Best Restaurants 2012

We pick our very favorite 45 places—and rank our top 10

NOTE: This is our 2012 Best Restaurants feature. Our 2013 Best Restaurants list is here. Our 2011 list is here.

Decisions, decisions! That’s the challenge we face each year as we reflect on which restaurants should be included in our annual “Best Restaurants” list. There are so many choices in a town that’s finally getting national recognition for its food scene. We debated our findings and came up with 45 Baltimore-area restaurants that we think are the crème de la crème. But 10 of those rose a bit above the rest, and we couldn’t resist ranking them.

You’ll see a lot of perennial names that continue to dish out great food and service. But we have a feeling there could be a shake-up next year. In the past several months, we’ve had a slew of places opening—and there are several promising newcomers. We’re not exactly handicapping our future list, but we came up with 10 rising stars that we expect will be major culinary players in the months to come.

We also give due to our favorite restaurant servers in the next several pages—from Willy Marinelli at La Scala to Joyce Snyder at Samos. And who can resist Irish Dave at Sláinte?

As we ate our way through town, we were struck by certain foods that kept appearing on menus. Honestly, every restaurant seems to have a beet salad or a juicy pork belly. Take a peek at some of the most popular dishes we found.

All in all, it was a delicious year. And, now, the winners of our “Best Restaurants” are . . .

1. Charleston

Harbor East
Award-winning Charleston continues to rack up the accolades. “Does it really deserve this praise?” we sometimes ask. Yup, it does. Try as we might to find a slip-up or a faux pas, somewhere, somehow, our visits are flawless—from the gracious greeting at the door, to the perfect rose on the table, to the conscientious service. And then there’s the food. Chef/co-owner Cindy Wolf turns out a beautiful prix-fixe meal ($76, three courses; $114 with wine, plus other options). A lobster soup with curry, pictured, arrives with a naked hunk of lobster in a bowl, soon to be bathed in a silky sienna broth poured by the waiter. The pan-roasted wild rockfish is fat and pure with a delicate lemon beurre blanc. And the grilled veal sweetbreads are crunchy and unctuous, in a most-pleasant way. More goodness ensues: As we finish our meal with a fragrant, seasonal gingerbread cake with poached Granny Smith apples, we’re reminded once again why Charleston gets—and merits—all the kudos. 1000 Lancaster Street, 410-332-7373.

2. The Prime Rib

Midtown
For all its elegant formality, The Prime Rib is a rollicking place amid its starchy white tablecloths and black-clad waiters. There’s a festive air in the dining rooms, perhaps because guests are feasting on Flintstone-sized cuts of meat, fish, and side dishes—and can’t quite believe their good fortune. The signature prime rib inspires lust from neighbors who didn’t order the dish. The slightly charred prime New York strip with its rosy interior impresses, too. And we’re always happy to dip the crispy Greenberg potato skins, a restaurant staple since 1965, into sour cream or horseradish sauce. Start your meal with oysters Merritt, featuring juicy oysters sautéed in garlicky butter and served with toast points, or a tangy Caesar salad. Homemade bread pudding with bourbon sauce is worth sharing at the end because at the end of a meal this great everyone is in love with the food and each other. 1101 N. Calvert Street, 410-539-1804.

3. Woodberry Kitchen

Clipper Mill
Four-plus years in, Woodberry Kitchen is still the hottest reservation in town. The farm-to-table concept may be old news by now, but chef/owner Spike Gjerde’s exacting and innovative way with local products continues to excite and delight, and the warm allure of Woodberry’s haute-rustic atmosphere still dazzles. The nightly mob thrills to specials like fresher-than-fresh Maryland rockfish, which may show up in a bevy of dishes, like a starter comprised of the fish’s belly, its rich meatiness cut with bracing shots of Anaheim peppers, mustard greens, pickled cauliflower, and lemon; or a wood-oven-roasted entree slathered in green-garlic mayonnaise. The menu’s depth—from a delicate Chesapeake oyster stew to a hefty Springfield Farm rib-eye to an ethereal apricot-hibiscus sorbet—will confound your ability to decide. But then again, that’s why the crowds keep coming back. Woodberry is a source of endless local pleasures. 2010 Clipper Park Road, 410-464-8000.

4. The Black Olive

Fells Point
The first morsels of food to arrive are four perfectly plump black olives. They, like everything that follows, are magnificent in their simplicity. We follow our server to the metal bin where the day’s fresh catches lay on a bed of ice. As textures and tastes are explained, our eyes wander to the adjoining glass display case, behind which sit scallops so large and lamb chops so plump they almost look fake. Whole fish are filleted tableside in such a masterful manner that even cheek meat is preserved. This is food as theater, but not in a needlessly showy way. The kitchen sees to that. Our turbot was accompanied by an olive-oil-and-lemon-juice sauce that accentuates but doesn’t overpower the delicate flavor. A bowl of kakavia, Greek fisherman’s stew, was packed with lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, and scorpion fish soaked in tomato-based broth. It takes a certain level of culinary expertise to make food so simply delicious. 814 S. Bond Street, 410-276-7141.

