Best of Baltimore 2008

Our annual guide to the best Charm City has to offer.

Edited By Max Weiss. Additional writing and editing by Jane Marion, Suzanne Loudermilk, Ken Iglehart, John Lewis, Janelle Erlichman Diamond, Jess Blumberg, Mike Unger, and Mike Anft with Bianca Sienra, Jessica Leshnoff, Kit Pollard, Jess Hofmann, Christina Brooks, Carolyn Vidmar, Jamie Buonato, and Hayley Peterson. -

Best of Baltimore 2008

Our annual guide to the best Charm City has to offer.

Edited By Max Weiss. Additional writing and editing by Jane Marion, Suzanne Loudermilk, Ken Iglehart, John Lewis, Janelle Erlichman Diamond, Jess Blumberg, Mike Unger, and Mike Anft with Bianca Sienra, Jessica Leshnoff, Kit Pollard, Jess Hofmann, Christina Brooks, Carolyn Vidmar, Jamie Buonato, and Hayley Peterson. -


Fierce. It's the buzzword of the year, first introduced by America's Next Top Model's Tyra Banks and then popularized by Baltimore's very own Christian Siriano, winner of Project Runway. (You go, boyfriend!)

So what does it mean? Its closest corollary is "fabulous," but with an extra touch of bravado, an envelope-pushing quality to give it that millennial twist. Which leads to the inevitable question: Is Baltimore fierce?

If you check out the various winners of this year's Best of Baltimore, we think you'll agree that our fierceness factor is on the rise. Not just in the hip, new hotspots—like Harbor East and Clipper Mill—but in rejuvenated stalwarts like Federal Hill, Mt. Washington, and Lauraville. Plus, what could be more fierce than being ecologically correct? To that end, we added our first-ever Green category to Best of Baltimore.

But this fierceness thing is still a work-in-progress. So we asked local luminaries to weigh in on ways to make Baltimore even more fierce. As the saying might one day go, you can never be too rich, too thin . . . or too fierce.

FOOD

Bakery Visit Piedigrotta Bakery, 1300 Bank Street, 410-522-6900, on the outskirts of Little Italy at your own poundage peril. Delicacies—from profiteroles and éclairs to cannoli and strudel—beckon temptingly in this fragrant space. Owner-baker Carminantonio Iannaccone and his wife, Bruna, who tends to the glass cases of goodies, moved into larger quarters this year. Now, patrons can linger at small tables with their sweets and cups of espresso. But it's in the spanking-new, stainless-steel kitchen where Iannaccone works his baking magic. Perhaps it's no surprise that he's credited with inventing tiramisu (also available at the shop) in his native Italy.

Ambiance In the beginning, it seemed an odd pairing: Indian food at an elegant Old Baltimore apartment house where residents were better known for their blue-blood taste buds than ethnic leanings. Of course, the naysayers were quickly shushed by the first-rate royal Indian cuisine being served at the Ambassador Dining Room, 3811 Canterbury Road, 410-366-1484. The elegant setting, with 30's-era architecture and white-table-cloth service, extends to the outdoor terrace in warm weather with a spectacular backdrop of greenery and colorful seasonal blooms—a peaceful tableau to savor in the city. You'll want to linger long after the last drop of chai.

Barbecue It may be hundreds of miles to Alabama, but you really only have to drive to Cockeysville to get a taste of Dixie food at Andy Nelson's Barbecue, 11007 York Road, 410-527-1226. As soon as you see the pink pig with the "Q" on the roof, you know you've found Southern nirvana. The slow-cooked, hickory-smoked pork simmered in a family sauce produces a succulent 'cue that's hard to beat. It's why a friend of ours, who hails from Alabama and landed in Delaware, makes the trek frequently down 95 and across the Beltway. It's the real deal, he swears. And worth the trip, whatever your origins.

Bento Box We've adopted a lot of things from the Japanese, but the bento box has to be one of its most utilitarian—and delicious. Usually, it refers to a metal or wooden box divided into compartments, each filled with some sort of tantalizing food. RA Sushi, 1390 Lancaster Street, 410-522-3200, ranks at the top of our list for these "fast-food" lunch presentations. At RA, you'll find several main choices—from shrimp tempura to beautifully glazed salmon teriyaki—to go along with miso soup, uchi no salad, rice, spinach gyoza, and a vegetable spring roll.

Bread Thank goodness, bread is in again, although it was never out for us. We consider it the staff of life, despite what Atkins' followers might say. And when we want to load up on carbs, we head to Atwater's, 529 E. Belvedere Avenue, Belvedere Square, 410-323-2396, (there's another location at the Shops at Kenilworth in Towson) for one of its hand-shaped, hearth-baked breads made from scratch. Sure, you can lather it with creamy butter, but we prefer its plain, organic wholesomeness whether it's peasant wheat, sunflower flax, or kalamata olive.

Burgers Run-of-the-mill hamburgers may claim a spot on many menus, but a truly memorable, classic burger is a rare and valuable find. Fortunately, Burger Bros., 14 Allegheny Avenue, Towson, 410-321-1880, delivers just that. With a lovingly baked brioche bun embracing freshly ground, expertly seasoned meat, a burger just doesn't get any better than this. Order a gigantic side of fries (you won't be sorry), and don't forget to grab a handful of napkins before your first bite!

Cake Finally—our very own state dessert, thanks to this year's General Assembly, which saw fit to honor the multilayered Smith Island cake as our own. It's a regal cake with down-home roots in its namesake Chesapeake Bay outpost, where the ladies in town are known to turn out yummy confections. But you don't have to travel to the island to enjoy its charms. SugarBakers Cakes, 752 Frederick Road, Catonsville, 410-788-9478, has a delicious rendition with nine layers of yellow cake and eight layers of chocolate frosting for $60, or you can head across the street to Catonsville Gourmet Market & Fine Foods for a slice of statehood from SugarBakers for $6.50.

Chocolate Of course this wonderful stuff is called "food of the gods." But, as we've found, some chocolates are more heavenly than others. To us, Cacao Lorenzo, 1818 Pot Spring Road, Timonium, 410-453-9334, ranks right up there on the celestial plane. Pluck any morsel from its "galerie au chocolat" and revel in seductive combinations of, say, port-wine-soaked figs and milk-chocolate butter ganache or lavender-flower-infused ganache enrobed in dark chocolate. Or maybe try chestnut-paste ganache with calvados in dark chocolate. We could dreamily go on about these elixirs. Regardless of the feel-good endorphins they may stimulate, these chocolates are guaranteed to make your heart flutter—with joy.

Coffee We are so lucky to have Zeke's Coffee, 3003 Montebello Terrace, Lauraville, 443-992-4388, in our midst. The roastery's heavenly beans produce seductive brews that will have you hooked in no time. This hometown coffee is available at numerous restaurants and stores around town, including the Baltimore City Farmers' Market. We're partial to the Mexican Chiapas fair-trade beans, which produce a medium-bodied coffee with a surprisingly chocolaty kick. But there's so much more, including those with names attached to Bawlmer: Charm City Blend, Herring Run Brew, Tell Tale Dark (thanks, Mr. Poe), and Shot Tower Espresso.

Cooking Classes Chef/owner Nancy Longo of Pierpoint Restaurant, 1822 Aliceanna Street, 410-675-2080, has added another notch to her apron—that of cooking teacher. Her classes for budding chefs ages 10-17 proved so successful that parents began clamoring for their own time. This year, Longo added fun, informative sessions for us grown-ups, too. The intricacies of French, Italian, Thai, and other cuisines are explored in her Sunday afternoon (and occasional Monday) sessions. She'll even customize a class for groups of eight or more.

Crêpes Whether wrapped around hearty cheeses and meats or elevating simple fruits to fancy dessert status, these delicate French pancakes are all the rage. Our favorites can be found tucked into an unassuming office building at Crêpe Café at Café de Paris, 8808 Centre Park Drive, Columbia, 410-997-3904. Available with a variety of fillings both sweet and savory, these crêpes inhabit that golden mean between paper thin and sumptuously fluffy. Don't be surprised when they leave you whistling "La Marseillaise."

Cupcakes We're great fans of the trend toward miniaturization: tiny vegetables, tapas, servings for one. The same goes for our treats. While towering cakes have their place, their smaller counterparts definitely win the cute factor. The Baltimore Cupcake Company, 1433 E. Fort Avenue, 410-783-1600, is our go-to place for a tiny taste of sweet goodness. (There are other locations, including Annapolis.) The moist, tender cakes are topped with a generous swirl of icing in a variety of flavors. But nothing says party time like the pure joy of a rich chocolate cake with butter-cream frosting and confetti sprinkles.

Dessert If you eat out enough, you tend to see the same dessert offerings: chocolate mousse cake, Key lime pie, tiramisu. So it's always a treat when a restaurant takes an adventurous leap and turns up the heat, literally. The Baked Alaska at The Oceanaire Seafood Room, 801 Aliceanna Street, 443-872-0000, is all we could ask for in a wonderfully retro dessert that deserves a place in the new millennium. The swirly meringue topping, sealing the sponge-cake-ice-cream interior, is flamed table­side, creating quite a spectacle with absolutely delicious results.

Ethnic We've got plenty of reasons to celebrate the opening of Baltimore Pho, 1116 Hollins Street, 410-752-4746, not least of which is that there's finally a truly excellent Vietnamese restaurant in the city proper. We're also just plain hooked on its eponymous signature dish, which boasts a heady broth that'll cure what ails you, as well as the sophisticated digs that make you feel like you're eating chic even though the food is pretty cheap. But we also admit we're thrilled that the opening of Baltimore Pho—as well as nearby Zella's Pizza—signals the resurgence of Sowebo, a neighborhood long in need of attention and love. Go Pho!

Grocery We have to applaud Graul's Market, 12200 Tullamore Road, Lutherville, 410-308-2100 (and other locations), the family-run grocery store that opened in 1920 in Baltimore. Since the early days, the stores have multiplied and prospered under the direction of family members. There are now six markets in the area, with the newest one in St. Michael's. We're partial to the accessible layouts and pretty products on display. The lemons seem a little brighter; the beef, a little redder here. At the Mays Chapel location there's a whole cadre of pleasant workers in pink pinstripe shirts who really seem to care about you. It's a nice change from bumbling around a cavernous mega-grocery looking for capers or crème fraîche.

Kids Menu Why should grown-ups have all the foodie fun? Twelve-and-unders who want to venture beyond chicken fingers will love the kids menu at Golden West Cafe, 1105 W. 36th Street, 410-889-8891. Mixing classics like mini burgers and cheese quesadillas with more experimental fare such as the PBJ French toast (with real blackberries and blueberries), the menu is diverse and interesting enough for any budding gourmand. Moms and dads will be happy, too, with the healthy entrées and variety of side options, spanning fries to whole wheat Fig Newtons.

Milkshake How can you go wrong with ice cream and milk whipped into a cool, frothy beverage? You can't. That pure and simple recipe produces a lip-smacking milkshake atThe Olde Malt Shop, 635 E. Fort Avenue, 410-727-5769. There's vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, and other flavors—pick your pleasure. Mark Trunk and his wife, Penny George, are the congenial soda jerks in second-career jobs at this old-fashioned ice cream parlor, which was featured on Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels on the Food Network. While the milkshake is yummy, don't forget to try the malts, floats, sundaes, and cones, too.

