It didn’t take long for noted chef Michael Mina to assess Baltimoreans’ taste buds. Soon after Wit & Wisdom: A Tavern by Michael Mina opened a year and a half ago at the Four Seasons Hotel in Harbor East, diners were downing plates of bison-heart tartare among other adventurous fare. That’s all Mina—a San Francisco resident who operates almost two-dozen restaurants around the country—needed to know. “In Baltimore, people are very much into dining,” he says. “You never know ’til you get there.” The successes of his other restaurants at the hotel—Pabu and LAMILL Coffee—as well as Wit & Wisdom have also given him insight into the local food vibe. “The largest indicator is how my three properties are growing. They’re getting more traction every day,” says the chef, who is being inducted into the James Beard Foundation’s elite Who’s Who of Food and Beverage in America in May. “It tells you people are into it.”
It’s about time someone took notice. Rightly or wrongly, Baltimore has long been known for its old-time crab houses, pit-beef stands, and lake-trout shops. But in the last few years, the city has been making strides in breaking out of the stereotype and being recognized for a growing culinary palate as it receives prestigious James Beard Foundation nominations, breeds entrepreneurial local chefs like Spike Gjerde at Woodberry Kitchen, and draws talented out-of-town newcomers and restaurateurs.
“People, first, think crab cakes and the provincial goodness of Baltimore,” says Bill Addison, the food editor and restaurant critic at Atlanta magazine who grew up in Harford County. “It’s still what drives people to the city. But once they get there, they see much more.”
Addison, who has also covered restaurants in Dallas and San Francisco, keeps an eye on his hometown during family visits. “Baltimore’s food scene is a little more in step with the country at large than it used to be,” he says. “People like Spike getting nominated [as a James Beard Award finalist] are doing a great job of turning the spotlight on Baltimore.”
Other restaurant critics are also paying attention. The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema has been crossing the border to review restaurants like The Chameleon (now Maggie’s Farm), Wit & Wisdom, Pabu, and, recently, Johnny’s in Roland Park, where he wrote: “Johnny’s was rolled out for its neighborhood, but why should locals have all the fun? The restaurant at its best makes strangers feel like honorary residents.”
Washingtonian magazine also took a gander north and included Pabu and Woodberry Kitchen in its 2013 “100 Very Best Restaurants” list. “Things have changed,” acknowledges Cindy Wolf, the chef at Baltimore’s award-winning Charleston, who runs several prominent restaurants, including Johnny’s, with business partner Tony Foreman. “Michael Mina is in town, and other chefs have come,” she says. “Plenty of restaurants have done different things. There are many other things besides crabs.”
Not that our beloved crabs aren’t appreciated. In a recent episode of Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods America, TV host Andrew Zimmern showcased our Chesapeake heritage by catching crabs from the bay, visiting The J.M. Clayton Co. (a crab-processing plant in Cambridge), and sampling one of Faidley’s prized crab cakes at Lexington Market.
In fact, it’s that kind of recognition from TV shows and movies filmed here that also spreads the word about Baltimore’s restaurant options, points out Wolf, a two-time James Beard finalist for best chef in the Mid-Atlantic. Actor Daniel Craig visited Charleston when he was in town filming The Invasion with Nicole Kidman several years ago. He returned to the restaurant a few months ago after playing the role of James Bond in Skyfall.
Even actor Woody Harrelson, who filmed HBO’s Game Change here, came back to town last summer to attend a special raw-foods dinner at the Inn at the Black Olive.
Actor Chazz Palminteri also chose Baltimore as the first location for his eponymous restaurant, Chazz: A Bronx Original, in Harbor East, which he plans to expand into a chain around the country. “It’s a dream I’ve always had,” Palminteri told Baltimore magazine in an interview. “I always wanted to open a restaurant, and I found the right people with Alessandro and Sergio [Vitale].”
While appearing on stage here, Palminteri met the Vitale brothers at their family restaurant Aldo’s in Little Italy, bonding over a love of food.
And just as these high-profile visitors spread the word about Baltimore and its restaurants, so, too, are highly trained, hot-shot chefs becoming more willing to bring their tattoos and culinary skills to town. Executive chef Matt Seeber at Heavy Seas Alehouse near Harbor East appeared on the scene with an impressive resume. The Culinary Institute of America grad worked in premier establishments like Gramercy Tavern in New York City and Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas before landing at the Alehouse because of his wife’s schooling here. “I was aware it was an emerging restaurant market,” Seeber says of Baltimore. “I thought I’d see what happens.”