5. Cinghiale

Harbor East
It is a tribute to the sophistication of Cinghiale’s menu that so much of it can be enjoyed in such varying situations. Start your meal—or end it—with three Italian cheeses, which can include a decadent Gorgonzola dolce, a mild and sweet cow’s-milk blue. A charcuterie plate or the chef’s selection of bruschetta del giorno makes a perfect appetizer or snack at the long enoteca (wine bar). Pastas, made in-house from scratch, are served as second courses or can be ordered as an entree. Main dishes are prepared with intense attention to detail, from the selection of ingredients to plating. The rockfish, pan-roasted such that the skin crisps and the fish flakes in concert, comes with cauliflower two ways in anchovy-hazelnut brown butter. At the bar or in the upscale dining room, Cinghiale approaches Italian cuisine as it should be: without constraints. 822 Lancaster Street, 410-547-8282.

6. Antrim 1844

Taneytown
One of the treats of living in Maryland is a weekend getaway at this romantic antebellum inn a stone’s throw from Gettysburg. The centerpiece of the experience (available with or without an overnight stay) is chef Michael Gettier’s prix-fixe dinner, a leisurely six-course sit-down from an ever-changing menu of French-American cuisine. Gettier’s food is rich, so be prepared for a splurge. You can count on a fabulous little amuse bouche to begin, and perhaps an appetizer involving foie gras, like the roulade with prosciutto and walnuts. But the stellar entrees, like lobster medallions dotted with scallop mousse or a chevre-stuffed loin of lamb, are the real highlights, along with a fat wine list deep with treasures. The “panache” of desserts—a tray full of goodies that always includes something chocolate and fun (think homemade s’mores with real marshmallows)—will feel like overkill, but you won’t be able to resist. 30 Trevanion Road, Taneytown, 410-756-6812.

7. Aldo’s Ristorante Italiano

Little Italy
Entering Aldo’s is like walking into a palace. You are instantly surrounded by breathtaking opulence, softly lit warmth, and a host of attendants ready to make your visit memorable. The dining experience is fit for a king or queen, too, as our last visit amply proved. We feasted on house-made pappardelle pasta enrobed in a rich ragù made from six-hour roasted Texas wild boar, plus piquant and perfectly cooked fried calamari and shrimp, and an elevated surf and turf that included a succulent filet mignon and a regal jumbo crab cake. The 7-year-old little princess in our party continually issued proclamations like, “Hey, I like squid!” and “This restaurant is my new favorite!” We suspect the imported Marasca cherries in her Shirley Temple may have had an influence. Desserts certainly did, as the entire table devolved into oohs, aahs, and cooing sounds over the Napoleon—a majestic tower of puff pastry, Bavarian crème, and marinated cherries. We also noted that the wine list has gotten a lot more serious recently, with truly insightful picks across a range of price points. 306 S. High Street, 410-727-0700.

8. Blue Hill Tavern

Brewers Hill
Bad moods are simply not sustainable at Blue Hill Tavern. The happy noise, the attractive patrons, the stylish bar and dining areas, the trendy Brewers Hill location, and the high-flavor food all work to banish the blues. And the drinks don’t hurt, either. The crowded bar, with a wall of flowing water behind the bottles, has high-top tables, where customers eat full meals, snacks, or nothing at all while they enjoy drinks such as a devastatingly good elderflower Cosmo, made with white cranberry juice, vodka, lime, and St. Germain liqueur. To soak up the alcohol, consider an appetizer of cold beet-cured salmon, served with a dollop of creamy, salty stracciatella cheese and a pile of peppery arugula. A main course of fluke, served with miso broth, ramen noodles, and vegetables, achieves a satisfying balance of hearty flavors and delicate textures. Though vegans in our party had to laugh when our waiter suggested the cheese plate for them, they were appeased with the attractive chopped salad, pictured, and a custom creation of soba noodles and lots of veggies. 938 S. Conkling St., 443-388-9363.

9. Pazo

Fells Point
Menu cycles are a regularity here, with new dishes appearing in the stead of old favorites every few months or so. But on the whole, Pazo is sticking to its western Mediterranean guns, even if the once tapas-dominated menu seems to be slowly transitioning into a more traditional appetizer/entree format. The “First” and “Main” sections of the menu diverge from the Spanish and Portuguese a bit, incorporating French and Italian flourishes and local produce into seasonally influenced dishes. The beef tenderloin tartare displays balance and playfulness with stellar raw beef, earthy hazelnuts, and a fried caper here and there. A perfect entree of luxuriously rich merluza exemplifies understated but expert handling of an extremely fine piece of fish. To go with its bold food, Pazo is a gorgeous space filled with well-heeled patrons, an impressive open grill, mammoth marble bar, and swift, expert service. 1425 Aliceanna Street, 410-534-7296.

10. The Oregon Grille

Hunt Valley
The Oregon Grille’s quietly upscale décor constitutes a gleaming tribute to horse country, with its displays of burnished saddlery and its rich trove of historic, horsey Maryland memorabilia. The luxe, clubby feel (jacket required in the evening, guys) extends to a menu that’s heavy on traditional fare prepared with unfussy ease—say, a divine oysters Rockefeller to start, then on to massive medallions of beef tenderloin in Zinfandel, followed by a slice of New York cheesecake, and perhaps a postprandial snifter of Armagnac from the well-stocked bar. (The wine list is equally impressive.) As your server expertly guides your meal to a close and the cocktail piano tinkles an old standard in the background, you may feel as if you’ve died and gone to hunt-club heaven. 1201 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-0505.


