When it comes to Chesapeake Bay travel, Baltimore can be overshadowed by its neighbor to the south, Washington, D.C. But there's plenty to experience in this low-key city, from oddball attractions like the American Visionary Art Museum specializing in outsider art to the vibrant waterfront in the Fells Point neighborhood. I made Baltimore my destination over a recent long weekend.
Here, the culinary specialties are all about crab, often accompanied by the quintessential Maryland Old Bay seasoning. The city has many reputable crab shacks, but my first stop was Captain James Landing, a restaurant that looks like a ship. I had a very satisfying crab imperial, as well as my first (and hopefully my last) "oyster shot"—I'll let you guess what that entails.
While you're in town, don't forget to try a can of "Natty Boh." That's the colloquial name for National Bohemian, the city's signature beer. Baltimore's restaurant scene is also home to many interesting wine and cocktail programs. Follow this dining guide for more local flavor.
"Well, I have to order the crab Benedict," I said as I sat down for brunch at the Food Market, a hip spot in the Hampden neighborhood. I'm a big eggs Benedict enthusiast, and I enjoy a good twist on the classic. My order came with Old Bay–spiced breakfast potatoes and did not disappoint. Food Market has a small list of wines by the glass and bottle, with good diversity, from California and the Pacific Northwest to Spain and Portugal. The cocktail list is also concise yet serious, as is the beer list (Natty Boh included).
Another good hangout for brunch or lunch is Rye Street Tavern, the newest Baltimore restaurant from chef Andrew Carmellini (his group also owns Rec Pier Chop House) of New York's Locanda Verde, Leuca, the Dutch and more. It's housed in a spacious, light-filled building in the new Port Covington waterfront development, next to Sagamore Spirit, a rye-whiskey distillery. Rye Street Tavern offers vegetable- and seafood-forward American fare with some local accents, like Old Bay aioli, Eastern Shore tartar sauce and cheeses from Maryland's Charlottetown Farm.
The 150-selection wine list is all-American, representing six states: California, Oregon, Washington, New York, Virginia and New Mexico, with a focus on the West Coast. It does a great job of showcasing the breadth of U.S. wines on offer these days, striking a nice balance between the classics, like California Cabernet, and exciting oddballs, from Melon de Bourgogne to Petit Manseng.
One of the most recent additions to Baltimore's dining scene is Ida B's Table, a restaurant that pays homage to Ida B. Wells, the journalist and civil-rights activist best-known for writing about lynchings of African Americans in the 1890s. The menu honors her with headers like "features," "sidebars" and "final edits."
Chef David Thomas wants to reclaim Southern food by reminding people that it was originally cooked by slaves—consider the now-hip "nose to tail" movement and its roots in survival. The gumbo, according to the menu, is made "with what we have in our kitchen." African influences pepper the menu, like the Liberian greens (collards steamed with red vinaigrette, onions and pepper) and the berbere chicken. There are also nods to Native American food culture, like the pemmican plate and the frybread tacos.
The main attraction here is the hot chicken (Wells spent some time in Nashville, Tenn.), which you can order classic or Old Bay–style. A half or whole bird comes perfectly crisp and spice-dusted, with a brick of mac and cheese and the excellent Liberian greens. Look for the rotating trio of deviled eggs, too. There are a few wine options, but the cocktails are not to miss: Try the Bourbon-spiked sweet tea.
Another newcomer, Tagliata, specializes in housemade pastas and hand-cut steaks. The pastas are well-executed, like a ricotta tortellini dish layered with prosciutto, Marcona almonds and English peas, in a lemon jus. Order the Tuscan fried chicken appetizer, served with artichokes, lemon rind and garlic aioli.
But most important, Tagliata is one of the best places to drink wine in Baltimore. The 1,015-selection list is among the deepest in the city, earning a Wine Spectator Best of Award of Excellence for its Italian-focused offerings. During my visit, we enjoyed the COS Vittoria Pithos Rosso 2014 from Sicily and Ar.Pe.Pe. Rosso di Valtellina 2014 from Lombardy. Ask sommelier John Kelley to help you navigate the wines hailing from all 20 Italian regions. Tagliata also has strengths in Burgundy and California.
Cross the courtyard opposite Tagliata and you'll find the Elk Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail bar providing Baltimore with its swankiest nightcap locale. Think low lights, taxidermy, chandeliers, comfortable upholstery and old-looking bookcases. You're bound to find a cocktail you'll love in the Elk Room's extensive beverage booklet.
My last stop was Bmore Licks, a housemade ice cream spot mere steps away from beautiful Patterson Park. I got myself some monkey business in a chocolate-dipped cone, and was on my way.
Next on my Baltimore to-dine list: Woodberry Kitchen, Bygone and Charleston.