New Restaurant After a long hiatus, much-heralded chef and restaurateur Spike Gjerde came roaring back last fall with Woodberry Kitchen, 2010 Clipper Park Road, 410-464-8000, a zeitgeist-conscious nod to the locavore movement which, in typical Gjerde fashion, brings high style to the homespun concept of eating simple, locally grown food. Few "rustic" environs are as chic or alluring as Woodberry's Clipper Mill venue, and one taste of the succulently sweet Marvesta Farms shrimp is proof that local flavor is, well, pretty damned flavorful. No apologies to McDonald's. We're lovin' it.

Pasta There are so many terrific Italian restaurants in town, but we have to go with La Scala, 1012 Eastern Avenue, 410-783-9209, as our favorite place for hearty, Old World pasta dishes like the spicy shrimp fra diavolo. You can always count on chef/owner Nino Germano to produce comforting feasts with thick, red, pleasantly garlicky sauces among other tempting creations. The restaurant has also gone through a recent expansion, including the addition of a 2,200-bottle wine room and an indoor bocce court. That's right. Now you can indulge in a little sport after downing the amazingly large tiramisu.

Pizza We admit it. We've been selfish when it comes to Pasta Mista, 822 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, 410-321-8855. It's hard enough to share its gustatory pleasures with the mobs of college kids and other suburbanites who jam the store. But now that it's opened another location at Conkling and Boston streets in Brewers Hill, we're ready to spread the word about its pizza charms. Sausage is a big seller, but the white veggie is a great indulgence, too. Thin crusts, generous toppings and, okay, a tad of grease make these pies everything you want in that all-American food we call pizza.

Poultry We knew there was something special about them as soon as we saw them. The free-range organic chickens of Springfield Farm, 16701 Yeoho Road, Sparks, 410-472-0738, are noticeably smaller than the hormone-laden behemoths you see in the supermarket. But the taste is giant-sized, a revelation of tenderness and succulence. You'll find Springfield chicks—and their equally lovingly raised lamb, beef, pork, and turkeys—in the finest local restaurants, but a trip to the farm is worth the gas, especially if you've got kids. The Smith family will let you roam the grounds so you can encounter those fabulously tended animals in their natural habitat, a true lesson in mindful eating for even little locavores.

Pub Fare One of the things we especially like about Mother's Federal Hill Grille, 1113 S. Charles Street, 410-244-8686, is that it's a multigenerational hangout. You'll see toddlers in high chairs and families with teens sharing space with dating couples and fun-loving grandparents. The food is equal opportunity, too. There's fancy fare if you'd like, but we prefer the casual side of the menu—okay, the caloric stuff known as bar food. (We like to think of Mother's crisp mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce and meaty Buffalo wings as necessary food groups, but no one's buying it.) The highlight has to be the Heart Attack on a Plate: a plump, beer-battered burger stuffed with cheddar and then deep-fried. Seeing is believing. Eating is even better.

Restaurateurs They've done it again. When the Charleston Group, a.k.a. Tony Foreman and chef Cindy Wolf, opened Cinghiale in Harbor East last year, they not only added to their considerable empire—three of the city's most important restaurants and a thriving wine store—but solidified their rep as the most able, savvy, and forward-minded restaurateurs in town. Cinghiale, a lavish celebration of pure, regional Italian cuisine, bears the signature trait of all their endeavors: a passionate commitment to the best wines, real food, and expert service; and a burning desire to single-handedly elevate Baltimoreans' dining experience. We'd say they've done pretty darn well.

Romantic Setting The Milton Inn, 14833 York Road, Sparks, 410-771-4366, is not just a place to take your 80-year-old parents for their anniversary. It's also an elegant, throw-back setting for couples of any age looking for a quiet interlude, impeccable service, and innovative food. Yes, innovative. Chef Brian Boston delivers the expected (traditionally prepared steaks and fish) but also the unexpected, like the edgy jerk-marinated pork chop with andouille risotto and pineapple-Key lime coulis. All this while enjoying the grandeur of sitting by a roaring fire in the charming 1740's mansion or sitting on the outdoor patio amid the verdant hills of Hunt Valley.

Shrimp Salad This is a town that has almost as many versions of shrimp salad as it has crab cakes. So when someone tells us that such-and-such place has the best shrimp salad, we cast a weary eye in their direction. We've been burned before. But our visit toTowson Delly North, 1711 York Road, Lutherville, 410-560-3399, was a turning point. We will happily return for the shop's incredible shrimp salad again and again. It features whole, large shrimp with just a touch of mayo to bind it all together and a hint of Old Bay. The shrimp is cooked perfectly and the sweet flavor is immediately evident. To our shrimp salad tipper: Sorry we ever doubted you.

Sliders Once the sole province of fast food joints—RIP The Little Tavern— the slider's name has been adopted for a variety of foods sandwiched between small buns. Nearly every restaurant has a version these days. Our favorite for its creativity and richness in flavor is the foie gras and Kobe beef slider with truffle aioli and red onion marmalade atSalt, 2127 E. Pratt Street, 410-276-5480. What more can we say?

Tea Room Is there any better way to inject a little serenity into the daily grind than a perfectly civilized afternoon tea? We think not. With wall murals of soothing Scottish moors, a menu ranging from delicate tea sandwiches to robust soups and wraps, and a mile-long tea list that spans the globe, The Crown and Thistle Tea Room, 10 Fila Way, Sparks, 410-472-4566, will satisfy both hardcore tea enthusiasts and those simply searching for a genteel afternoon luncheon.

First Date Oy, the jitters, the awkward pauses, the "what if we've got nothing in common?" perils of a first date. Not to worry; we've got the perfect remedy. Start off with a movie at our favorite indie-rep-art cinema, The Charles Theatre, 1711 N. Charles Street, 410-727-FILM, followed by some shared small plates at in-house eatery Tapas Teatro, 410-332-0110. The movie's sure to be a conversation-starter (not to mention a litmus test), and Teatro's party atmosphere—always packed, always loud—guarantees a nix on the awkward silences.

Southern Cooking We love the ebullient Casey Jenkins, the plucky chef/owner ofDarker Than Blue Café, 3034 Greenmount Avenue, 443-872-4468, in part for bringing much-needed culinary chops to the underserved Waverly neighborhood. A native New Yorker, Jenkins uses ingredients from the nearby Waverly farmers' market and Culinary Institute of America training to create fare that's both soulful and sophisticated, particularly with his roster of Southern stalwarts: fried chicken, candied yams, cornbread, mac 'n' cheese, and achingly sweet iced tea. With comfort food like this, plus the restaurateur's friendly vibe, you'll feel like you've come home to supper.

View There's something special about combining a stellar meal with a memorable view, especially if you're looking out over a wide swath of the harbor. We found thatWatertable, Renaissance Harborplace Hotel, 202 E. Pratt Street, 410-685-8439, provides just the right vantage point for taking in the watery vista. Daytime has its own charms, but in the evening, the boats and shops twinkle with lights in a magical setting while you're nestled at contemporary wood tables enjoying the culinary talents of chefs Sean Patrick Curry and Niven Patel.

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GREEN

Green Cheerleader For the past 20 years, Carol Silldorff has been promoting environmentalism to government agencies, nonprofits, and everyone in between. Silldorff, 41, has championed recycling programs and shed light on hazardous waste management. Seven years ago, she started to focus on nonprofit groups like One Less Car and Baltimore Green Week, which have expanded exponentially since she took the helm. Hats off to Silldorff for going green long before it was cool.

Earth-Conscious Clothing Store Nest, 5809 Clarksville Square Drive, Clarksville, 443-535-0212, is about way more than clothes. Sure, virtually every product is organic, handmade, or fair-trade, but the store also spreads its eco-love to the community by sponsoring monthly environmental events and belonging to "Conscious Corner," a group of green stores in the area. Clothes at Nest are made of organic cotton, hemp, soy, bamboo, and even recycled soda bottles. Customers can even sign optional eco-pledges, like be sure to wash your clothes in cold water when you take them home.

Eco-Aware Home Décor If you're looking for anything earth-friendly, chances are you'll find it at bluehouse, 1407 Fleet Street, 410-276-1180. The retailer/café sells chemical-free home décor made from recycled materials and paint with low- or non-toxic chemicals. All of the coffee and tea in the cafe is organic and fair-trade, meaning farmers get equitable compensation for their labor. Bluehouse's stationary, business cards, bags, and napkins are made from recycled materials. It even gives out used coffee grounds for gardens or compost piles.

Eco-Friendly Construction Company A lot of the construction giants are taking on more eco-friendly projects these days, but we want to give a nod to one that's all green, all the time. Baltimore Green Construction, 814 W. 36th Street, 410-889-3193, built the first home in Maryland made out of pressed straw from wheat fields. It also recently broke ground on the Masonville Cove Environmental Education Center, a radically low-energy space with solar panels and insulated windows. Proof that its homes save on energy? One customer thanked them for her $25 utility bill.

Eco-Gifts You're giving more than just one gift when you buy from Earth Alley, 3602 Elm Avenue, 410-366-2110. Almost every trinket lining the yellow-green walls of this fair- trade eco-oasis is made from reusable material and supports nonprofit causes in the artist's country of origin. Gifts include lightweight aluminum bangles, delicate necklaces made from broken plates, mirrors framed with tightly rolled magazine pages, intricate metalwork made from recycled oil drums, candles that melt into massage oil, and bowls made from tightly-wound telephone wire. This shop will make you reconsider the artistic value of everything you've ever thrown out.

Energy-Efficient Building Form is function at the Herring Run Watershed Center, 3445 Belair Road, 410-254-1577, the new headquarters for the Herring Run Watershed Association, which improves the environmental quality of the watershed. The center has a "living roof" with tons of plants that absorb rainwater and a cistern that collects more rainwater for plumbing. There are also insulated windows, skylights, and a light well to maximize natural daylight.

Green Festival Who said helping the environment is all work and no play? Baltimore's EcoFestival, held each spring in Druid Hill Park, features bands, food, and art, all while promoting an eco-friendly lifestyle. Attendees at this year's event—including Mayor Sheila Dixon—could listen to the tunes of folk rocker Caleb Stine while munching on veggie burritos and sipping organic Bluebird Coffee. They could also practice yoga moves in the wellness area or browse the more than 100 vendors with information on solar panels and composting.

Green Neighborhood Initiative Last December, thousands stood in line to buy recycling bins, as a part of the city's Single-Stream Recycling Program. A best-of worthy feat on its own were it not for one glitch: The bright yellow containers, on sale for $5-6, quickly ran out and residents had to wait weeks for new ones. The solution? Residents in the Hampden/Roland Park area decided to get creative. They went out to local department stores and bought and decorated reusable bins. In this massive do-it-yourself project, some people spray-painted the bins yellow and others drew their own versions of the recycling symbol. Thanks to that creative energy and the Department of Public Works' new program, recycling tonnage has increased nearly 20 percent since the beginning of the year.

Green Transportation Initiative Bikes whiz by frequently on the streets of Portland and San Francisco. In Baltimore? Not so much. But Velocipede Bike Project, 4 W. Lanvale Street, 410-244-5585, wants to change all that. The cooperative project collects donated bikes, teaches people how to repair them, and provides affordable, refurbished bicycles and parts to its members. To join, you pay a monthly fee of $33 or give three hours of volunteer time. Once you're an official co-op member, you can pick out a frame, fix up a bike for yourself, and call it your own.

Organic Salon Who says you can't look gorgeous and be good to Mother Earth? Since 2006, Sprout, 925 W. 36th Street, 410-235-2269, has been the most eco-friendly salon in town. Besides using chemical-free products like Aubrey Organics, John Masters, Druide, and its own hair-care line, the salon has bamboo flooring and energy-efficient lights. Sprout also buys renewable energy credits from wind farms around the country and it recycles everything it can—yes, even the hair it cuts, which is used for sponges and fertilizer.