The Ambassador Dining Room

Tuscany-Canterbury
The Ambassador remains one of the most romantic restaurants in town, claiming the designation by consistently delivering on all the definitions of the word. Romance isn’t just about a crackling fireplace and oversized rattan chairs to sink into on a chilly night, or a lush terrace with a gurgling fountain when the weather is warm. Nor is it just an attentive staff, which seamlessly and discreetly sees that glasses are filled and dishes properly arranged. There’s also the romance of travel—to another continent, where tender lamb is simmered in cream sauce laced with almonds, chunks of flaky fish are infused with warm curry, and bread billows like a silk hot-air balloon. And of course, there’s the romance of the past. The Ambassador is, like its name, infused with a patrician grace, an old-world sophistication that just doesn’t change. 3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484.

b A Bolton Hill Bistro

Bolton Hill
It’s easy to be the neighborhood favorite when you’re the only game in that area of town, yet b continues to elevate its game. The space is classic bistro, a tall box of a room that reverberates with the din of a kitchen at full crank and diners packed into close proximity. But it is starched up with crisp linens and richly upholstered booths. The menu follows suit with rustic ingredients and straightforward, intense flavors presented in a modern square-plate-friendly style. Dishes are often deconstruc-tions of traditional favorites, like a downright amusing take on pork belly, which pairs deeply browned cubes of concentrated porcine flavor with a perfectly fried egg, brightened with a zesty tomatillo sauce. It’s a supercharged version of huevos rancheros if you will. The many “small plate” options allow diners to sample b’s expertly crafted offerings while keeping the bill in check. 1501 Bolton Street, 410-383-8600.

B&O American Brasserie

Downtown
Chef Thomas Dunklin, who took over the Hotel Monaco’s restaurant last spring, understands that a meal at B&O isn’t only about good food. It’s the way ingredients reflect a landscape once patterned by railroad tracks and how certain dishes can link today’s careful eaters with the folks who ate their big meal in the middle of the day. The food here is serious business: a slab of rockfish, pictured, could pass as red meat, dense with red-wine sauce and served with pumpkin-seed risotto and crispy broccoli raab. Roasted figs are on top of paper-thin duck bacon and sprinkled with sweet foie-gras vinaigrette. A chicken, straight from a local farm, is accompanied by bourbon-laced apple purée and earthy roasted celery root with a cornbread stuffing. A restaurant’s claim to source locally has become standard these days. But Dunklin seems to seek more than just apples, eggs, and beef when he’s out scouring the markets and farms. He infuses his dishes with history. 2 N. Charles Street, 443-692-6172.

Bluegrass Tavern

South Baltimore
Bluegrass is perfectly disguised as just another Fed Hill row-house bar, yet the cavalier disregard for proper capitalization in the swanky signage and the amazingly comprehensive selection of bourbons and American whiskies suggest otherwise. One look at the menu and it’s crystal clear that Bluegrass is no ordinary kitchen, applying far-ranging influences, from Korean and Moroccan to boutique seafood and meats with impeccable provenance. It’s not easy to categorize the restaurant, but there is somewhat of a theme in the “casual bites” section, and that is gussied-up Southern comfort food. A take on chicken and waffles inexplicably incorporates wild rice into the latter, but treats the former to a light smoke and even lighter fry that elevates the dish to the sublime. 1500 S. Hanover Street, 410-244-5101.

The Brewer’s Art

Mt. Vernon
Brewer’s, as it’s known to its legion of fans, naturally appeals to Belgian beer aficionados, having won kudos far and wide (Esquire magazine, for one) for its elegant and powerful homebrews. But what makes this see-and-be-seen hotspot a constant favorite are the surprisingly excellent eats, hearty but sophisticated fare that more than matches the allure of the ales and the glamour of the lovely upstairs bar and dining room. Crispy fried oysters gilded with tasso ham and lemon Tabasco beurre blanc vie for richness with other starters like a velvety chestnut-and-roasted-pear bisque; entrees play with local ingredients both high and low, from the succulent cod crusted in Utz potato chips to a fat slab of Springfield Farm roasted pork with bacony greens and Bourbon sauce. And with an equally lauded wine list comprised of very reasonably priced gems, as well as a roster of killer desserts, Brewer’s Art is clearly not just for beer lovers—it’s a place any knowing foodie can embrace. 1106 N. Charles Street, 410-547-9310.

Cafe Troia

Towson
Towson’s haven of fine dining soldiers on by offering savory, inviting food in a warm, earth-toned environment. We are particularly pleased to see a wine list that takes some chances, although on a recent visit our wine of choice turned out to be unavailable. We easily found something else to pair with our meal, which featured enticingly large sautéed shrimp served on thick slices of Parmesan toast and slathered in herbed butter sauce. We also tucked into veal vagna cauda with thinly sliced veal with capers, garlic, olives, anchovies, and white wine. Less successful was an appetizer of tuna carpaccio; the flavor came from the briny capers and lemon juice, but the thinly sliced tuna was completely mute. Despite the quibble, Troia, on the whole, delivers solid gourmet Italian food in an area otherwise lacking in fine dining. 31 Allegheny Avenue, Towson, 410-337-0133.

