NOTE: This is our 2012 Best of Baltimore feature. The 2013 Best of Baltimore list is here.
Barbecue: Mission BBQ
If you like a generous helping of patriotism, along with your pulled pork, Mission BBQ is the place to go. At noon each day, the staff and patrons come to a standstill as a taped version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” resounds. It’s a moving few minutes, and that’s just what co-owner Bill Kraus wants. He hopes people will remember to honor the men and women who serve our country whether they are soldiers, firefighters, or police officers. Given his commitment, it makes sense that Kraus chose all-American barbecue to showcase at his first restaurant. He and business partner Steve Newton traveled around the country searching for the best versions to serve at the fast-food-style restaurant and catering operation. We’re impressed. We like what they’re doing on the plate——and in their hearts. 7748 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-773-9888.
Turns out man can live by bread alone at Atwater’s. No wonder. The crunchy loaves with soft, chewy interiors are made from scratch every day with certified organic flour and other ingredients to create a variety of shapes, flavors, and sizes. The staple has been a draw since the first Atwater’s opened in 1999. One of the original breads, sunflower flax, is still popular today (and often sells out by afternoon), along with the San Francisco-style sourdough. All of the breads are hand-shaped, showing the care that owner Ned Atwater and his bakers put into their product. Butter is optional. Several locations, including Belvedere Square, 529 E. Belvedere Avenue, 410-323-2396.
Brunch: City Cafe
The very concept of brunch suggests urban idleness——a leisurely weekend morning punctuated by food and, possibly, a hair-of-the-dog cocktail——with the only remaining cares a perusal of the Sunday papers and an afternoon nap. City Cafe takes this kind of indulgence seriously, encouraging lassitude with large, artfully arranged plates of crab- or spinach-topped Benedicts, omelets packed with crisp fried oysters, and tangy-sweet lemon-ricotta pancakes. Ease into the day sipping a Sunrise, a martini with Stoli strawberry and basil, or snap to attention with a frothy cappuccino. 1001 Cathedral Street, 410-539-4252.
Burger: Baltimore Burger Bar
When BBB owner Anisha Jagtap traded in her pastry bag for a spatula, we wondered how the transition from the former Puffs & Pastries to a burger joint would fare. Very well, thank you. The chef uses her cooking skills to turn out hefty burgers on grilled potato/brioche rolls that can be dolled up with extras like avocado and fried egg and various homemade sauces. While you can experiment with meats like rabbit or go for the veggie, we were happy with our grass-fed beef patty layered with blue cheese and herbed tomato jam on our last visit. Sides like Old Bay-baked frites are available, too. There are a few tables on the porch, but most customers tote away a white bag, heavy with their choices. 830 W. 36th Street, 410-878-1266.
It’s hard not to be a kid again when you go into one of Wockenfuss’s eight retail shops. The glass cases are filled with all manner of sweets: chocolate truffles, several types of creamy fudge, Gummi fish, licorice, taffy, and colorful hard candies—all made by the Wockenfuss family, which has been in business in Baltimore since 1915. Today, 15 family members work there. The company uses traditional recipes, which is fine with us. It doesn’t get better than a hunk of peanut-butter-and-chocolate fudge or a couple of coconut clusters. Several locations, including North Plaza Shopping Center, 8900 Waltham Woods Road, Parkville, 410-882-5770.
Cake: Woman’s Industrial Kitchen
Irene Smith may be known for the Souper Freak food truck around town, but since she opened the Woman’s Industrial Kitchen in Mt. Vernon last December, she’s also known for the comfort foods once served in an earlier restaurant tucked into the back of the Woman’s Industrial Exchange. We like it all, but we can’t get enough of Miss Willi’s yellow cake and chocolate icing. Too bad it’s only available in the winter months. But we can wait. The classic dessert has a traditional home-baked feel, which suits the restaurant’s culinary heritage just fine. 333 N. Charles Street, 410-244-6450.
Cheese: Caprikorn Farms chèvre
We discovered a tub of the farm’s creamy, piquant cheese made from fresh goat’s milk while meandering around the Baltimore Farmers’ Market on a recent Sunday. We’re hooked now. We smear it on crackers; we add chunks to fresh arugula and sliced peaches for a salad; we top grilled chicken with it. Heck, we even sneak spoonfuls of it. Stop by the cheese-maker’s tiny table at the market for samples and taste for yourself. Available at several local venues, including the Baltimore Farmers’ Market, underneath the JFX at Holliday and Saratoga Streets.