Sustainable Car Dealership Nowadays, you can purchase a hybrid vehicle from just about anywhere. But Northwest Honda, 9701 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-8700, is hardly just anywhere. The dealership has a "green roof," with approximately 60,000 drought- and frost-resistant plants (which makes storm run-off go into the soil rather than the watershed), plus 87 insulated glass panels, and light sensors that automatically switch on and off to conserve energy. The dealership's main heat source uses recycled oil from cars. It's no surprise that there is currently a waiting list for Northwest's Civic Hybrid—we "Greenies" tend to stick together.

Sustainable Restaurant The Dogwood, 911 W. 36th Street, 410-889-0952, is both a good restaurant and a good neighbor. Its market-driven menu uses locally produced ingredients like chicken from Springfield Farms in Sparks, salmon from local fisherman Gaylord Clark, and other food from Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-Op. The restaurant (and catering company) composts all of its food waste and uses corn-based plastics and containers made from sugar cane.

Use of Greenbacks What better way to build a greener future than to catch architects while they're still in school? That was the thought of Baltimore developer John B. Colvin and his wife, Karen Colvin, who donated $3 million to the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (its largest gift ever) to start a program concentrating on green design. The donation established the Colvin Institute of Real Estate Development, which features courses in green design, adaptive reuse of old buildings, and energy-efficient structuring.

Baby Greens Shannon Delanoy had a hard time finding sweatshop-free clothing for her daughter Alice. So she started the Sweet Pepita, sweetpepita.etsy.com, baby clothing line last year. The line takes retro T-shirts and blends them with brightly colored, 100-percent organic cotton shipped from New Mexico. Kline makes shirts, dresses, scarves, bibs, and hats. She explains that most of the T-shirts that she alters come from thrift stores or friends' closets, so some toddlers get adorned with a Guinness logo or Jimi Hendrix decal. A small price to pay for sustainability.

Earth-Friendly Art MICA professor Hugh Pocock first began offering his "Climate Change and Sustainability" class in the fall of 2007. The goal of the course is to educate students—in any major—about the science of global warming and the art of sustainable planning. The most ingenious part? All students are asked to do a carbon footprint project, where they calculate their own carbon footprint, document a simple way to reduce it, and develop an art project in response to their findings. In the spring semester, senior Annika Blomberg disassembled a found couch and reused all of its parts to make functional items, like handbags, boxes, cabinets, and buttons.

Organic Grocer Ideally, we'd do all our shopping at an organic grocery store, but we'd also like to, you know, pay our bills. That's why My Organic Market (MOM), 7351 Assateague Drive #190, Jessup, 410-799-2175, is so appealing. The concept began in 1987 out of owner Scott Nash's garage in Beltsville. Today, MOM has five retail locations—Rockville, College Park, Alexandria, Jessup, and Frederick—which sell organic food that a typical family on a budget can actually afford. And they walk the walk, too: The Jessup location, for example, features skylights, energy-efficient equipment, and a bamboo service desk.

SHOPPING

Accessories Has your accessory shopping gotten a little routine? Then head to Shine Collective, 1007A W. 36th Street, 410-366-6100, where the accessories are as vibrant and eclectic as the shoppers. We love that the bags, belts, and bangles that adorn the walls of this Hampden boutique are so effortlessly chic. The jewelry is particularly eye-catching: delicate Viv & Ingrid, intense Draugsvold, feminine Valentina Black, silly Alex & Chole. These are the kind of pieces that elicit the, "Oooh, where did you get that?" every time they're worn.

Baby Shopping Destination We'd like to announce the arrival of Baltimore's newest baby destination: Lauraville. Isn't she precious? The northeast Baltimore neighborhood has quietly become a Mecca for tot friendly shops. Just follow the chalk drawings to Harford Road: Red Canoe, 410-444-4440, delivers a sweet selection of baby books;Bediboo, 410-444-6060, just might be the best baby boutique to hit Charm City; candy store Rock Candy, 443-919-4527, is a hot pink sugar rush; and Spinster Yarns & Fibers, 410-444-9276, sells that ultimate baby gift: the hand-knit sweater.

Bookstore The warmhearted, neighborly atmosphere of Ivy Bookshop, Lake Falls Village, 6080 Falls Road, 410-377-2966, is enough to make you want to curl up with a good book. (Well, you might want to wait until you're back at home.) Since it moved a few doors down last January, the once cramped shop can now breathe a little. There's more home and garden, more politics, more kids, more mystery . . . and more help. The dedicated staff will recommend or track down even the most remote of book club selections—and even offer your club a discount.

Children's Clothing How to make mom happy? Fill a store with countless rows of the most adorable children's threads and a playhouse to occupy her kids while she shops.The Pied Piper, The Village of Cross Keys, 32 Village Square, 410-435-2676, is stocked full of everything from pajamas to dress garments to play clothes. And for those Carrie Bradshaw's-in-training, there's Lacoste, Burberry, Juicy, and True Religion in wee sizes. Plus, lots of sweet layettes for little ones still getting the hang of this dressing thing.

Fancy Shoes The Little Shoebox, 7625 Bellona Avenue, Ruxton, 410-825-3191, is every party girl's dream. Lining the shell-pink walls are clusters of kitten heels by Emma Hope, gem-encrusted mules by Olivia Rose Tal, and strappy sandals by Giusseppe Zanotti. Before you know it, you've chosen a pair for every cocktail dress you own. Don't say we didn't warn you.

Fun Shoes Doubledutch Boutique, 3616 Falls Road, 410-554-0055, has always been our go-to place for playful accessories and colorful summer togs from hot indie labels like Mon Petit Oiseau. But one of its best-kept secrets is the affordable and funky shoes tucked in the back (just past the cutest check-out area ever). Some are gimmicky but fun (plastic Melissa Shoes) and some are simply irresistible (mini heels by Pink Studio), but all are leaving on our feet.

Handbags Nowadays, every boutique in town "dabbles" in handbags. We loveHandbags in the City, 840 Aliceanna Street, 410-528-1443, because they are almost exclusively all about handbags—and it shows. Michael Kors Collection, Badgely Mishka, Jill Stuart, Juicy Couture, Longchamp, and Roberto Cavalli, they've got it all. You want classic? Trendy? Outrageous? Shop no further. And while the store is guilty of a little wing-spreading itself (selling designer heels, sunglasses, and even some threads), it mostly sticks with what it knows best: bags, bags, and more bags.

Jeans Sunbleached, stonewashed, sandblasted, oh my. Finding a fantastic—and flattering—pair of jeans can be a chore. So, when we want to simplify our denim-hunt, we head straight to Jean Pool, 5616 Newbury Street, 410-466-1177. Once inside, ladies break to the left, and guys to the right. There's denim from a ton of designers including Chip and Pepper, Aristocrat, Rich and Skinny, and Stitches. Plus, in-store alterations offering original hems. Owner Scott Wable and his staff have an amazing eye for what will fit your form and match your style.

Lingerie Our cup runneth over when it comes to quality lingerie shops in Baltimore. But oddly enough, our favorite shop is online. We simply can't resist the beauty and sophistication of the European designs at A La Mod Body, alamodbody.com. Hometown girl Susan Rohr pounded the streets of Paris to find labels like Elise Aucouturier, Antonia Ghazlan, and Princesse Tam Tam. The prices are staggering, but so are the products like ultra hot chiffon lace chemises, Italian hipster panties, and fine silk robes. For those wary of click-and-point lingerie, make an appointment with Rohr at her private studio.

Locally Made Crafts Our hearts swell with B'more pride whenever we log onto The Baltimore Etsy Street Team's site, baltimore-etsy.blogspot.com. This is a compilation of all the local designers and crafters who have pages on Etsy, the popular online marketplace. The talent is awe-inspiring. Some of our faves: TheBrokenPlate takes vintage and contemporary dinnerware and gives it new life as a necklace or ring. And vwstudios, where images on clay are created using a process that includes photography, painting, and printmaking.

Mall OK, so there's no Anthropologie—yet. But the Westfield Annapolis Mall, 2002 Annapolis Mall, Annapolis, 410-266-5432, is worth the trek down 97 for countless other reasons. Sure, there's the usual suspects—Gap, Banana Republic, et al.—but we like the stores we can't find in our neck of the woods: Martin + Osa, Madewell 1937, and Under Armour. The Pottery Barn Kids makes us wish we were five again and the Lord & Taylor takes us back to the big department store heydays. Even its Cinnabon tastes better.

Men's Threads Ken Himmelstein can blame his good taste on genetics. His grandfather, Samuel Parker, was known for his superb taste in clothing and worked as a haberdasher in the 20's. Himmelstein's tribute to his grandfather, Samuel Parker Clothier, Lake Falls Village, 6080 Falls Road, 410-372-0078, has that same élan. The rustic and sophisticated boutique is known for its friendly and highly knowledgeable service and features well-regarded labels like Polo Ralph Lauren, Hilditch & Key, and Robert Talbot. Plus, all those unnecessary necessities: bow ties and designer cowboy boots.

New Boutique Tucked in a far corner of the Cross Keys Village, a window display features small-mirrored boxes resting on a row of white pedestals, glistening brilliantly. Step closer and you realize that the boxes are, indeed, treasure chests, for they hold a most magnificent variety of precious gemstones of every size and color. Welcome todresscode by Gita, Village of Cross Keys, 36 Village Square, 410-323-9009, Baltimore's newest designer jewelry and accessory boutique. With a rotating window display that's artful, you can only imagine what happens inside—and trust us, you won't be disappointed. Quite simply: dresscode by Gita, with her exclusive collection from more than 27 international designers, has raised the bar for Baltimore shopping.

New York Shopping Experience Walking through the heavy glass doors of Form, 1115 W. 36th Street, 410-889-3116, and across the shiny wood floors, beneath a line of crystal chandeliers that glow faintly against the grey-blue walls—it's hard not to lose all sense of Hampden and imagine yourself on a different Avenue: Fifth. The racks burst with silky Rachel Mara and Vivienne Tam blouses, embellished Vera Wang Lavender and Corey Lynn Calter jackets, and Tracy Reese frocks. Sure, it's expensive, but think of all that money you're saving on a train ticket.

Preppy Clothes The Pink Crab, 7701 Bellona Avenue, Ruxton, 410-823-8544, is to pastel-colored polos what Chicago is to pizza. This is what preppy heaven must look like: endless rows of Lily Pulitzer florals, colorfully quilted Vera Bradley bags, and oh-so-trendy Eliza B flip flops. While most of the store is dedicated to women, there are also sundresses for kids, ties and sweaters for men, plus a few classic home goods. And yes, even Fido gets the preppy treatment with floral collars and leashes.

Shopping Neighborhood Slowly and steadily Federal Hill's South Charles Streethas become the city's hottest shopping destination. Old favorites like Lucky Lucy's, 410-837-2121, The Gilded Peach, 410-685-9090, and Ladybugs & Fireflies, 410-244-0472, now share the tree-lined street with charming new shops: Whimsy | Reason, 410-234-0204, Babe, 410-244-5114, Amy's Boutique, 410-244-1133, SoBotanical, 410-234-0333, The Bottom Drawer, 410-783-8998, Le Petit Cochon, 410- 528-6001, and many others. So what are you waiting for?