The Capital Grille

Inner Harbor
Forget a post-meal movie; dinner at The Capital Grille is an evening out in and of itself. Indulge in its stiffly mixed cocktails and belly-busting steaks and you might need a nap. The pineapple-infused vodka Stoli Doli is so deliciously sweet you have to remind yourself it’s alcoholic. The pan-fried calamari with hot cherry peppers appetizer provides a glimpse of what’s to come: It doesn’t skimp on flavor—or calories. A handful of seafood entrees dot the menu, but The Capital Grille earned its nationwide reputation from carnivores. Steaks are prepared in styles ranging from subtle (porcini mushroom rub with 12-year aged balsamic) to bold (black peppercorn rub with a rich Courvoisier cognac cream and peppercorn sauce). We order ours “rare-plus,” a request cheerfully accommodated by our peppy server and executed with skill by the kitchen. After an epic two-hour meal, you’ll be sure to leave clutching doggie bags, in good spirits and pleasantly stuffed. 500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064.

The Chameleon

Lauraville
After 10 years, this restaurant pioneer in the Lauraville-Hamilton neighborhood still embodies the farm-to-table vision of chef/owner Jeffrey Smith with its focus on seasonal, local foods. First-time diners may puzzle over instructions to park in the grocery-store lot and then wonder about the inauspicious entrance past the open kitchen. But once they step into the cozy dining room with romantic lighting, white tablecloths, and calming sage walls, they’ll be impressed with the friendly staff and the complex flavors that show up at their tables. We really like the Tuesday-Thursday three-course, prix-fixe menu for $33. In keeping with a fall visit, the kitchen turned out a rich pumpkin-leek soup finished with Madeira and cornmeal-encrusted oysters atop spinach sautéed with anise-flavored Herbsaint. We tucked into perfectly seared scallops over a creamy spaghetti squash and a succulent butterflied quail with potato gratin enriched with sweet Gruyère. The house-made desserts are a pleasure—a doughnut filled with lemon curd and a chocolate-ganache cake with a salty caramel sauce—and a perfect accompaniment to neighbor Zeke’s coffee. 4341 Harford Road, 410-254-2376.

Crush

Belvedere Square
With a sleek, lively bar at the entrance and a stylish upscale dining room farther in, Crush offers the best of both worlds. The bar features an array of delicious cocktails, creative sandwiches, and the full menu, while the dining room invites you to a more formal setting to enjoy the menu. Tuna tartare melts in your mouth, accompanied by the refreshing snap of cucumber and a just-right zing of soy sauce; beef tenderloin arrives cooked to order with appealing matchstick potatoes; and the crab cake eschews the “all-jumbo-lump” mantra in favor of celebrating all the crab has to offer. That works for us, because the texture ends up more varied and is often more flavorful, too. We are also impressed by the wine offerings. Crush, like a surprising number of other contenders this year, seems to have put real thought into its selections rather than filling the list with the usual tried-and-true (but tired) restaurant brands. 510 E. Belvedere Avenue, 443-278-9001.

The Dogwood

Hampden
Located smack in the middle of the ongoing Hampden renaissance, Dogwood continues to define itself as a comfortable crash pad for diners with strong locavore inclinations. Galen and Bridget Sampson have molded a soft, inviting, earthy dining environment, accented by the Prohibition-era bar that they salvaged from a downtown demolition. Start your evening with one of their signature cocktails and an order of their criminally addictive house-made potato chips with dipping sauces. Then, delve into a trove of sumptuous temptations, like fried catfish smothered in spicy red sauce, or Virginia trout married to a cornucopia of multi-grain pilaf with seasonal kale and clementines. Combined with a wine program that focuses on sustainable and organically grown offerings from around the world, and you’re sure to have a fine-dining experience that is at once easy on the Earth and hard on the belt buckle. 911 W. 36th Street, 410-889-0952.

Gertrude’s, The Baltimore Museum of Art

Hopkins-Homewood
John Shields’s ode to the cooking of his grandmother, Gertie Cleary, continues to shine after more than 10 years. While turning out comforting Eastern Shore fare, the restaurant provides a soothing view of the art museum’s sculpture garden. Even at night, the restaurant charms with white lights outlining the windows and a ceiling reminiscent of a dark summer sky, complete with twinkly stars. The Land & Water Feast sampler for two is a good way to nibble on several appetizers: crabettes, single-fry oysters, crab-stuffed shrimp, and chicken and corn fritters. You can practically hear the ocean while savoring these treats. We’re especially fond of the build-your-own section, where you can pair Gertie’s crab cake with the likes of hand-cut fries and apple-fennel slaw. And it’s perfectly okay to be temped by a hunk of meat. The 10-ounce rib-eye from local Roseda Farm comes with decadent blue-cheese compound butter to dot on the tender beef. Gertrude’s is always full of possibilities. 10 Art Museum Drive, 410-889-3399.

Grano Emporio

Hampden
For those of us without Italian grandparents to welcome us into their homes for a hearty old-country repast, there’s Grano. The soft, butternut-colored walls with beadboard wainscoting, the creaky wood floors, and rustic tables—even the glass and copper light fixtures made by a local artist—give these two converted Hampden houses the feel of a country cottage. Start with a bottle of wine, chosen from a display at the front and poured into a glass that has just the right heft. Order a plate of salty marinated anchovies, a dish of olives, simple slices of prosciutto dressed in a shaving of pecorino cheese and a drizzle of olive oil, or a slab of fresh mozzarella with a smear of pesto. The zuppa de pesce is more fish than soup, the garlicky, tomato-based broth crowded with clams, mussels, and shrimp bursting from their shells, crowned by a hunk of white, flaky Chilean sea bass. Owner Gino Troia keeps things simple. A meatball is a meatball here, and tomato sauce has a fresh-picked taste. All we can say is, we envy his grandchildren. 3547 Chestnut Avenue, 443-438-7521.

