling the various rooms (each named for a station in the London tube system), checking on guests, and enquiring after the food and service. The owners’ presence——and their commitment to the “gastro” part of the restaurant’s name——have kept the rambling eatery fresh, even as the concept of thoughtful bar food has become fairly ubiquitous. Classics like poutine——duck-fat fries slathered in Gruyère and gravy——and the lobster grilled cheese——chunks of lobster embedded in creamy Brie sauce——or a Wagyu beef burger with caramelized onions and truffle cheese are the perfect complement to a heady selection of craft beers and equally appealing wine list. Regulars who join the beer club can earn rewards for quaffing pints, and the restaurant hosts regular beer- and wine-pairing dinners that highlight the intimate relationship between kitchen and bar. 8201 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia, 410-750-1880.
49. Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant
A trip to Tersiguel’s is like a visit to a wealthy and doting uncle, one with a rambling home filled with delicious smells and yellowing photos on the walls. From the moment diners set foot in the repurposed 19th-century home at the top of Ellicott City’s old-fashioned Main Street, coats will be taken, bread will promptly arrive, wines will be recommended, and lavish descriptions of the day’s specials will be offered. Fernand and Odette Tersiguel opened Tersiguel’s in 1990. It is now owned by their son Michel, who is also the executive chef. Many dishes are winners: tender viande du marche, sliced and warmed tableside; house-made fruit tarts with crisp buttery shells and perfect blackberries; and sweet mussels in a shallot-wine broth, to name a few. Some dishes——like the bland calamari and undercooked potatoes——missed the mark. Like that beloved uncle, not everything is perfect——but we’re too fond of him to mind. 8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004.
50. The Manor Tavern
You get the feeling that many of the diners at The Manor Tavern didn’t travel too far to get here. There’s plenty of tweed and jeans and table-hopping, a camaraderie that sparks longing in those who’ve come from the city. The locally driven menu is a perfect fit for the horsey setting, from artisinal cocktails served in Mason jars to bread pudding bursting with tart cranberries and topped with ice cream from a nearby farm for dessert. Not to be missed for sheer novelty is the beer-can chicken——an entire bird impaled on a half-full can of Natty Boh for roasting, and served balanced on the charred can, the tender, steamed meat falling off the bone. More conventional presentations include pan-seared scallops in a white-bean cassoulet with Swiss chard and a juicy tenderloin topped with spears of tempura-style beer-battered asparagus. The décor is unspectacular——’70s-style paneled wainscoting and framed horse prints on the walls. Parking is plentiful, and if the convivial vibe among the regulars didn’t already do the trick, the view of verdant, rolling hills may leave you yearning for country life. 15819 Old York Road, Monkton, 410-771-8155.