Deviled Eggs: Vino Rosina
This picnic food is showing up on many menus these days. But the stuffed eggs are not your Grandma’s plain-Jane version. Restaurants add all sorts of ingredients to turn the incredible, edible egg into fancy fare. We like what we found at Vino Rosina——a perfect mix of comfort and charm. The deviled egg trio sits prettily on shaved asparagus with one egg half garnished with a pickled asparagus spear, another with capers, and the third with smoked salmon. Hamburgers and hot dogs need not apply. 507 S. Exeter Street, 410-528-8600.
Doughnuts: Alexander’s Tavern
It may not be the most obvious place to go for doughnuts, but once you’ve had these hot-from-the-fryer mini crullers, doused with powdered sugar, you’ll want to head back soon to Alexander’s in Fells Point for more. Too bad the restaurant doesn’t open until 11 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends——you’ll have to drink your coffee without them. But after that, these tiny doughnuts are available for rest of the day as dessert or pure indulgence. And while they’re fine by themselves, we recommend the three dipping sauces: vanilla, maple, and chocolate. You get all three with your order, so you don’t even have to choose. 710 South Broadway, 410-522-0000.
Expansion: Miss Shirley’s Cafe
It’s been quite a year-and-a-half for Miss Shirley’s. In June 2011, the Southern-influenced breakfast/lunch place added wheels to its menu——a food truck, that is. Then, in November, restaurant number three opened in Annapolis, joining the original Miss Shirley’s on West Cold Spring Lane and the Inner Harbor location on Pratt Street. But the restaurant, owned by Eddie Dopkin, wasn’t finished yet. In April, he unveiled an expansion at the Roland Park cafe, adding a new dining room with 50 seats. What’s next? We’re waiting to hear. We have a hunch Dopkin isn’t done yet. Several locations, including 513 W. Cold Spring Lane, 410-889-5272.
Food Truck: Gypsy Queen Cafe
It’s hard to pass on the mac-and-cheese cone with crumbled bacon “bling” from the Gypsy Queen Cafe food truck. This oozing concoction, conveniently wrapped in a soft waffle cone, is gobble-worthy, as is its sibling cone, Pig Out, pulled pork layered over French fries. The rotating menu at this festive green-and-purple truck also proffers a Korean-style beef pita with spicy kimchee, flounder po’ boys, and falafel tacos. Chef Annmarie Langton, who owns the truck with chef Tom Looney, explains the variety, “We wanted to do a restaurant on wheels.” And three cheers to Gypsy Queen for winning the Mayor’s Cup at the recent “Taste of Two Cities” food-truck competition between Baltimore and D.C. For daily locations, visit gypsyqueencafe.com.
Greek Salad: Agora Market at the Inn at The Black Olive
Walking into Agora Market is a feast for the senses: the scent of baking bread, the fresh aroma of seafood and produce, and the shelves of colorful jars of olive oils, vinegars, and other items. The menu is tempting, too. We like the paninis, subs, and wraps, but we always order the Greek village salad——a sunny plate of ruby-red tomato wedges, big chunks of feta, and dressed in a pure-heaven, olive-oil dressing with oregano. 803 S. Caroline Street, 443-681-6319.
Healthy Ice Cream: Dominion Ice Cream
The adage “cool as a cucumber” takes on new meaning at this Charles Village spot, where the notion of vegetables churned into icy summer treats predates Jessica Seinfeld’s “hide your veggies” phenomenon. Owner Donna Calloway mashes butternut squash, sweet beets, spinach, and more (11 flavors total) into the base. Your kids needn’t know they’re eating spinach: The pale-green ice cream has a sweet vanilla flavor (and a patent pending for the formula), though the cucumber does have that fresh watery taste of, well, cucumber. This isn’t just a gimmick: one scoop has 99 calories, we’re told, and contains a quarter cup of vegetable good-for-you-ness. 3215 N. Charles Street, 410-243-2644.
Hummus: The Wild Pea Hummous
Born at Mt. Washington’s The Desert Cafe, The Wild Pea Hummous product pairs the humble chickpea with an assortment of bedfellows: Old Bay seasoning, maple-bacon, Key lime, Butterfingers, and strawberries. Eight-ounce containers are available at local farmers’ markets, stores like Whole Foods and Wegmans, and by mail, as well as at the cafe itself (where there are even more flavors to choose from). Sit down at the restaurant to enjoy the original, simply presented with wedges of soft pita bread, or mounded in a salad——unadulterated delight. 1605 Sulgrave Avenue, 410-367-5808.