The Helmand

Mt. Vernon
You aren’t a true Baltimore food lover if you haven’t had Helmand’s kaddo borwani (baby pumpkin). And year after year, its succulently sweet meat contrasted by the garlic yogurt sauce wins new fans. On our last visit, it was as delectable as ever, as was the aushak (leek-filled ravioli with yogurt, mint, and ground-beef sauce), the dolma murch (bell peppers stuffed with vegetables and finished in a tomato sauce), and the mushroom lawand (succulent ’shrooms sautéed with tomato, corn, onion, and green peas). Our table of two polished off all that, washed it down with an excellent, organically grown Cabernet Franc, and then split a bowl of cardamom ice cream and still didn’t crack $100. And that’s the beauty of The Helmand, that it offers so much to so many—foodie, gourmet, vegetarian, or student on a budget all find The Helmand as comfortable as an Afghan blanket. 806 N. Charles Street, 410-752-0311.

Jack’s Bistro

Canton
Don’t expect to find typical bistro fare here (or anyone named Jack for that matter). The kitchen is headed by chef/owner Ted Stelzenmuller, whose affection for molecular gastronomy first propelled Jack’s to early notoriety. And while you can still find the famous sous-vide steak and wacky concoctions like mac and cheese with dark chocolate and a burger made from 100-percent ground bacon, Jack’s has managed to cement a role as a go-to spot by using the highest-quality ingredients available. A rustic tomato sauce is punched up with superbly clean-tasting ground Colorado lamb, transforming a simple pasta dish into a captivating sensory experience. A huge list of obscure ales and creative house cocktails also attracts many patrons away from the relaxed dining area to the livelier lounge. But beware of slower and sometimes snippy service on busy nights. 3123 Elliott Street, 410-878-6542.

Kali’s Court

Fells Point
The curtained entryway to the dining room alludes to an evening of romance. The beautifully appointed rooms are softly lit; the ambiance is perfumed with allure. If you’re lucky enough to be seated upstairs (do ask) on the wrought-iron balcony, you’ll feel even more seduced by the lush space. But it’s really the menu—mostly seafood with a Mediterranean flair—that captures your heart. It’s the kind of place where you can indulge in caviar, aged Gouda, or an albino anchovy salad for starters, though we were recently smitten with the sumptuous slow-braised lamb cheeks and feta-cheese orzo as a first course. One of the restaurant’s star dishes is the branzini from overseas waters. The fish arrives at the table whole, but deboned, its white meat flaky and delicate, and accompanied by snappy haricots verts and roasted potato rounds. Desserts are as glammed up as the surroundings, but the one we go back for is the chocolate-chunk crème brûlée. Pure heaven, like the rest of the meal. 1606 Thames Street, 410-276-4700.

Level - A Small Plates Lounge

Annapolis
At Level, the happy hour, with its $6 artisanal cocktails—made with such quirky concoctions as egg white and baked apple bitters, lime foam, and fresh persimmon—and similarly priced small plates of gnocchi with green peas, grilled eggplant, or hummus with roasted pear seamlessly blends into the dinner hour. You soon realize that Level is happy at all hours. And its small plates can add up to a wide array of flavors, from a duck torchon with a purée of garlic to the dessert-you-can-drink concoction of dark, malty Belgian black ale, served in a Mason jar with a scoop of ice cream. Level’s two bars—upstairs and down—are consistently crowded after work, and it recently added a second dining room. A chalkboard, pictured right, on one of the exposed-brick walls lists words related to the headings Food, Drink, and Socialize. It’s a list—with the addition of affordable—that will keep us returning. 69 West Street, Annapolis, 410-268-0003.

Lewnes’ Steakhouse

Annapolis
Sumptuous cuts of prime USDA beef rule at Lewnes’, a family operation reminiscent of a sleek speakeasy that befits its founding in 1921. Sure, you can get lovely crab cakes, tuna steaks, and salmon fillets, but it doesn’t get much better than an inches-high rib-eye or dish-sized prime rib swimming in au jus. If you must have seafood, we recommend the classic shrimp cocktail, chilled and succulent. The sides are as gargantuan as the meat portions, serving two to three diners. We had our fill of lyonnaise potatoes (crispy potato slices with onions) and sautéed spinach à la George (with a hint of lemon and garlic), and still had plenty to take home. The wine list ranges from the reasonable to triple digits in case you’re celebrating a lottery win. In keeping with the restaurant’s emphasis on luxury, dip into its warm brownie sundae frothed with whipped cream. It looks like a fancy Easter hat. The professional service is as polished as the ambiance. There’s absolutely no rush as you sink deeper into the supple black-leather booths, listen to music from another era, and sip a second cup of coffee. 401 Fourth Street, Annapolis, 410-263-1617.

Linwoods

Owings Mills
If you’re a dyed-in-the-wool Baltimorean, a trip to Linwoods probably means a special occasion. The smooth dark-wood interior, walls of hunter green, and bevy of white-toqued chefs hard at work in the open kitchen promise something special and grown-up. But while the restaurant pre-dates many of the digs that define Baltimore as a foodie town, Linwoods is by no means over the hill. Even words like seasoned and mature don’t do it justice—unless you’re describing the way a pat of blue cheese slowly melts on the surface of a juicy tenderloin, or the sweet lemon crab salad embellishing a generous fillet of sea bass, with horseradish-spiked mashed potatoes on the side. Linwoods combines the cultivation we take for granted with such casual updates as pizza from a wood-burning oven, a dinner salad topped with grilled duck, and a crab cake with fried tomatoes. In other words, there’s no need to wait for a big event. 25 Crossroads Drive, Owings Mills, 410-356-3030.