Sophisticated Frocks The grand dame herself no longer works the wood floors of her sumptuous glass-and-mirror boutique, Ruth Shaw Inc., 68 Village Square, 410-532-7886. But Shaw's trendy, cosmopolitan style and trusted brand carries on with a dedicated staff (including new owner, longtime sales sensei Ray Mitchener) and client base. From elegant uptown looks by Trelise Cooper, Amina Rubinacci, Piazza Sempione, and Hanni Y., to more casual everyday styles by DKNY, Calypso, Common Thread, and Velvet, Shaw's avant-garde collection continues to impress.

Trendy Clothes Holly G, two locations including 1340 A Smith Avenue, 410-433-3389, has breathed new life into two shopping districts—Federal Hill and Mt. Washington. The boutiques are enticing—even down to the warm citrus scent—and the clothes make us giddy. This classic shop carries smart lines including Velvet, Ixia, and Eva Franco. And we can't get enough of the gorgeous day dresses, figure-flattering tops, and tailored slacks. There's a great selection of denim and accessories, too.

Trendy Men's Threads With a new crop of men's shops in town, we thought it only appropriate to pay homage to one of the original trendsetters, Cloud 9 Clothing, 3201 St. Paul Street, 410-889-1330 (and other locations). Guys can browse for as long as the girls in sections devoted solely to fashionable, vintage-inspired menswear, including must-have lines like Penguin, Ben Sherman, Lucky Brand, Paul Frank, and Scotch & Soda. And if you're the kind of guy who can't justify splurging on clothes—the store features regular sales racks overflowing with name-brand markdowns.

Tween Gifts Because shopping for a tween is about as much fun as sitting through a High School Musical 2 marathon, we head to Treasure House, 9163 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-363-4110. This cozy shop is literally stuffed with tween treasures: beach bags, bangles, and cool charms. There's splurge stuff like jewelry by Pandora and send-to-camp stuff like headbands by Hadley Pollet. You—and the tween you love—will thank us.

Vintage Why do we love Ten Car Pile-Up, 511 York Road, Towson, 410-832-5246 (besides its disturbingly catchy name?) In a word, it's groovy. With an extensive collection that includes sequined disco mini dresses, flowing hippy peasant shirts, peace-sign-patched men's leather vests, and Elton John-inspired sunglasses, this vintage shop ranges from costumey to everyday garb—depending on your style. Shipments arrive daily, so you'll have tons of dyn-o-mite styles to chose from, man.

Weekend Clothes For whimsical fashionistas who feel positively oppressed by the khaki-and-blue monotony of every-day office wear, Urban Outfitters, 301 Light Street, 410-685-3115, serves as a bottomless treasure chest for weekend attire. Grab an oversized tote from anywhere in the store (they're hanging from every rack and hook in sight) and stuff it full of slim Fred Perry polos, lightweight Lux sundresses, patterned Sparkle & Fade camis, grandpa cardigans, funky Kimchi & Blue knit tops, plus shorts and skirts of every length and color. UO gives us wearable weekend styles reminiscent of former fads, as well as affordable pieces right in line with the latest rage.

Hostess Gifts Who would have thought gift nirvana could be found in a parking lot in Ellicott City? The Good Life Market, 3752 Old Columbia Pike, Ellicott City, 410-480-5077, is a two-part shopping spree. First, take in the quaint vine-covered greenhouse filled with outdoor goodies (strawberry plants, herb markers, birdhouses, posh gardening utensils) and surrounded by plants and waterfalls. Then, the adjacent rowhouse takes care of the inside stuff: Bella Cucina Artful Food and Wood Wick candles.

Stationers It's shops like Chelle Paperie, 851W. 36th Street, 410-366-6333, that make us long for the good ol' days. You know, when people used to write actual letters. Rachelle Harper's Hampden boutique gives us hope. She custom designs everything from wedding invitations to baby announcements, but also offers greeting cards and modern business supplies from Russell & Hazel. We love the darling front window displays. A recent one, filled with toy birds and an old-fashioned bike, made us want to write Grandma.

Window Display Be careful not to bruise your face when pushing it against the windows of Red Tree, 921 W. 36th Street, 410-366-3456. Opened in October 2006, this home goods store is stuffed to the brim with some of our favorite items—but it's the windows we're truly addicted to. The displays change every eight to 12 weeks and are inspired by new merchandise. Everyone on staff contributes, even if it means hand-making 70 paper birds to hang from the ceiling, as manager Gary Godbey did for the spring window. When the mood of creativity strikes, it is all consuming, explains co-owner Kacey Buchanan Stafford: "We've stayed 'til two or three in the morning because we were all so inspired."

SERVICE

Antique Store Dubey's Art & Antiques, 807 N. Howard Street, 410-383-2881, dubeysantiques.com, a navigable collection of heirloom-quality antiques spanning three floors and four centuries is proof positive that Antique Row is making a comeback. What sets this 20-year-old operation apart is owner Philip S. Dubey's obsession with the authentic. Dubey prides himself on collections of period American furniture, Chinese export porcelain, Dutch oil paintings, Japanese Imari ceramics, and English and Scottish curios. In addition, Dubey has a trained, knowledgeable, and friendly staff always eager to aid and abet with provenance and pricing.

Bath Store To design the bathroom of your dreams look no further than the 12,000-square-foot, multimillion dollar showroom of Ferguson, 302 Harry S. Truman Parkway, Annapolis, 410-573-6612 (and other locations). From a jacuzzi with an optional built-in coffee machine (!), to a shower with digitally timed his and hers spray jets, to a remote-controlled Kohler bidet toilet, to Hansgrohe faucets so gorgeous you'll want to wash your hands before you even touch them—if you can't find it at Ferguson, it simply doesn't exist.

Carpet Store Say you spill wine on your brand new cream-colored carpet from Arcade Floors Carpet One Floor & Home, 8511 Loch Raven Boulevard, Towson, 410-668-7500, and the stain won't come out. Or maybe you've just installed a new fuschia-colored carpet in your family room, and it clashes with that chintz sofa. Get this: At Arcade, if they can't clean it or even if you have buyer's remorse after the first few days, they will replace it free of charge. That kind of commitment to customer satisfaction is the hallmark of this 72-year-old business, which also has one of the largest selections of carpet, hardwood, laminate, and ceramic tile in the area.

Car Wash With its stainless steel and bright blue décor, eager-to-please staff, stacks of great magazines, and extensive list of "spa" services from hand waxing to shampooing to leather reconditioning, we could hang out all day at the newly renovated Auto Spa Hand Car Wash and Detail Center, 10117 York Road, Cockeysville, 410-683-7222. Our cars like it, too, as they're transformed from road weary to just-off-the-assembly-line gleaming. One insider's tip: Apply for a free Auto Spa VIP Club Card and get a 10 percent discount on all wash services, a free birthday wash (your birthday, not the car's), and other extras.

Cobbler The place doesn't look like much from the outside, but local fashionistas and well-heeled business types swear by Eugene's Shoe Repair, 516 W. Coldspring Lane, 410-243-8874, for fast, high-quality repairs on anything from boots to baby shoes to that precious pair of Jimmy Choos. Ukranian owner Eugene Gomberg, who has been repairing shoes for 20 years, once even replaced a zipper on a customer's jeep door! It's a bargain to boot: A pair of soles is $45, for instance ($20 cheaper than most competitors). And with the price of new shoes these days, why not restore what's already on your rack?

Custom Framing Whether it's a favorite painting that begs for museum-quality framing, a historic family document that needs professional preservation, or that college diploma you're anxious to hang prominently in your new office, Framin' Place, 1350 Smith Avenue, 410-433-3434, comes through. Yes, they tend to be a little on the pricey side, but a staff of savvy art college grads, great personal service, plus meticulous attention to detail, makes it worth the investment. Your only challenge? Picking from the 4,000 frame samples and mats, from classic to contemporary, that the store has in stock.

Custom Tailor For 17 years, Steven Adelsberg, 410-580-2022, has been Baltimore's tailor to the see-and-be-seamed set. He works for the Tom James company, the largest custom clothing manufacturer in the world. There's no store to drive to—Adelsberg comes to you. Pick out a sartorially splendid CEO, Fortune 500 exec, or big-time managing partner in this town, and there's a good chance Adelsberg is the man behind the cloth.

Dry Cleaner For convenience's sake, most people prefer to find a dry cleaner in their own backyard. But the 18-year-old Rainbow Clean, 9946 York Road, Cockeysville, 410-667-0900, owned by the relentlessly cheerful Sue Piao, is actually worth the detour (and even the price of gas). Piao's expertise with antique tablecloths and napkins, wedding gowns, gabardine suits, and designer dresses has clients ignoring the gas gauge from as far away as Abingdon and Ellicott City. The highest compliment? One client who moved to North Carolina several years back actually brings her dry cleaning back to Baltimore when she visits her daughter!

Electrician Vince Madden, Madden Electric, 729 S. Ellwood Avenue, 410-563-2076, has been plugged into the electrical needs of Baltimore for 20 years. Madden offers a wide array of services, including new construction and home addition wiring, upgrading service in older homes, wiring hot tubs, inspecting for dangerous wiring, and installing everything from security systems to generator panels to track lighting. Work ethics don't get any better than this—Madden answers his own phone (even in the dead of night) and he and his fully licensed residential and commercial crews respond quickly to putting a little light back in your life.

>Floral Arranger Why settle for FTD's carnations when you can order a show-stopping centerpiece with pink protea, horsetail reed, and brunia berries from Wicked Willow, 410-925-7990? While it's hard to improve on Mother Nature, Wicked Willow's abstract and sculptural pieces are as much a work of art as floral design. These one-of-a-kind creations don't come cheap (a minimum arrangement is about $75) but will add a "wow" factor to any gift or interior. (Lluminaire and Red Door Spa are weekly clients).

Furniture Store In this day of mass-produced and cheaply constructed particle board furniture, it's a breath of fresh air to find heirloom-quality, artisanal pieces at Harbor East's recently opened Arhaus, 660 S. Exeter Street, 410-244-6376. In addition to using responsibly sourced wood and recyclables, Arhaus carries a diversity of styles in furniture and accessories for every room of the house. A hand-forged iron bed, an Old World hand-painted armoire, a solid mango wood Colonial-style dining table—whatever your design leanings, Arhaus will make your house the prettiest one in the 'hood.

Garden Store Year in, year out, we search for a new winner in this category, but no matter where we go, all roads seem to lead back to Valley View Farms, 11035 York Road, Cockeysville, 410-527-0700. With unbeatable prices and service—not to mention a great choice of trees and shrubs, annuals and perennials, veggie plants, fish ponds, and planting accessories from topsoil to trowels—Valley View is in a class by itself. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard, it's also a favorite holiday stop for Christmas trees and decorations.

Groomer Just like her human stylist counterparts, Kerrie Grudziecki, Reisterstown Boarding Kennel Pet Resort and Spa, 14454 Old Hanover Road, Reisterstown, 410-833-2090, has a full book of appointments. Bring your pooch in for a wash, a nail clipping, a coat conditioning, or a special anti-shedding treatment, and Fido will look Westminster-ready. Grudziecki, who is great at calming nervous first timers, also offers the latest in pet grooming—a special spa treatment that includes a facial and paw scrub, a massage and vitamin-enhanced conditioner. The ultimate seal of approval? Even her most clipper-shy clientele always wag a tail when they see her.

Hardware Store Sure, if you're certain it's a left-handed brass wing nut you need, you can go to the big-box home stores and save $1.70 (after standing in the self-checkout behind the guy who just bought 27 bags of cement and some PVC piping). But if you want to take the "hard" out of hardware shopping, head to Stebbins Anderson, 802 Kenilworth Drive, Towson, 410-823-6600, where you'll get professional advice from some old-timers who really know about construction, plumbing, tools, and electrical matters. While you're there, check out Stebbins excellent patio furniture selection, birdhouses, hammocks, and housewares on the upper level.