Indian Buffet: Darbar
Sure, there are bigger and glitzier spreads around town, but Darbar presents a compact lineup of silver-domed dishes that are fresh, delicious, and aromatic. You can smell the alluring scents of cumin and coriander before you even open the front door of this Fells Point eatery. On a recent visit, our naan, the traditional flatbread cooked in a tandoor oven, was appropriately soft and pleasantly chewy. Save room on your plate for an assortment of entrees and sides like saag (creamed spinach), tandoori chicken, and fluffy basmati rice. Add sweetness at the end with kheer (rice pudding) and gulab jamun (gelatin-like pastry). You won’t leave hungry. 1911 Aliceanna Street, 410-563-8008.
Mainstay: Rusty Scupper
Panoramic waterfront views, an extensive dinner menu boasting more than 40 seafood dishes, and ample seating on more than three levels make for a recipe for success for Rusty Scupper. Now in business for more than 30 years, the harbor-side restaurant continues to have wide appeal with its mainstay Maryland seafood cuisine and prime location. There’s no shortage of options: crab cakes, shrimp, oysters, and a variety of fish, including salmon, mahi mahi, swordfish, and more. Don’t worry. There are some meat dishes, too. The restaurant also indulges breakfast lovers with a hearty buffet brunch and live jazz on Sundays. 402 Key Highway, 410-727-3678.
Market: Green Onion
Walking into the new Hamilton market is like stepping back and forward in time, all at once. The old-time décor——with fruits and vegetables in wicker baskets, herbs growing in tins, the blue-and-white original tile floor, and weathered wood——recalls an era when neighbors ran to the corner store for groceries. But this bodega, owned by Winston Blick of Clementine restaurant and Rich Marsiglia, is very much rooted in the locavore present with its focus on providing foods and products from nearby farms and purveyors——from Rumbleway Farm chickens and Cedar Hill cheeses to Prigel’s ice cream and Zeke’s coffee. It’s the kind of place you may want to sit a spell at one of the window tables, sipping a soda from the cooler. 5500 Harford Road, 410-444-1718.
Milkshake: Papermoon Diner
With its bacon milkshake, Papermoon puts the adage “everything tastes better with bacon” to the test. And succeeds. The shake is a blend of bacon-maple syrup and bacon crumbles with a choice of either chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Regardless of the type of ice cream you choose, you can easily taste the key flavor ingredients. To top everything off, it comes garnished with a slice of bacon. The milkshake is available to order all day, and, according to Papermoon staff, has a regular following. We recommend getting it with breakfast or, really, anytime. 227 W. 29th Street, 410-889-4444.
New Chef: Matt Seeber, Heavy Seas Ale House
Heavy Seas may be the name of a brewery. And Ale House may conjure up thoughts of pint-swilling pirates and merry-makers. But make no mistake: This restaurant delivers in the food department as well, thanks to executive chef Matt Seeber. He’s taken pub fare to a new, gourmet level with such offerings as sliders with Pilsener-laced Roma sausages and onion rings in a Dijon and Loose Cannon beer batter. It all makes sense when you find out he was the executive chef at Tom Colicchio’s Craftsteak in Las Vegas and at New York City’s Gramercy Tavern. Welcome to the ’hood, chef. 1300 Bank Street, 410-522-0850.
New Owner: Anna Leventis, SoBo Cafe
We like what she’s done with the place. We’re talking about Anna Leventis, who took over SoBo Cafe in late 2011. The Federal Hill restaurant had fallen on hard times after more than 10 years in the neighborhood, raising fears that its days were numbered. Enter Leventis. She painted the walls a happy shade of orange, decorated with local artwork that’s for sale, and put her own spin on the menu. She kept favorites like the pot pie and mac and cheese for longtime customers, but she and chef Timothy Dyson added a contemporary twist to the comfort-food offerings. You’ll find temptations like tasso ham and pineapple flatbread and Boh brats with apple kraut, potato salad, and ballpark mustard. 6 W. Cross Street, 410-752-1518.
Oysters: Thames Street Oyster House
This place was an instant success when it opened its doors in Fells Point last year. The charming, two-story, row-house restaurant attracts diners with its bright, first-floor bar; cozy dining room on the second level, and attractive outdoor courtyard in the rear. Of course, the Mid-Atlantic and New England seafood is a major draw, too. But it’s the raw bar and impressive selection of oysters that gets our attention. On any given day, there are usually 10-15 types of oysters to choose from, hailing from our waters to the East and West Coasts. Mix and match a variety of half shells for your slurping pleasure. 1728 Thames Street, 443-449-7726.