Meli Bistro

Fells Point
Of course, Meli is sweet—that’s the point of a place whose name is Greek for honey. But it isn’t just the honey-laced cocktails and the modern interior that woo you. It’s the way this restaurant, a cheerful sibling of the more formal Kali’s Court, infuses whimsy into its accessible bistro menu, every now and then reminding you of its Mediterranean roots. The menu offers the usual suspects: crab cakes, Caesar salad, and honey-glazed salmon, as well as small departures. The “wedge” salad, for example, is crisp leaves of romaine topped with thin slices of pear and crispy lardon cubes. Entrees range from a classic surf-and-turf—petite filet with a lobster tail—to thick papardelle pasta with a sharp puttanesca-style sauce, loaded with shellfish. And honey shows up in unexpected places, like the crispy Brussels sprouts, oven roasted and dressed in honey-flavored apple gastrique. 1636 Thames Street, 410-534-6354.

The Milton Inn

Sparks
The Milton Inn is a step back in time, and not just because the building dates to the 1740s. The old-fashioned menu belongs in the first season of Mad Men, with clams casino and oysters Rockefeller in the appetizer column, and venison and lobster tail as main courses. Dim lights and sedate music contribute to the sleepy feel of a restaurant forgotten by time. Yet, The Milton Inn still fills its many dining rooms by sticking to what it does well, serving well-prepared, classic American fare in a special-occasion setting. Patrons know what to expect. On this visit, a basket of warm, chewy bread arrives seconds after we sit. The seafood martini appetizer is loaded with shrimp, lobster, mussels, and crab lumps. The duck breast is richly flavored, with sides of butternut squash and wild rice. We listen to the dessert selections and choose the sampler, eating every bite of the dense truffle, gingery pumpkin crème brûlée, and tiny square of chocolate-macadamia cake. Sometimes, change is overrated. 14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366.

Mr. Rain’s Fun House

Federal Hill
Walk past the display of Pez dispensers to the entrance of Mr. Rain’s Fun House, where the hostess greets you with the slightly frightening phrase, “Welcome to the Fun House.” Inside, befitting a restaurant at the American Visionary Art Museum, the walls are painted in starbursts of pink and purple, staffers dress like they’re in a Pee-wee Herman movie, and sparkle-coated animal heads look down on diners. With all this energetic wackiness, the food at Mr. Rain’s is surprisingly (and pleasantly) restrained, creative without going overboard. An appetizer of beet salad gets its spark from deep-fried beet crisps, while a trout dish over fennel and potatoes is fresh and flavorful. Even desserts combine flavors and textures in welcome ways, but the drinks are more creative than pleasurable, stuffing a few too many ingredients into those cocktail glasses. The happy vibe and excellent service make any missteps forgivable. American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, 443-524-7379.

The Oceanaire Seafood Room

Harbor East
Sure, Oceanaire is an upscale national chain. But if you want to get one of the best crab cakes in Baltimore, this is the place to go. (We know that borders on heresy.) Settle into a plush red-leather banquette, spread open a starched white napkin, and indulge in our favorite local dish. The Harbor East restaurant doesn’t skimp on its other seafood offerings either. The fish is wild and wonderful, the oysters juicy and plump, and the crustaceans over-the-top fresh and huge. The shrimp-and-grits (with white cheddar) appetizer is large enough to share or to be an entree. Whether you go for an elaborate Oceanaire classic—like the “black and bleu” Ecuadorian mahi mahi—or a simple grilled Faro Island Scottish salmon, the plates and presentation will satisfy. (There’s beef, too, if you must.) The baked Alaska is legend, but we’re also fond of the crispy bread pudding with a tennis-ball sized scoop of vanilla ice cream. 801 Aliceanna Street, 443-872-0000.

O’Leary’s Seafood Restaurant

Annapolis
From the outside, the cozy cottage with parking—a wonderful amenity in Annapolis’s crowded Eastport neighborhood—belies the modern-day décor inside with bright splashes of mustard, black tablecloths, and modern artwork by owner Paul Meyer. The multi-paned windows provide a waterside view of Spa Creek, creating just the right setting for the restaurant’s stellar seafood. What also sets O’Leary’s apart is how it dresses its dishes. The swordfish steak au poivre, for instance, is more than a delectable hunk of fish seared in peppercorns. It’s partnered with sautéed shrimp, tomatoes, wild mushrooms, and leeks along with mashed sweet potatoes and haricots verts. Similarly, the crispy Florida grouper with Gulf shrimp takes a tropical approach with black beans and rice, tomato-cilantro salsa, chipotle aioli, and barbecue sauce. No plain Janes here. We also marveled at the mixed-berry shortcake—a split buttermilk biscuit topped with amazingly ripe strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries in late fall. That’s attention to detail. 310 Third Street, Annapolis, 410-263-0884.