Home Theater Store Stargate Cinema, 3455 Sweet Air Road, Phoenix, 410-667-3517, stargatecinema.com, is not your ordinary home theater store. For starters, most clients order their theater seats, popcorn machines, lighting, signage, movie art, and game-room goodies from the store online, without ever visiting the showroom. This local startup, owned and operated by Ken and Mary Lerch (and once run out of their basement!), is growing at warp speed. With online orders ranging up to $50,000 a pop, and more than 7,500 products (at near-wholesale prices) to choose from, Stargate is one of the largest home-theater accessory retailers in the galaxy.

Interior Design The venerable Gaines McHale has long set the standard for the finest in European antiques, so lucky for us, owner Jean McHale decided to open an interior design firm, GMI Design, 700 S. Caroline Street, 443-524-0036, on the second floor of the furniture showplace. Whether GMI is designing a contemporary space for Jim Palmer's city apartment or having its way with a floor plan in a Beacon Hill, MA manse, McHale and her talented staff of designers have a knack for blending comfort and timeless beauty.

Kitchen Store Home Goods, 9616 Reisterstown Road, Owings Mills, 410-902-4435, has everything you need to stock your kitchen at bargain basement prices, but prepare for the hunt. There's lots of inventory on the shelves—pots and pans, glassware, fine china—but if you really take your time to trawl for treasures, you'll find some standout items such as a $7 Japanese ceramic saki set, hand-painted Italian dinner plates for $5.99, even a German steel Henckels chef's knife for $12.99. Home Goods may not have the froufrou factor of other such shops, but if you buy your wares here, you'll be the happiest frugal gourmet on the block.

Painters At 16, Steve Zemanek became an understudy of the now-retired master Werner Hauger. About 20 years later, Zemanek took over Werner Hauger Painting, 410-491-1202, and his handiwork can be seen in Guilford, Roland Park, Homeland, and Greenspring Valley. Zemanek's perfectionist credo—"You do the job 100 percent the right way, or you don't do it all"—explains why his business can boast it's made The State House, Government House, Hampton Mansion, Carroll Mansion, and countless other historic properties just a little bit more beautiful.

Pest Control Getting rid of unwanted house guests is the business of brothers Bob, Ken, and Tom Collins, owners of Accurate Termite and Pest Control, 8000 Philadelphia Road, 410-574-2661. The siblings began the business 21 years ago because they wanted to bring a level of integrity to a sometimes shady field: "There are a lot of shenanigans out there in the pest-control business," says Ken Collins. "We went out on our own because we wanted to treat people honestly, and that's why we've been successful." Loyal customers with annual maintenance schedules swear by them, and they are the critter-busters of choice for many restaurants in Baltimore's Best Restaurants listings (no, we're not telling who).

Place for Bric-a-Brac You won't need a passport to buy handmade home accessories from developing countries such as the Congo, Haiti, India, or Burkina Faso at Ten Thousand Villages, 1621 Thames Street, 410-342-5568. The store is actually a nonprofit organization that represents more than 130 artisans in 36 countries. From artisanal baskets hand-woven in Uganda to hand-painted wooden boxes from Indonesia and crocheted coasters from Bangladesh, Ten Thousand Villages is a retail pioneer that has been practicing fair-trade since 1946, long before it became trendy.

Place to Furnish on a Budget If you enjoy the hunt for unique items, you'll love the five well-stocked warehouses of Second Chance Inc., 1645 Warner Street, 410-385-1101. A recent jaunt turned up some great finds including a mint condition 1920's French armoire, a handmade Afghan rug, Victorian-era chairs, and a shelving unit deconstructed from the set of The Wire. The nonprofit Second Chance also believes in giving low-income Baltimoreans a second chance by training them in carpentry, craftsmanship, and construction.

Place to Get Your House Wired Your search for high-tech home-wiring wizardry is over. Give a call to Ron Strickland's Mt. Airy-based Strickly Digital, 240-235-0641, stricklydigital.com, which has built a rep for fast, professional, and fairly priced work on everything from wireless and satellite hookups to broadband Internet, home theater, and stereo installation.

Professional Organizer Need help letting go of your childhood tiddly wink collection?Amy Rehkemper, Simplify Organizing LLC, 410-370-4109, can help free you from the clutches of clutter. Rehkemper, who has appeared on HGTV's Mission: Organization, can work with you for a few hours in a single session or help you organize weekly. Unlike many services that leave you with the pile to donate to Goodwill, Rehkemper hauls it all away and distributes it to worthy charities such as House of Ruth and the SPCA. "I'm a modern day Robin Hood, taking away things that have become hazardous in my client's lives," sums up Rehkemper, "and delivering it to charities and people in need."

Sunroom Builder You can't beat the artistry and quality of the gazebos, pool houses, and sunrooms created by Tanglewood Conservatories, 15 Engerman Avenue, Denton, 800-229-2925, tanglewoodconservatories.com. Tanglewood is one of only a handful of conservatory builders in the United States, and, fortunately for us, it's located on Maryland's Eastern Shore. With copper cupolas, soaring skylights, stained glass panels, fluted pilasters, and state-of-the-art engineering, Tanglewood's designs invoke the beauty and grace of the late 1800's and will add a note of elegance to any site.

Tableware Store We could name drop all day—Vera Wang, Hermès, Spode, Saint-Louis, ahhhh—but trendy or timeless, Radcliffe Jewelers, 1848 Reisterstown Road, 410-484-2900, is 25,000 square feet of home décor heaven. Prices are on the higher end (between $80 and $350 for a five-piece place setting), but the luxest of the luxe is never cheap. Also, if you're willing to wait, the store's annual holiday show is the stuff of legends, with rock bottom prices on select items made by Baccarat, Lladro, Lalique, and plenty more.

Window Treatments Your room will go from ordinary to exceptional with handmade curtains from Christopher Bitter's new Palette, 3528 Chestnut Avenue, 443-682-7523, in the heart of Hampden. Bitter's curtains—Roman valances, balloon shades, floor-length shears with pleats—are so pretty you might be tempted to pull a Scarlett O'Hara and wear them to your next dinner party. Bitter does it the old-fashioned way with a simple Singer sewing machine, a measuring tape, bolts of fabric, and a few rolls of tassels and trims. Bring in a picture of what you want or give Bitter carte blanche to create something to suit your taste and style.

Linens Strolling though The House Downtown, 524 E. Belvedere Avenue, 410-464-1440, with its fluffy, puffy, pillow-covered beds is like walking through a waking dream. It isn't just the store's superior stock of 400-thread count sheets, matelassé duvet covers, dotted Swiss shams, and crisp linen bed skirts by Legacy and Peacock Alley that makes us swoon with pleasure. We also love the savvy staff and design team willing to make house calls for even the simplest of requests, such as helping us choose which duvet or upholstered headboard will go best with our freshly painted boudoir.

Party Staffer There's nothing worse than throwing a dinner party and then working the graveyard shift to clean the spinach dip off your Lenox. Next time, consider hiring Beck-n-Call Event Services, 15635 Falls Road, 410-472-2526. Owner Tammie Monaco, the former director of catering at The Brass Elephant, will provide servers and bartenders for your romantic dinner for two or that 150-person wedding in your tented backyard. Monaco's resume is star-studded—in her college years, she spent summers in the Hamptons at the beck and call of Kim Basinger and Alec Baldwin (in, uh, happier times), Rudy Giuliani, and Jimmy Buffett.

Pet Store Howl, 3531 Chestnut Avenue, 410-235-2469, is like a Whole Foods for pets. Five years ago, when owner Robin McDonald sought healthier options for her sensitive-stomached Weimaraner, Harper, there were none. So McDonald opened her own store with all-natural everything—from chicken and apple chews to wheat-based cat litter. Howl—formerly Chow, Baby!—also offers services, including nail-clipping on the first Saturday of each month and a first-rate obedience school for dogs. Look for animal acupuncture and monthly educational seminars to come soon. "My goal," says McDonald, "is to help people be better pet owners."

Residential Landscaper It's not the biggest operation in town, nor the one that has reaped the most awards for mega-bucks renovations, but 75-year-old Green Fields Nursery and Landscaping, 5424 Falls Road, 410-323-3444, is our choice for the homeowner who wants professional landscaping and personal service from folks with an eye for design and a knack for helping new trees and plants thrive. General Manager Pete Bieneman's three construction crews specialize in urban gardens, courtyards, wooded areas, and terraces (think hilly Roland Park and Mt. Washington).

INDULGE

Estrogen Heaven In the last few years, Baltimore has seen a real renaissance in the chocolate world, and trust us when we say we've tried 'em all. With all this choice, we still have a sweet spot for Hampden's Ma Petite Shoe, 832 W. 36th Street, 410-235-3442. You see, owner Susannah Siger quells our cravings with not just an impressive selection of melt-in-your-mouth, high-quality, hard-to-find European chocolates, but the latest and greatest in designer shoes as well. Ladies, resistance is futile.

Barbershop There's nothing like a fresh shave and a haircut to make a guy feel good. Throw in some cigars, a shoeshine, and a little Frank Sinatra, and now we're talking. It was in that spirit that Craig Martin opened the decidedly old-school Quinntessential Gentleman, 31 S. Calvert Street, 410-685-7428, in the fall of 2005. With hot towels, warm lather, a straight razor, and after-shave balm, QG offers the best shave in town. Services such as beard trims, brow waxing, and yes, manicures are so much more pleasant when you're holding a complimentary espresso in one hand and a beer bottle in the other.

Blowout With a blow dryer, a round brush, and a way of taming even the wildest of manes into perfect position, Uno (née Unal Tuluoglu) of Uno, The Salon, 10751 Falls Road, 410-821-9080, is our town's Hair Whisperer. We're not sure how he does it, but no matter how thick or thin, frizzy or smooth, curly or straight, Uno knows exactly what brushes to use and what products to spray to make his clients look runway ready.

Body Products Don't say we didn't warn you: One step into bluemercury, 200 E. Pratt Street, 410-576-9090, and your whole day is shot. Effervescent salespeople are happy to answer all questions and shower you with free samples. (After all, you have to try products to know they work, right?) This national chain—which came to Baltimore in October 2006—specializes in hard-to-find labels, but also carries a beauty junkie's tried-and-true favorites such as Trish McEvoy, Frederic Fekkai, Bliss, and Bumble & Bumble. And if you're tuckered from all that retail therapy, no harm in trying out one of bluemercury's legendary facials.

Cosmetics Diamonds may be a girl's best friend, but makeup is a close second. So swing by Hunt Valley's Ulta, 118 Shawan Road, Hunt Valley (and other locations), 410-527-9960, for a beauty wonderland guaranteed to make you smile. With locations coast to coast, this mega store sells everything from Bare Escentuals to Stila and Smashbox, as well as a great assortment of accessories including Kabuki blush brushes and precision eye curlers.

Culinary Indulgence Nothing beats the legendary black truffle with a dollop of caviar from Eddie's of Roland Park, 6213 N. Charles Street, 410-377-8040. Although these extravagant delights can be special-ordered year-round (when available), during the Christmas season, the high-end supermarket's Charles Street location actually carries the sacred black truffle, known as much for its earthy flavor as its hefty price tag (last year, it ran about $375 per pound). Throughout the year, caviar-savvy shoppers also flock to Eddie's for some of the best domestic caviar money can buy. The tiny eggs fly off the shelves during the holidays, so stock up—and then sit back and sigh.