At Heavy Seas Alehouse, Seeber has fashioned a menu that takes pub fare to an elevated culinary level with entrees like the 24-hour beef short rib and Prince Edward Island mussels. “As a Baltimore chef, I’m not going to cook differently,” he says. “I don’t think I’m a Las Vegas chef or a New York chef. I’m just me.”
With a young child and his wife attending a doctorate program at University of Maryland, Baltimore, Seeber is committed to his job and its future. He cites Portland, OR, and Philadelphia as two cities that emerged as food towns over a span of years. “It happened by itself,” he says. “There’s no reason why it can’t happen here.”
Michael Morris, whom Seeber calls a restaurant “rainmaker,” agrees that Baltimore is poised for discovery. As a principal in Cana Development, a real-estate brokerage and restaurant-consulting firm in Brooklandville, Morris has been watching Baltimore’s restaurant presence grow. “For the last five years or so, Baltimore is finding out it has its own food culture, starting with a lot of what Spike has brought, [chef] Clay Miller at Wit & Wisdom, and [chef] Chad Gauss at The Food Market,” he says.
A newbie, The Food Market in Hampden has already been making waves. It caught the attention of OpenTable diners who chose it (and Ouzo Bay in Harbor East) as one of the “Top 100 Hot Spot Restaurants in the United States” for 2013. Its chef/co-owner Gauss also received a coveted invitation to cook at the James Beard House in New York on May 30 with innovative local chefs Cyrus Keefer of Birroteca and Sajin Renae of Fork & Wrench. The three popular restaurants opened in 2012 to glowing reviews.
Morris wonders, though, whether the town will become saturated with too many choices. “The downside is that the market is only so big,” he says. “I hope it means it will challenge everyone to improve the quality and maintain the quality.”
Morris, who grew up in Baltimore County, admits we often get overlooked in the midst of nearby larger cities. “Baltimore is the red-headed stepchild to D.C,” he says. But he doesn’t see that necessarily as a drawback. Because Washington is an international gateway city, it lacks a defined culture, he says. “Baltimore has a culture,” he asserts. “The culture of food in Baltimore goes back to the food source, back to the bay, back to the farm.”
Spike Gjerde has been instrumental in promoting local, seasonal products at Woodberry Kitchen, which opened in 2007. His industriousness has garnered respect on the national level with features in publications like Food & Wine, Esquire, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, The Washington Post, and Bon Appétit, where Woodberry Kitchen was named to its 2009 “Best New Restaurants” list.
And whether Gjerde wins this year’s Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic or not, he will do Baltimore proud on May 6 at the James Beard Awards ceremony in New York City, where he goes against an impressive group of fellow finalists: Cathal Armstrong, Restaurant Eve, Alexandria, VA; Johnny Monis, Komi, Washington, D.C.; Brad Spence, Amis, Philadelphia, and Vikram Sunderam, Rasika, D.C.
But, on a recent weekday, Gjerde had other things on his mind. He had just finished a tasting of local artisanal cider and mead provided by Millstone Cellars in Monkton. “It’s a great local product from here, of here,” Gjerde says. “It’s really, really hopeful. It’s local bounty in our region.”
Gjerde has grown into his appreciation of local sourcing. When he opened Spike & Charlie’s in 1991 with his younger brother, who now owns Alexander’s Tavern in Fells Point, there weren’t many products available. “What was in the pipeline for chefs was so limited,” he says. “I remember discovering balsamic vinegar and thinking, ‘What is this?’”
As more people traveled, watched the Food Network, and were introduced to new cuisines, the nation’s palate matured. Chefs were also responding to the gastronomic changes. “That’s informed Baltimore and its dining scene,” Gjerde says. “We have a greater sense of place with what we’re eating in the Mid-Atlantic and from the Chesapeake.”
The transformation seems to have jelled more recently. “In the last year to two years, we’ve seen a seismic shift in the dining scene,” Gjerde says. He credits it to our yearning to fill in a culinary gap. “Baltimore’s been historically known for a range of traditional restaurants—from Haussner’s to Danny’s to Marconi’s to the Chesapeake. Those faded or disappeared over the decades. We were left without a base of classics.”
As a consequence, the focus on fussy Continental preparations like crab imperial, Châteaubriand, and duck à l’orange gave way to different food interpretations. And Marylanders developed a new appreciation for their food resources. Gjerde sees the city growing into its identity, which has been there all along. It’s that sense of pride in ourselves that draws interest.
“People think that Baltimore is a little behind,” he says. “That’s not a horrible thing, as long as we stay true to ourselves.”