Peter’s Inn

Fells Point
If we had to pick a quintessential Baltimore restaurant, Peter’s Inn would be our choice. Out-of-towners appreciate its quirky décor, like the stuffed swordfish on the wall, swagged with lights, overseeing the formal white-clothed tables. And locals are downright proud of its former biker-bar status. The restaurant’s no-reservations policy is a minor challenge. Diners know they can count on a creative menu that changes weekly from chef/co-owner Karin Tiffany. On a recent visit, we had a beet salad that still makes our mouths water: an assortment of roasted, multicolored beets atop greens, complemented by blue cheese and pistachio pesto. For our main meals, the seared day-boat scallops were plump and delightful, sharing the plate with a silky lobster risotto. And the thick venison chop was so tender we didn’t mind its rareness, despite having ordered it to be cooked medium. Service is friendly if not always knowledgeable about the food. Homemade desserts—like pound cake with panna cotta in a pool of strawberry soup—and French-press coffee leave you with a happy impression, whether it’s your first visit or fourteenth. 504 S. Ann Street, 410-675-7313.

Petit Louis Bistro

Roland Park
Decidedly less urban chic than its downtown siblings, this second child of the Foreman-Wolf empire is no less delectable—or popular. The cozy dining rooms and bar are packed on a winter’s weekday night, yet you can count on exemplary service and food provided by the seasoned staff. We start with the richly satisfying aubergines croquantes, crispy eggplant Napoleon in a savory pistou sauce. It’s nearly as popular as the duck-leg confit, a perennial contender for what we think is Baltimore’s best dish, with meat so tender it renders our knife superfluous. When we ask our server for a wine suggestion, he brings tastes of two reds. As we agonize over the decision, he offers to pour us a half glass of each. That’s the level of care in both the front and back of the house that has made Petit Louis, like the timeless French food it serves, a place that’s here to stay. 4800 Roland Avenue, 410-366-9393.

Roy’s

Harbor East
There’s a reason Roy’s Baltimore has been drawing customers to Harbor East for 10 years. The Hawaiian-fusion cuisine continues to impress diners with its seasonal ingredients and classic preparations. Chef/partner Patrick “Opie” Crooks—a protégé of the chain’s chef/founder Roy Yamaguchi—has inspired the kitchen even more. Appetizers like Big Island-style poke (nuggets of ahi tuna), crispy pork steamed buns, and lobster pot stickers are gorgeous and delectable. Entrees like macadamia-nut-crusted mahi mahi and braised beef short ribs are expertly prepared and flavorful. After indulging in the warm pineapple upside-down cake and coconut ice cream, you’ll want to do a hula in celebration. Roy’s is noisy, making conversation difficult, but you’ll be too busy chewing to mind the lack of discourse. 720 Aliceanna Street, 410-659-0099.

Ruth’s Chris Steak House

Inner Harbor
Forget the diet, forget your budget, and leave your vegan friends at home. The redoubtable Ruth’s Chris is big, unabashed American steak territory, steak so bad-for-you good it’s served with butter. Yes, butter. That massive à-la-carte mound of garlicky mashed potatoes (you must, you really must) is likewise bathed in butter, along with the heaping piles of spinach, broccoli, and wild mushrooms—just in case you had the notion that ordering vegetables was the virtuous thing to do here. Virtue be damned. You come here to indulge—in bigger-than-life food, crack service, and a wine list that’d make an oenophile’s heart pound. Go ahead and seize the day—order that chocolate sin cake for dessert. You only live once. Choose your cliché and resolve to leave decadence behind . . . after you’ve indulged thoroughly at Ruth’s Chris. Several locations, including 600 Water Street, 410-783-0062.

Salt

Butchers Hill
The tiny 10-table dining room is bustling on a fall Friday night. The swiftness with which the wait staff moves mirrors the pace of innovation in executive chef Jason Ambrose’s kitchen. It’s also small, we’re told by our attentive server, which is why we must order our appetizer and entrees together. The grilled-octopus-and-white-bean salad arrives first. Its contrasts are stunning—the olives’ saltiness and the sweetness of the peppadew vinaigrette; the warm, tender octopus and the cold crispness of the baby arugula, caper berries, and red onion. From the nine entrees, we choose sea scallops, deftly seared yet outshined by the accompanying oxtail-and-potato lasagna. Chicken and dumplings, the thighs stuffed with smoked Gouda and apple, demonstrate Salt’s whimsical side. It all works, our taste buds’ judgments confirmed by the raves of diners we can’t help but overhear (honest!) on either side of us. 2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480.

Sotto Sopra

Mt. Vernon
While its name in Italian means “up and down” or topsy-turvy, Sotto Sopra is anything but. Over the years, the Mt. Vernon restaurant, with its colorful wall murals and festive menu, has established a reputation for authentic and gratifying Italian food. Perhaps the name denotes the approaches you can take: Dress up for opera night to be serenaded by professional singers over a six-course meal, or feast on a candlelit meal of such classics as veal saltimbocca, pounded thin and topped with prosciutto and provolone, crisped around the edges, and whole branzino prepared with herbs and lemon confit and herbed olive oil. Or you can treat the convivial place as your favorite neighborhood bistro, stopping in on a weeknight for a plate of pasta with pesto or wild mushrooms, or polenta di Riccardo, a disk of warm polenta topped with a poached egg and prosciutto, and named for owner Riccardo Bosio. 405 N. Charles Street, 410-625-0534.