Facial If Ponce de Leon had experienced the 24-karat gold facial at Mt. Washington Spa, 1600 Kelly Avenue, 410-664-3400, he would have discovered the Fountain of Youth here in Baltimore. The facial, in which sheets of gold leaf are massaged into the face, is purported to tighten, brighten, and turn back the hands of time (well, at least temporarily). Mt. Washington Spa is one of the few spas in town to offer this exclusive service and owner Vesna Stojanovic sets the standard with her Midas touch.

Inexpensive (But Fabulous) Haircut In this day of fast-track salons, Shear Classic, 5004 Lawndale Avenue, 410-435-6646, is a throwback to simpler times (and simpler prices) and walk-ins are welcome. At this tiny Roland Park beauty nook, you won't need to work a night job to afford the latest in cut, color, and chemical treatments, but you won't sacrifice quality. Men's cuts start at $15 and women's cuts start at $22. "This is the kind of place where you can come wet from the pool or in sweatpants," says owner Lynn Foltz. "It's not the kind of place where you need to wear your Sunday best."

Makeup Artist There's a reason why it takes three months to book an appointment with salon co-owner Dean Krapf, Lluminaire Salon, 15 W. Allegheny Avenue, 410-583-1500. Krapf began his journey to the upper echelons of Charm City beauty 25 years ago doing hair, but, after a decade, he added makeup artistry to his bag of tricks. Not only does Krapf use top-shelf cosmetics (some exclusive lines from Japan, as well as standards such as Chanel lipgloss and Dior mascara), he gladly schedules makeup lessons to teach the basics, perfects age-appropriate looks, and helps "edit" cosmetic routines (hint: less is more).

Manicure What makes Moldovan-born Zena Fox, Zena's Spa and Salon, 1014 N. Charles Street, 410-783-1971, a great manicurist? A relaxing, massaging, polishing experience, some good conversation, a caring attitude, and polish that doesn't chip before your parking meter expires. It's no wonder that tastemasters, such as designer Rita St. Clair, flock to get groomed by this former art student. What's more, Zena offers one of the best manicure perks we've ever encountered—instead of reading two-year-old issues of Us while waiting for your Essie to dry, you can use the treadmill or bike for free at the adjoining Mt. Vernon Fitness!

Manscaping All you men who feel like you're missing out on the chance to get waxed, fret not. "Manscaping" (or body hair removal for men) is all the rage, and the folks at FX Studios, 11270 Pepper Road, Hunt Valley, 410-771-1500, have a way of making it . . . fun? Okay, at least you'll be distracted—with movies (Indiana Jones, Death at a Funeral), complementary ice cream, "floating hosts" who serve drinks, and enough flatscreens to make you an honorary Nielsen member. And rest assured, discretion is paramount. Let's face it, when you're getting your back waxed, it's not like you want the whole world to know about it.

Massage One thing you won't smell walking through the door of ReNew Organic Day Spa, 843 W. 36th Street, 410-400-2745, is chemicals. Instead, expect the essence of orange or the aroma of lavender. Co-owner and massage therapist Sherrie Tennessee—a former Johns Hopkins researcher—knows the human body like, well, the back of her hand. Tennessee incorporates Native American hot stone massage and aromatherapy into the green getaway's signature massage.

Pampering For Your Pooch Going out of town and worried that, for your little Toto, there's no place like home? Then head to PetSmart's PetHotel, 9041 Snowden River Parkway, Columbia, 410-312-4890. This state-of-the-art pet hotel—with its airy atriums and suites, hypoallergenic lambskin beds, and caring staff—has all the amenities you'd expect in a fancy hotel, including a "Pawsgress Report" and a "Bone Booth" (so you can phone in and talk to your buddy). In addition to a 24-hour on-site pet hospital, it even offers "room service" and in-suite movies such as Lady and the Tramp and Lassie. As far as we know, there's no mini-bar.

Pedicure Get ready to be waited on hand and especially foot when you book an appointment at Salon Laurie & Company, 5910 Falls Road, 410-464-1500, for a pedicure. Our favorite is the "Ten" pedicure, featuring, you guessed it, 10 rejuvenating ingredients including African cacao extract, caviar age control complex, white truffle oil, and champagne grape seed oil. Pedicurist Kathy Mojica, who works out of a private room, is attentive to your every need, and a brie and fresh fruit snack is served under a domed crystal dish during the soak-and-polish portion of the experience. Included in the price ($60) is a caviar body emulsion cream to take home.

Personal Trainer Whether you're a seasoned athlete or an exercise neophyte,Meadow Mill Athletic Club Fitness and Wellness director Jon A. Kaplan, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, 410-235-7000, will custom develop your perfect exercise routine. Kaplan is a friend, therapist, confidante, and trainer all in one fit package, which is exactly how he keeps clients from falling off the exercise wagon. "My whole philosophy is to keep people moving," says Kaplan, who has 22 years in the industry. "You need to get people to show up at the gym, and the way to do that is by connecting to them."

Place To Buy A Fur Coat While fur might fly at the suggestion, there's nothing that spells luxury like a mink coat (just ask Mayor Dixon). At Mano Swartz, 10801 Falls Road, 410-825-9000, you'll find classic full-length minks and foxes, hip Persian lamb jackets and sable stoles, fur-trimmed gloves and cashmere wraps, and even a selection of fur coats for men. Have a puffy-sleeved, full-length fox from your Dynasty days? Swartz can reshape it into a trendy, swing car coat and make a matching pocket book, pillow, or even a teddy bear with the scraps.

Spa Getaway With the arrival of the luxe Red Door Spa, The Village of Cross Keys, 42 Village Square, 410-323-3636, four years ago, red became our new favorite color. From the minute you enter through the bright red doors of this Elizabeth Arden spa, you'll be transported by the zen décor and soft-spoken staff, waiting to tend to your every luxury need. And whether you stay for an antioxidant facial, an abhyanga and shiatsu massage, an olive oil pedicure, or a seaweed body wrap, it's like leaving town without the hassle of airport security.

Wellness Center If heaven is on earth, we found it at Ojas Wellness Center, 1501 Sulgrave Avenue (and other locations), 410-664-OJAS, a blissfully tranquil, eco-friendly oasis offering a million and one ways to unwind. Ojas has it all, including Five Element Acupuncture, massage therapy, Reformer Pilates, organic skincare, and yoga classes for every skill level. In the ever-expanding world of wellness centers, the expert staff—trained in everything from Vinyasa and Iyengar yoga to Reiki massage and Chakra balancing—will help you to achieve your goal, be it inner peace, chronic pain relief, or a flatter tummy.

Limo Service For most of us, limo service is a rare treat. So if you're gonna do it, do it right. Zbest Limousine, 6809 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie, 410-768-1148, provides upscale vehicles—think stretched Hummers and Escalades—for everyone from President Bush to the Prime Minister of Turkey. The place virtually never closes, with drivers on standby and operators ready to take reservations 24/7. As for brides-to-be? Says general manager George Rains: "Our drivers cater to the bride. We're going to be right there with you, whether you need a Tic Tac or a button sewn on." Now that's service.

Upscale Haircut Baltimore is a town with an embarrassment of great stylists, but lately those in the know have been flocking to Yolanda Carr, La Salon De Beaute, 105 Old Court Road, Pikesville, 410-484-2890. With its relaxed vibe and cozy, homespun interior, La Salon de Beaute is as unassuming as it gets. But Carr's clients could care less about décor—they're here because she can help them morph from blah to beautiful with a wave of her Hikari Japanese shears or a soupçon of artfully applied golden highlights.

FUN

Cocktail It's tempting to believe a replica of the Capital Grille's winsome signature cocktail, Stoli doli, Capital Grille, 500 E. Pratt Street, 443-703-4064, could be mixed anywhere. With just two ingredients in the upscale chain's succulent pineapple martini, what's the big deal? How 'bout this: The Inner Harbor location receives its pineapples 48 hours after they're picked in Maui, then promptly slices them into thick bricks and stows them in vats of Stoli vodka for two weeks. After two more weeks of refrigerated marinating, the pineappletinis are doled out for $11.95 a pop. Steep, we know, but try just one and you'll be sold (and possibly a little sloshed).

'Burbs Bar Atmospheres as bland and stale as the food they serve plague many suburban bars. If zippy one-word chains in strip mall parking lots aren't your thing—and we're quite sure they're not—drive over to Rams Head Tavern, 8600 Foundry Street, Savage, 301-604-3454, for a taste of the genuine. Housed in a 19th-century foundry that oozes character, the downstairs Rathskeller pub provides the perfect pitch of darkness, the bar's top-notch Fordham beer on tap, and Rams Head's legendary $2.50 happy hour drafts with free food buffet. There's a pool table and a few TVs. Plus, the bartenders aren't required to wear any pieces of flair.

Closer-Than-You-Think Recreation Spot It's a wild and wonderful fact: Harpers Ferry, harpersferrywv.net, and its myriad recreational options is just an hour-plus drive from Baltimore. Seventy miles (mostly on I-70) is all that separates us from some of the best tubing, rafting, hiking, hunting, and fishing in our area. The confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers provides a perfect spot for water activities ranging from the lackadaisical (tubing) to the intense (kayaking). World class hiking is available on the famous Appalachian Trail. We smell a day trip.

Federal Hill Bar For Grown-Ups The first eye-opener on a typical night at Regi's American Bistro, 1002 Light Street, 410-539-7344, is the demographic of the customers—diners and imbibers actually born before the Carter administration. That's not to say the place is stodgy or stuffy. Anything but. An adventurous menu features monstrous salads and adult takes on kids' classics. The tater tots are stuffed with melted brie cheese and applewood bacon. There's music on the stereo–more likely Radiohead than a crooner from the Rat Pack–but the tunes play at a volume that actually encourages conversation. Bless you, Regi's.

Gym If you were a member of the MAC Harbor East, 655 President Street, Suite 200, 410-625-5000, you might actually look forward to working out. The vibe in this gleaming new facility is more spa than gym. Technology is omnipresent: Every piece of cardio equipment is fitted with a flat-screen TV and iPod jack, and there are computers with Internet access in the lobby, so after you burn off those calories you can check your body mass index (or order a pizza). Four pools, four squash courts, plus studios for kinesis, yoga, Pilates, and boxing offer members virtually every exercise option under the sun. Here's the kicker: The place even smells good.

Hangout For A First Daughter Despite her strong Republican lineage, Jenna Bush (whoops, make that Hager), has never seemed overtly political. The same can be said of Federal Hill's popular watering hole, Ropewalk Tavern, 1209 S. Charles Street, 410-727-1298. A Ronald Reagan statue stands proudly over a bronze elephant in the corner of the back bar, and the menu features The Gipper, "Named after the Patron Saint!"—but the lively tavern is an unpretentious gathering place fit for both right and left leaners. Indeed, Ropewalk takes its cue from a poster hanging near the front bar touting the 2008 candidacy of Ronald Reagan and his running mate, Natty Boh. "Everybody loves a good party."

Happy Hour Perhaps no societal institution is more aptly named than happy hour, that precious time when workday worries are washed away. RA Sushi, 1390 Lancaster Street, 410-522-3200, a new oh-so-hip sushi restaurant/bar/lounge in Harbor East offers its own Eastern-infused twist on these three hours of bliss with major deals on fresh fish and libations. Eight-piece orders of California rolls are only $3.25, tender spicy tuna just a few quarters more. RA's happy hour, week–days from 4 to 7, features one of the greatest deals in all of Baltimore drinking: $1 hot sake.