Pasta: Hersh’s Pizza & Drinks
The wood-fired pizzas certainly play a starring role on Hersh’s menu. They’re delightful. The food is a labor of love for the owner/sibling team Josh and Stephanie Hershkovitz, Owings Mills natives who opened the South Baltimore restaurant late last year. But what we go back for are the house-made pastas——delicate strands and other shapes paired with the freshest ingredients. On one visit, we feasted on tagliatelle with asparagus, mint, pistachios, and chèvre. Another time, we found cavatelli with spring peas and Parmigiano Reggiano. Simple but elegant. Like Hersh’s. 1843-45 Light Street, 443-438-4948.
Pastry Chef: Chris Ford, Wit & Wisdom
To get to know executive pastry chef Chris Ford, you might want to check out his blog butterloveandhardwork.typepad.com. The commentary, ideas, and photos are inspiring——just what you’d expect from a guy who was named Food & Wine’s “The People’s Best New Pastry Chef” this year. Of course, to get a better taste of the talented baker, you have to sample his desserts at Wit & Wisdom at Four Seasons Baltimore. His creativity is a treat——from a deconstructed red-velvet cake or wood-oven apple crisp to the not-to-be-missed Baltimore bar, a layered confection of chocolate brownie, peanut-butter ganache, and chocolate mousse enrobed in chocolate studded with caramelized peanuts and pretzel pieces. This knockout dessert pays homage to the Baby Ruth candy bar and Babe Ruth’s hometown. It’s a homerun. Wit & Wisdom, Four Seasons Baltimore, 200 International Drive, 410-576-5800.
Pizza: Bagby Pizza Company
When Bagby Pizza introduced its brick-oven pies in 2009, it apparently lit a fire of desire in its patrons. At press time, the restaurant’s website claimed to have sold 40,205 pizzas since then. And we’ve probably devoured quite a few of that number ourselves. Our go-to is the “Sweet and Spicy Pizza” for its melange of flavors: spicy tomato sauce, roasted red peppers, red onion, spinach, applewood bacon, and Asiago and goat cheeses, drizzled with balsamic vinegar. While most pies come in 10-inch and 14-inch rounds, slices of cheese or pepperoni are available, too. There’s something for every appetite. 1006 Fleet Street, 410-605-0444.
Po’ Boy: Tooloulou
Chef/owner Shawn Lagergren may have one foot in the bayou, but he and his wife, Megan, are firmly rooted in Maryland. Their tiny storefront eatery Tooloulou in Lauraville showcases several dishes from Shawn’s native Louisiana as well as artisan pizzas. The restaurant’s name is Cajun for crab, which the couple thought was fitting for Baltimore. You’ll find eats like Coca-Cola baked ham and muffuletta sandwiches. But perhaps no dish better says “New Orleans” than a po’ boy. The restaurant’s fried-oyster po’ boy is wonderful——a juicy, fat mess of crispy bivalves on a long, soft roll “dressed proper” with tomato, spicy Cajun pickles, and Tabasco remoulade. Not crazy about oysters? There’s also a gator po’ boy, among other choices. 4311 Harford Road, 443-627-8090.
Polish: Sophia’s Place
At Sophia’s Place, owner and chef Sophia Para has turned the south end of Fells Point’s Broadway Market into a small slice of Poland with smoked deli meats, imported cheeses and chocolates, jars of Polish garnishes, and authentic dishes. From traditional choices such as homemade potato-and-cheese pierogis to more current foods like a selection of turkey, veggie, and ham paninis, Para and her staff aim to satisfy all tastes. Their deep pride in their roots makes dining in the quaint seating area a comfortable occasion. It’s as though you are a guest in their home. 1641 Aliceanna Street, 410-342-6105.
Reinvention: Phillips Seafood
The Baltimore location of Maryland’s most well-known seafood chain moved to shiny, new Inner Harbor digs to great fanfare. It was a boost for the restaurant, which had become frozen in time at its former Harborplace spot after 30 years. Now, the restaurant is rejuvenated with pretty surroundings, featuring a tile-floored piano bar, a soothing gray color scheme, handsome dark woods, and nostalgic photos of founders Brice and Shirley Phillips and scenic bay landscapes. The menu, too, has been rethought with more reliance on regional seafood and local farm products. But, thankfully, you’ll still find the same Eastern Shore dishes the restaurant has offered since its humble beginnings in Ocean City. And, now, diners can take a crack at hard shells on the outdoor crab deck, too. 601 E. Pratt Street, 410-685-6600.
Honestly, it’s worth ordering the chef’s selection of assorted cured meats just to watch the chef go into action at the salumeria station in the enoteca section of the restaurant. Grab a seat at the bar for the show. The round, delicatessen blade whirls as folds of thinly cut Italian meats pile up on the plate like guests’ coats thrown on a bed. It’s a beautiful sight and an amazing amount of meat to share for $20. One of Cinghiale’s nattily suited servers delivers the results, proudly describing the stacks——on a particular night, prosciutto, salami, and soppressata. Paired with the restaurant’s excellent, fresh-baked bread and accompanying Umbrian olive oil, it’s a meal unto itself. 822 Lancaster Street, 410-547-8282.