Tapas Adela

Fells Point
The cozy and crowded Tapas Adela’s interior (courtesy of ace designer Rita St. Clair) looks as much like a real taberna in Madrid as you can get. Indeed, Adela, the latest jewel in the Kali’s Court Restaurant Group’s crown, may be fairly new but it already knows what it’s about, serving up very fine tapas standards, like fluffy little omelets studded with potato and peppers and shrimp coated with olive oil, green onions, and plenty of garlic to a packed house, along with heartier small plates like battered cod or an excellent pork stew with sherry and smoked bacon. The wine list naturally carries a bevy of Spanish and Latin American standards to match the cuisine. It’s all marvelously old-fashioned and authentic, and together, the atmosphere and the food will transport you to Castilla-La Mancha faster than you can say “Salut!” 814 S. Broadway, 410-534-6262.

Tersiguel’s French Country Restaurant

Ellicott City
If a trip to the French countryside isn’t in the cards anytime soon, it’s easy enough to get a quick fix in Ellicott City, where Tersiguel’s remains a custodian of Gallic tradition. Along with dishes straight from the native Brittany of chef Michel Tersiguel’s parents—frog legs, a buckwheat crêpe with a runny egg and caviar, and escargots in garlic butter—the kitchen embellishes classic French dishes with creative touches. Grilled lamb is seasoned with cumin and tamarind, for example, and the sautéed scallops in the coquilles St. Jacques are updated with red-beet risotto and passion-fruit vinaigrette. The bread is house-baked and deliciously soft and chewy, and the green salad is delightfully simple with oil, salt, and Dijon mustard vinaigrette. If you happen to be sitting in the dining room with Odette Tersiguel’s collection of Quimper pottery, you might just believe you’re in France. 8293 Main Street, Ellicott City, 410-465-4004.

Tio Pepe

Mt. Vernon
Even first-timers can sense the vibe that has been imbued into this wine-cellar space by countless souls raising glasses of the trusty house sangria in celebration of promotions, birthdays, graduations, and anniversaries. It’s the kind of place that elevates any meal to a special occasion, with an unwavering menu that succeeds after many decades because whoever prepared your dish can really cook, and the quality of ingredients is uncompromising. Many diners know the staff by name, and even the chef is occasionally coaxed out onto the floor to put on a pyrotechnic display of tableside flambé, swirling an almost obscene amount of lobster in huge sauté pans. Combine this with a front-of-the-house staff that has been there seemingly forever, possessing a reassuring panache and soothing graciousness, and it becomes clear how one of the last truly old-school Baltimore restaurants is still going strong. 10 E. Franklin Street, 410-539-4675.

Victoria Gastro Pub

Columbia
So what is Victoria’s secret? How did a restaurant serving English food, of all things, become the destination for brunch, lunch, and dinner? Though Victoria is unabashedly good-looking, her physical charms are just part of her appeal. Since the restaurant opened in 2007, she has seduced diners with excellent service and a menu of pub-style comfort dishes that are a little bit different from the standard crab cakes and chicken wings, yet never weird. You can get burgers here, but also a grilled-cheese sandwich studded with lobster meat. Or a main course of tender roast pork loin, sliced thin and arranged over a bed of spaetzle and vibrantly flavored braised cabbage. Victoria happens to serve one of the best salads ever, a tangle of frisée and spinach topped with warm duck confit, bacon, chopped egg, goat cheese, and a drizzle of vinaigrette. As with the rest of the menu, desserts take classics to a new level, like the crazy-good homey combination of warm bananas, shortcake, and vanilla gelato. 8201 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia, 410-750-1880.

Vino Rosina

Harbor East
There’s almost a clandestine feeling about slipping through the Bagby Building’s side door into Vino Rosina, the intimate wine bar on a narrow street near Harbor East. It’s as if you’re entering a private party. The front room is dominated by a large circular bar that encourages conversation, and the narrow dining area beyond is a place to settle in to be pampered. The small plates are masterpieces of taste and texture like the creamy Kobe tartare on a crisp crostini, topped with a quail egg and a dab of whole-grain mustard. Or chicken and dumplings with chewy thyme-seasoned gnocchi and forest mushrooms, or Brussels sprouts with crisp bits of bacon and a crisscross of melted cheddar. But even with such tasty dishes, the place hasn’t forgotten about the wine. Walls are lined with horizontal bins to exhibit the labels of 1,000 bottles—a concept that garnered an award from Baltimore’s American Institute of Architects. Décor notwithstanding, you won’t be disappointed by dipping into the display. Better yet, pick and choose: a comprehensive list of wines by the glass offers three- and six-ounce pours, perfect for pairing with the tapas-sized portions. 507 S. Exeter Street, 410-528-8600.

The Wine Market

Locust Point
Even though it is tucked away in probably the least neighborhoody spot in South Baltimore, The Wine Market’s main demographic is locals, and it shows its appreciation to loyalists with great nightly wine and dinner specials. The compact menu is constantly changing but always ambitious, like a dish of buttery braised pork cheeks, whose slick richness is cut by kimchee-style pickled pears. The finished dishes never fail to communicate deep, clean flavors, a win for substance over style, which is not to say that the plating isn’t attractive. It is. An attentive staff adds warmth to the industrial-looking-yet-chic space. As the name denotes, there is a small but well-stocked wine store in front, which offers a discount when you dine in the restaurant. 921 E. Fort Avenue, 410-244-6166.

Issue date: March, 2012
12 issues for $18!