Hiking Spot Each summer, thousands flock to Oregon Ridge Park, oregonridge.org, to enjoy concerts, barbecues, picnics, and playgrounds. But beyond the park's well-known face spans a body of more than 1,000 acres, which offers some of the most pleasurable hiking trails in the region. Start at the Nature Center to pick up a map of the nine primary routes (and be sure to check out the turtles). The clearly-marked trails range in length from the Iron Mine Gray Trail (at .18 mile) to the Loggers Red (at 1.6 miles), and are all accessible even for the outdoorsman who spends most of his time indoors.

Neighborhood Bar Like that mythic Boston basement bar that never ran dry of beer or buddies, Hull Street Blues, 1222 Hull Street, 410-727-7476, is the type of low-key joint where everybody seems to know your name. Chock full of customers who've been coming for years, the cozy tavern offers a warm and inviting environment for newbies as well as regulars. Shuffleboard, a solid jukebox, and friendly bartenders and patrons make the place just right for a bustling Friday or a laidback weeknight.

New Bar The secret's out. Every time we step into Annabel Lee Tavern, 601 S. Clinton Street, 410-522-2929, it's more crowded than the last. The Tiffany lamps behind the bar, the dark-red color scheme, and the 40's and 50's jazz and big band tunes give the place the feel of an old friend's living room. Owner Kurt Bragunier runs the place with a smile on his what-has-to-be tired face. People seem to love the Edgar Allan Poe-themed bar's homey charm. Or maybe they're just addicted to the sweet potato fries, served piping hot and doused in cayenne and brown sugar.

No-Frills Bar Stroll into Dougherty's Irish Pub, 223 W. Chase Street, 410-752-4059, and you'll immediately be struck by its breathtaking, well, ordinariness—but that's exactly what makes it so special. Never too crowded, never too vacant, this not-so-Irish pub harkens back to a long-gone era when bars didn't feel the need to pass themselves off as the place to be, they just needed to be. Its menu sports refreshingly simple options like a cloak and dagger sandwich (no, it wasn't invented by Royal Farms) for around $6. Plastic pitchers of domestic beer don't cost much more—and be sure to check the chalkboard behind the bar for specials.

Oriole Legend Boog Powell seems to grow larger—in stature, and otherwise—every year. The product of an era when the players were just like us, working class guys who lived, ate, and drank in the same places we did, Powell's achievements on the field can be overshadowed by his outsized personality off it. He smacked 339 homers (and 11 triples!) during his career, which included two championship seasons. These O's could use a Boog or three—not just his bat, but his zest as well. Luckily for us, his presence still looms large at the Yard, where he's often dishing out barbecue and visiting with fans, embodying the best that Baltimore baseball has offered through the years.

Oriole Newbie Call him Lord of the Flat Brim. His trademark: closing out Orioles wins while wearing a hat that looks like it hasn't been touched since it left the factory. With brim meeting bird logo at a 90-degree angle, George Sherrill has owned the ninth inning since coming to Baltimore from Seattle in an off-season trade. Teammates and fans delight in flipping up their brims to honor his duckbill platypus cap style after he closes out a victory, something he's done 23 times at press time. Here's hoping he'll keep breaking opponents' bats, while never breaking in his hat.

Public Golf Course Links-style golf commonly is associated with Scotland, birthplace of the sport. Flat courses with few water hazards or trees, links tracks usually are set by the sea or—in the case of Compass Pointe, 9010 Fort Smallwood Road, Pasadena, 410-255-7764—by the Chesapeake Bay. The course features 36 holes (divided into four nines) spread over 800 acres that challenge golfers of varying skill by demanding accuracy and imagination. The facility is kept in immaculate shape, and its driving range has plenty of mats to ensure you'll seldom be crowded. Greens fees range from $30 to $70 (be sure to check the Web specials).

Raven Set aside, for the moment, the prestigious Johnny Unitas Tops in Courage Award that Ravens director of player development O.J. Brigance received in March, and take note of what already sits proudly in his trophy case: the Unsung Hero Award, the Winston/Shell Award (given annually to the most innovative player development director), the Ed Block Courage Award, and don't forget that Super Bowl XXXV ring. Since being diagnosed with ALS, Brigance has refused to let the disease sideline or even sidetrack him. He shows up to work every day with a smile on his face, resolve in his step, and faith in his heart. Ravens president Dick Cass sums it up simply: "He is an inspiration to all of us."

Smokers' Paradise This year has been rough on more than just the lungs of Baltimore's smokers. They've been scorned, ostracized, and driven from bars onto the streets like some sort of carcinogen-spewing lepers. But the marriage of two classic vices can't be killed overnight, so it was only a matter of time before bars adapted to the new anti-smoking law. The outdoor courtyard between Tsunami and Lemongrass, 1300 Bank Street, 410-327-7835, offers an admittedly hazy first glimpse into this future. Under a lattice roof, a large Buddha looms over a half bar (shots and beer), and the space is filled with comfortable wooden chairs and booths, and even large heaters. This is the last bastion of nicotine, and as anyone in this smokers' Shangri-La will tell you, it's just what the doctor ordered.

Sports Bar More neighborhood bar than jock hut, NcDevin's, 801 S. Decker Street, 410-276-0600, is a relatively meat-head-free environment. The games are important here, but when the war on the field (actually, on one of NcDevin's 16 TVs) ends, enemies (Steelers fans are known to populate the place) strike a truce and exalt in booze and some of the best bar food around. (Try the fried pickles.) The always-friendly bartenders are more than willing to work with you to find your game, and the bar even carries sports television's twin white whales, the Big Ten Network and ESPNU.

Urban Sporting Goods Store What could be more important to the young city-dwelling athlete than looking good while working out? City Sports, 809 Aliceanna Street, 410-837-4420, to the rescue. Not only does it sell its seriously cute signature logo T-shirt, there's a dizzying array of supplies for sports, running from the mainstream (basketball, tennis, and running) to the more niche (skateboarding, badminton). Along with the requisite Ray Lewis jerseys, there's an impressive selection of watches and sunglasses in display cases up front.

Wire bar When Detective Lester Freamon (Clarke Peters) confronts hand-in-the-cookie-jar Senator Clay Davis (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) in the penultimate episode of The Wire, he meets the corrupt pol at a silky smooth north Baltimore bar. Of the several local nightspots in which Wire creator David Simon shot, New Haven Lounge, 1552 Havenwood Road, 410-366-7416, is the grooviest. Old school and understatedly cool, like Freamon himself, murals of musical legends adorn the walls, and jazz bands set up shop in the middle of the small club Friday and Saturday nights, playing at the perfect pitch. As one fan said of the space, "It's like living in the album."

Urban Sports Organization "Serene" is not a word most people associate with the water of the Inner Harbor. Sickening might be more like it. Regardless of what lies beneath, anyone who's paddled a kayak from Canton to Locust Point as the sun sets on a warm summer night knows the experience is downright blissful. Canton Kayak Club, cantonkayakclub.com, offers 60-plus kayaks docked at multiple locations throughout the city, providing a hassle-free passage to the sport. For $135 a season, members get a training course and unlimited use of the kayaks. No reservations are necessary, just show up and plop down into a kayak, and prepare to feel the stress flow from your body.

ARTS

Band Beach House, the local duo of Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand, crafts lush, understated chamber pop infused with dreamy warmth. His fuzzy guitars, vintage drum machines, and trembling keyboards waltz blissfully around her bittersweet vocals on the group's second disc, Devotion. Gorgeously produced by Rob Girardi, it lit up the blogosphere and got love from the likes of Rolling Stone and The New York Times.

Actress Of the many notable roles in The Wire, none was more peculiar and distinctive than Felicia Pearson's "Snoop." Discovered by cast member Michael K. Williams (Omar) in a Baltimore club, Pearson brought an androgynous and nuanced ambiguity to her role that elevated it far beyond that of a typical street killer. "Snoop" didn't look, or sound, like anyone else on television. Let's hope she'll be able to find decent work, post-Wire.

CD Peabody's Manuel Barrueco snagged a Grammy nomination for last year's Solo Piazzolla, his take on compositions by tango master Astor Piazzolla. This year, the acclaimed guitarist upped the ante by adding strings (the Cuarteto Latinoamericano) to his Piazzolla interpretations. The resulting disc, the sublime Tango Sensations, bleeds every bit of emotion from Piazzolla's evocative compositions, as it migrates from classical tour de force to crossover gem.

Cultural Event On a cold Monday afternoon in February, the First Mariner Arena was filled with a crowd that looked like a cross-section of Baltimore's population—in terms of race, gender, age, and economics—which, outside of Artscape, rarely occurs in this city. People were mingling, chatting, and smiling, as songs by Stevie Wonder and Neil Diamond boomed over the P.A. The atmosphere was festive, like before a concert or sporting event, but these people were actually there to hear a guy talk politics for an hour. And no matter how you felt about Barack Obama's speech, the cultural significance of such a diverse gathering was undeniable.

Documentary The Tinklers create deceptively simple art—songs, paintings, books, and performance pieces—that, because of its nuance, would seem to be a poor match for a straightforward documentary. But Brian Averill's Everybody Loves the Tinklers uses rare performance footage and insightful interview clips to get at the genius behind two wildly creative guys (Charles Brohawn and Chris Mason) who, among other things, play rubber band guitars and wrench xylophones and sing songs about the library. Averill nails the timeless wisdom at the heart of The Tinklers work and doesn't shy from its utter delight.

Free Concert Series There's an unlikely venue tucked away in the woods behind Catonsville Senior High School, and each summer, it hosts a remarkable line-up of performers. This year's Lurman Woodland Theatre Summer Concert Seriesincludes Deanna Bogart, Charles "Big Daddy" Stallings, Bayside Big Band, Carl Filipiak, Pan American Rhythm Project, St. Charles String Quartet, Junkyard Saints, and many others. The acts are first rate, the theater is shaded, and most impressively, it's free.

Genius Move Maestra Marin Alsop won the prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant in 2005. So what is the BSO music director doing with the final grant installment of $100,000? She's using it to found OrchKids, an innovative after-school music program, at Harriet Tubman Elementary School. That's not only genius, it's incredibly generous.

History Museum As it celebrates and documents Baltimore's Jewish community, The Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street, 410-732-6400, manages to relate that history to the city at large and the nation as a whole. Two recent exhibits, The Voices of Lombard Street: A Century of Change in East Baltimore and Ours to Fight For: American Jews in the Second World War, made those vital connections without ignoring the thorny issues of race and nationalism. As a result, the material was thought provoking and relevant, without any of the dust that often settle over such shows.

Music Festival (alternative) Last year's Whartscape, the Wham City collective's annual music fest, qualified as a notable event, but this year's version shaped up to be the ultimate celebration of the city's fertile indie music scene. Over the course of four days, July 17-20, the Whartscape schedule included Celebration, Beach House, Dan Deacon, Ponytail, Matmos, Cex, Double Dagger, Ecstatic Sunshine, and dozens of others at various venues. You wouldn't find a better homegrown line-up for a festival anywhere in the U.S.

Music Festival (mainstream) Lots of folks were surprised when the Virgin Mobile Festival chose Pimlico as its flagship venue, and there was much skepticism that it would actually remain at the decaying track. But it's proved to be a surprisingly good match so far, as interest and attendance has grown. And how often will you see the likes of Nine Inch Nails, Kanye West, Bob Dylan, Foo Fighters, Jack Johnson, Chuck Berry, and Iggy Pop on the same bill?