Sandwich: Luigi’s Italian Deli
The origins of The Scootch can be confusing, but restaurant consultant Will Bauer claims he originated the Baltimore sandwich. Who knew we had a special one? Bauer says he named the sub after a local restaurant worker, Dominic (aka Dominooch, hence Scooth), who worked with him. We particularly like the version at Luigi’s in Hampden—a thick mound of grilled Italian meats (capicollo and soppressata) with Prima Donna cheese, roasted red peppers, sliced hot cherry peppers, and field greens, dressed in balsamic dressing, on a crunchy roll. Go Baltimore. 846 W. 36th Street, 410-814-0652.
Shrimp and Grits: Langermann’s
This classic Southern dish appears on a lot of Maryland menus, and our chefs know their below-the-Mason-Dixon fare. But we really like how Langermann’s prepares it. The shrimp are huge, the andouille sausage pleasantly spicy, and the stone-mill grits as soft as a cream puff. And they’re served in a bowl surrounded by a flavorful clam broth, flecked with shallots and tomatoes. Feel free to dip in the house-made cornbread and muffins to get every last drop. 2400 Boston Street, No. 101A, 410-534-3287.
Sushi: Nanami Cafe
It’s easy to bypass this understated little gem in Fells Point, tucked off a spur at the south end of Thames Street, just past Bonaparte Breads and V-NO wine bar. And that would be a shame. The view of the harbor there is great, the sushi terrific, and the service sweet. While we also enjoy the restaurant’s teriyaki and tempura, we especially like the artistically arranged sushi rolls, nigiri, and sashimi. Go anytime. But the restaurant, with its cheerful tropical-lime-painted walls, has one of the best lunch deals in town. The sushi assortment ($7.95) features five pieces of raw-fish nigiri, a California roll, salad, and miso soup. Not into the uncooked stuff? There’s also a non-raw selection that’s just as good. 907 S. Ann Street, 410-327-9400.
After almost 10 years, this Kali’s Court sidekick (owned by the same people and physically connected) is still a leader in the small-plates craze that never seems to lose steam. Mezze’s Mediterranean tapas are as interesting today as they were in 2003. On a recent visit, the menu was inviting with choices from simple to involved. All were sublime. Start with hummus and warm pita triangles, satisfy your veggie craving with grilled asparagus spears dotted with crispy bread crumbs, and rev up your palate still more with the roasted salmon glistening with barbecue sauce, the melt-in-your-mouth beef tenderloin with pearl onions, and the beef-and-lamb meatballs. You and your taste buds will be belly dancing out the door. 1606 Thames Street, 410-563-7600.
Tea: Teavolve Cafe & Lounge
This time of year, with the temps sizzling the sidewalks, our thirst craves cold beverages. And we know just where to go. We can always count on the sparkling green iced tea to temper the outdoor heat. The refreshing drink also gets a boost from flavors like passion fruit, peach, and pomegranate (our favorite). But Teavolve works in any temperature. In mid-winter, there’s no finer place to sit with a fresh brewed pot of tea (we recommend the melon-pear white tea), simmering over a votive candle to keep it hot through a few cups. 1401 Aliceanna Street, 410-522-1907.
View: Waterfront Kitchen
Talk about a room with a view. This one is a stunner and perhaps the best vantage point along the harbor. And not only do diners get a panoramic sweep of the water, boats, cityscape, and Baltimore’s iconic Domino Sugars and Under Armour signs from inside, they can share their meals with fresh breezes and sunshine or moonlight on the restaurant’s outdoor deck and lower promenade. It also helps that chef de cuisine Levi Briggs is turning out “seed-to-table” meals that live up to the mouthwatering view. 1417 Thames Street, 443-681-5310.
Welcome Addition: Towson Tavern
There is a dearth of upscale restaurants in Towson. But that changed with the arrival of Towson Tavern, a winning idea by brothers Brian and Scott Recher, who also operate Recher Theater and the Rec Room and Patio. The stylish, dark-wood bistro with a handsome granite bar gives residents and visitors a needed option in this part of town. And chef Daniel Henry, formerly of The Capital Grille in Baltimore, brings the cooking smarts to make it work with entrees like sliced tenderloin with grilled asparagus and Dijon mustard-and-horseradish aioli. Check out the historic Towson photos on the walls and take a pleasant trip down memory lane. 516 York Road, Towson, 410-337-7210.