The mention of Baltimore, our fair neighbor to the north, doesn’t immediately bring to mind a great local food destination, but it should!
A few years ago, I had a standing date with Baltimore on the weekends [and with my boyfriend at the time, who lived there]. So I got to know the city pretty well. Together, he and I discovered one of the best farm-to-table restaurants within 100 miles, ate homemade moussaka and dolmas in church basements, meandered through an urban farmer’s market tucked under an elevated highway, and sampled microbrews and the famous Maryland blue crab all over town.
Although, we’re no longer dating, we’re still good friends. So my love affair with Baltimore continues with a road trip north every now and then. Having done my “research,” I can attest that it’s very much worth a daytrip, or even better, a weekend, to experience the great local food in gritty, quirky Charm City…a mere hour from DC via 95 North or Marc train.
The Wire, Homicide: Life on the Street, and John Waters’ campy movies depicted Baltimore’s seedier subcultures, which still exit. But of course, there is so much more to the city…from stately historic neighborhoods and long-established ethnic enclaves, to great art, fun shopping and an exciting local food scene.
My perfect day in Baltimore starts at the Baltimore Farmers’ Market under Highway 83 in the heart of downtown [Sundays from April through December]. I love this market because it reminds me that I’m not in DC any more. It’s colorful and loud; I feel like a tourist at a street festival in some faraway city. The locals are going about their weekly shopping, and I like to imagine what their lives are like. I’ve been to the market often enough now that it’s totally familiar, yet still somehow exotic.
So I grab a coffee from the popular Zeke’s Coffee stall and wander the aisles for some great people watching: the market attracts a diverse cross-section of the city from Johns Hopkins professors and tattooed hipsters to families redeeming SNAP benefits. It’s especially nice to see so many minority farmers and entrepreneurs setting up shop here.
I discovered my favorite local cheesemakers at this market early on, and now I buy Firefly Farms’ award-winning Buche Noir at the Dupont Circle or Silver Spring markets whenever I can. On my last trip to Baltimore this past June, Distillery Lane Ciderworks was pouring samples at the market, and we really liked their crisp champagne-like Traditional Dry Sparkling hard cider. According to their website, their hard ciders are available at several DC bars, restaurants and retail stores.
From the market under the highway, it’s on to brunch at Woodberry Kitchen in the quirky Hampden-Woodberry neighborhood, just a few exits up Highway 83 or via light rail. This is the seriously amazing farm-to-table restaurant I mentioned earlier. And Baltimore knows it! So be sure to make a reservation or resign yourself to eating at the bar, which isn’t really a hardship, since it overlooks the picturesque dining room.
Woodberry Kitchen is on the top 100 restaurant lists of both the Baltimore Sun [number two] and the Washingtonian; was favorably reviewed by Tom Sietsema in the Fall 2012 Dining Guide; and chef/owner Spike Gjerde was a finalist for a James Beard award this year.
The restaurant is jaw droppingly beautiful. Its rustic chic design plays up the space’s 1853 machine factory roots with exposed brick and iron beams under a cathedral ceiling. Farm implements line the walls, hinting at the chef’s farm fresh focus. Even the iconic Emeco navy chairs are locally made an hour and a half away in a small shop in Hanover, PA.
Chef Gjerde is serious about local and sustainable cooking. He uses the whole animal in his dishes, and keeps a seasonal menu. Even his condiments are made from scratch. I recently ordered the hog’s head hash, which was all crispy and meaty goodness topped with a poached egg and perfect with a dash of their homemade fish pepper sauce. Total comfort food.
I’d walk off brunch window shopping on Hamden’s W. 36th Street. Some stores specialize in kitsch [this is John Waters’ favorite neighborhood], but I’m drawn to Paradiso [# 1015] for affordable vintage midcentury furniture and Trohv [# 921] for artful things for the home.
From there, I’d spend the afternoon at one of Baltimore’s impressive museums [like the Walters, the Baltimore Museum of Art, or the American Visionary Art Museum], the world-class National Aquarium, or one of numerous ethnic festivals that take place throughout the year—Greek, Italian, Polish, and Lithuanian, to name a few. See the Baltimore Sun for listings. If you do go to the BMA, be sure to see some of the 500[!] Matisses in the renowned Cone Collection, and stop by Gertrude’s, the museum’s lovely garden restaurant, which highlights seafood from the Chesapeake Bay.
My perfect day would cap off at Brewer’s Art, once named the best bar in America by Esquire magazine. This microbrewery is in a grand old row house in the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood, and is best known for its Resurrection ale, a rich Belgian brown.
That’s a full day! But here’s why you have to go for the weekend: crab cakes! The farmer’s market is only open on Sundays, and Faidley’s, known by many to have the best lump crab cakes in town, is closed on Sundays. Figures.
So, head up to Baltimore on Saturday, and enjoy a leisurely day strolling through the historic Fells Point, Mount Vernon or Federal Hill neighborhoods, or squeeze in another museum and brunch at Gertrude’s. But by all means, get to Faidley’s in Lexington Market before they close at 5pm. It’s not fancy…you order at the counter and eat standing up…but that’s part of what makes it such an unassuming and authentic Baltimore experience.
In fact, unassuming and authentic are words I would use to describe Baltimore as a whole. It’s a more settled place than transient DC. And its strong working-class roots mean that generations have eaten what was readily available from the land and the Bay, a tradition handed down through time to make Baltimore the great local food destination it is to this day.
Mentioned in this post:
Baltimore Farmers’ Market and Bazaar:
Sundays 7am-12pm from April to December
Holliday and Saratoga Streets
Mon-Thurs 5pm-10pm; Fri 5pm-11pm; Sat 10am-2pm, 5pm-11pm; Sun 10am-2pm, 5pm-9pm
2010 Clipper Park Road, #126
Tues-Fri 11:30am-9pm; Sat 10am-9pm; Sun 10am-8pm
In the BMA at 10 Art Museum Drive
Mon-Sat 4pm-1:45am; Sun 5pm – 1:45am
1106 N. Charles Street
In Lexington Market at North Paca and Lexington Streets