One-stop Culture Hub Normal's Books & Records, 425 E. 31st Street, 410-243-6888, is a vital arts and culture hub masquerading as a used book and record store. On any given visit to the Waverly shop, you might nab an out-of-print Grace Hartigan monograph, page through local lit publications like Shattered Wig Review (published by co-owner Rupert Wondolowski), get tips about upcoming poetry readings and art shows, run into fellow shoppers such as John Waters or Madison Smartt Bell, and hear some of the most adventurous music Baltimore has to offer. A gem like Normal's is as much about community as it is about commerce.

Patron Saint When painter Larry Scott passed away last November, the city lost one of its most beloved artists. And when Xando's, the Charles Village coffee shop where Scott hung out, closed soon after, the two events seemed eerily related. But since then, Scott's influence continues to reverberate, as various artists (including Don Griffin, one of his closest friends) cite him as the inspiration behind recent work. Scott's wife, Desiree, is putting together a show for the fall that will feature work by Scott and his various cohorts and admirers.

Poet It takes a poet with Zen calm and Thoreau-ish powers of observation and insight to gaze at a snail, note its physical attributes, contemplate its metaphysical state, and make the reader care about such things. But Goucher's Elizabeth Spires does just that, and much more, in her latest book, The Wave-Maker.

Song It isn't everyday that Mel Gibson comes calling to a relatively unknown songwriter. But that's what happened when Gibson's Icon Productions found Howard Markman's "Almost Home" via the internet and placed the Hampdenite's song alongside tunes by Bob Dylan, Talking Heads, and The Killers in the penultimate episode of PBS' Carrier documentary. Although not originally written with the U.S.S. Nimitz in mind, Markman's melodic and memorable song perfectly captured the anticipation felt by sailors returning to port after a six-month deployment in the Persian Gulf.

Work in Progress When local filmmaker Michael Lawrence set out to film various musicians playing and discussing Bach, he had no idea how much cooperation he'd get. As it turns out, a stunning assortment of players have been filmed for Lawrence's upcoming Bach Project including violinists Hilary Hahn and Joshua Bell, singer Bobby McFerrin, the Emerson String Quartet, banjoist Bela Fleck, and mandolin player Chris Thile. Their involvement virtually guarantees a revealing examination of Bach's music.

Writer Dan Fesperman crafts thrillers that deftly mix political intrigue with the politics of being human. A foreign correspondent with The Sun, Dan Fesperman frames his narratives with a keen understanding of current events, which makes books such as Prisoner of Guantanamo and The Amateur Spy all the more timely and believable. At this point, Fesperman's body of work even rivals that of more well known Sun alums like David Simon, Stephen Hunter, and Laura Lippman.

Zine Who says blogs have made zines obsolete? That's certainly not the case with William P. Tandy's Smile Hon, You're in Baltimore. Tandy's Baltimore narrative exists largely outside the official record in that it's gleaned from folks sitting on barstools and standing on street corners. That's what makes it indispensable reading for anyone who appreciates and loves the city, warts and all.

Art Publication Locus, the local journal/exhibition space/magazine, exudes a sort of restless creativity that makes each issue surprising and satisfying. Smartly edited and beautifully designed, it showcases art infused with both passion and humanity. Locus doesn't strive to be fashionable, trendy, or cool—just good.

Design In 2002, we gave a Best-of nod to Nolen Strals for his concert poster designs. Since then, Strals and his partner, Bruce Willen, have been stretching the boundaries of graphic design and conceptual typography with their firm, Post Typography. From show posters and book covers (see Jonathan Miles' Dear American Airlines) to experimental fonts and their recent Public Print Lab installation at the Creative Alliance, Post-Typography refines the DIY aesthetic in ways that are exciting and engaging.

Outdoor Art Every two years, an amazing assortment of sculptures seems to magically appear on the grounds of Evergreen House. The Sculpture at Evergreen biennial features about a dozen site-specific pieces spread throughout the property, and stumbling across them is half the fun. For the duration of the show, a simple walk around Evergreen becomes a wondrous, whimsical, mysterious, and surprising act of discovery—a veritable Enchanted Forest for art lovers.

MEDIA

Arts Writer Under a byline that most writers would kill for (yes, it's her real name),Violet Glaze pens eye-popping stories on the region's growing and dynamic counterculture for City Paper (and occasionally Baltimore). Her stories recount everything from performance artists who staged a "love parade" on North Avenue to an operation in a Parkville basement that turns modern women into 40's-era "pin-up girls." Glaze reports as well as she criticizes and observes, uncovering stories on the fringe without turning her very human subjects into freaks. A Glaze story is as evocative as her name, often funny, and honest without clubbing you over the head.

Balti-centric Blog The digital Frankenmonster that is The Mobtown Shank,sugarfreak.typepad.com, always gets us going one way or another. There are the gloriously random snippets of conversations called "overheards," the wonderfully bad video bits of old TV shows, some excellent mp3 downloads of post-punk and roots bands, a hipster's happenings calendar, and other oddities submitted by a cast of genuine characters. Atomic Books main man Benn Ray, who runs the cyberjoint, has impeccable taste in the good and in the so-bad-it's-good, and is an astute, often-angry observer of politics to boot. Long may the Shank wave.

Blast of Radio Static Whether you miss Marc Steiner's serious daily look at Baltimore in all its problematic glory, or you hated his left-leaning guests and too-knowing banter, you'll have to admit that Steiner's forced exit from WYPR-FM's daily mid-day talk slot in February was made for his first love: theater. Steiner's refusal to go quietly, the picketers who marched outside WYPR's lower Charles Village offices, the defiling by vandals of the "Y" and "P" (representing the "Your Public" in "Your Public Radio") on its building—a modernist play about a media martyr couldn't have been better scripted. Like all good dramas, this one played out quickly: Ratings are up at the station and Steiner has landed a new gig at WEAA.

Countercultural Media Experience Ever wonder what the closing-time crowd at the Ottobar might look like in a fashion shoot? Or what moves the eccentrics behind this city's most obscure art journals and columns? The blokes and blokettes who churn outGutter Magazine, guttermagazine.com, a slam-glam fashion cyber-pub for the magically hip, think about these things all the time. With dozens of rough-edged, super-saturated photos each month and a drunk-at-midnight's focus and 'tude, Gutter works really hard to show us that it doesn't care what you think of it. And what could be more beautiful than that?

Columnist Coming up with ways to express the absurdity, vanity, and venality that lurk behind the curtains at City Hall isn't as easy as it looks. You need an all-ears network of sources, some news sense, and a sarcastic wit that owes as much to Hedda Hopper as it does to Mark Twain. Fortunately for us, there's The Sun's Laura Vozzella around to cheekily tell us about the circus of humanity at City Council meetings, or about the city's eccentric circuit court clerk, Frank Conaway, who haughtily refuses to call Sheila Dixon "mayor" because she chose to have Governor Martin O'Malley swear her in instead of him. As they say, you just can't make this stuff up.

Deejay Steve Ash—that's Stash to you—has been one of our favorites at 98 Rock (97.9 FM) for years, spinning a solid collection of classics and new stuff while keeping his banter remarkably intelligent. So, when the headbanger banged his own head during an accident at his home last year, we worried that we might have heard the last of him. But after two months of therapy to regain his speech and motor skills, Stash returned to his afternoon show in February. The results have been gratifying on so many levels: Stash sounds strong, and even more appreciative of the music and his audience. The feeling is very mutual.

Enlivener of the Dismal Science Jay Hancock, The Sun's shining business columnist, grants us clarity every Wednesday and Friday, and his blog keeps it coming in between. Want to learn about the latest wrangling between the state and Constellation Energy and what it will mean for your electric bill? Need to get a sarcastic laugh on the craziness of the economy or read a snarky column "from the future" on an insolvent America and its coming Triple-Z bond rating? Economists, those dismal scientists, talk like robots. Hancock is flesh and blood, and appreciates that you need to understand the economy, too.

Impersonation of the New York Post "BLUDGEONED!!!!" screamed the headline, after a Riderwood teen murdered his mother in May. "HOLY STASH!" followed the discovery a few days later of street drugs in a shrine outside St. Frances Academy. While Rupert Murdoch moves upscale (we hope) following his purchase of The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Examiner goes for the gut. It doesn't take a media analyst to figure out why: The tabloid wants to turn more heads toward paper boxes and at newsstands, and get those well-heeled residents to stop griping about its free delivery.

Magazine Rescue When David Dudley returned to Baltimore last year and accepted an offer to run Urbanite, many warned him that turning the earnest, progressive monthly into something lively and reader-friendly would be a near impossibility. The Cassandras were wrong. Dudley, a former Baltimore magazine editor, has already assembled a number of issues that microscopically examine the city's warts—crime and public schools among them—with depth, style, and much-improved writing. We like the product's pared down, manageable new shape, too.

Print Reporter "Juvenile justice" is a loaded term in this town, when one considers that thousands of kids start the day poor and hungry—there's no justice in that. For a reporter, the trick is to cover the epidemic of juvenile violence with an eye toward what's happening to the kids, and then turn their sagas into compelling narratives that deal with the harrowing complexity of so many young lives. Julie Bykowicz at The Sun pulls it all off with seeming effortlessness, most recently detailing (with reporter Melissa Harris) the death of a two-year-old girl who swallowed her young mom's dose of methadone.

Radio Show We love the freewheeling aspect of the The Signal, WYPR's weekly arts-centric chronicle (heard Fridays at noon and 7 p.m.). Producers Aaron Henkin and Lisa Morgan (aided by the distinctive throat of program director Andy Bienstock) aren't married to a set format. They'll run interviews with no interviewer, or head out on the road to assess the mood of The Free State, if they happen to feel like it. The result? A timely, stylish, often-quirky set of offerings each week—interviews with poetry slammers, mandolin orchestra members, and "fair-trade" enthusiasts—that never fail to enlighten and entertain.

Reason for Reporters to Hold on to Those Slippery Day Jobs We majored in English, so we're all for storytelling laced with such things as "authenticity" and "verisimilitude." We're also suckers for cameos by old stars who play themselves in bad TV shows. But those acting "performances" by Sun reporters on The Wire this past season may have ruined it all for us. It made us pine for the thespian professionalism of All the President's Men—or even Lou Grant.

Sports Announcer Although some many disagree, we happen to think that the heyday of Orioles broadcasts was during the 80's, when Jon Miller and Joe Angel would team up to bring you baseball on the radio. Angel's pipes, deep knowledge of the game, frequently hilarious asides, and exhaustive pre-game legwork returned to Baltimore in 2004 to enliven games that certainly needed it. Now heard on WHFS-FM (105.7), he and partner Fred Manfra have improved steadily as a team—and this season, it seems the other team (the one on the field) is finally catching up.

Sports Blog As longtime lovers of Roch Kubatko's "Roch Around the Clock," we're loath to ditch Kubatko and his clever, insider-y multiple daily entries on everything orange and black. But Kubatko's batting machine-like barrage of O's tidbits took a backseat in March once Kevin Van Valkenburg started downloading the poignant stories behind the sports in his "Life of Kings" blog. Incandescent tales of playing ball with kids in the Dominican Republic and a touching elegy of a fellow O's fan and friend are among the entries that elevate blogging to an art form.

Sports Gal Hired as a pretty face by the local Fox/Sinclair crowd in 2004, Amber Theoharis refused to play to type (although she is, indeed, quite fetching). Before long, she was (wo)manning the weekend sports desk and reporting award-winning sports features. These days, you can't flick a dial or pick up a paper without seeing or hearing her—a good thing, we think. Her from-the-sidelines work on Orioles' MASN broadcasts is stellar, and her radio show, "The 'A' List," on WHFS, manages to be both provocative and intelligent. Ditto for her "The Broad Side" column in PressBox. Maybe Amber is overexposed, but we can't seem to get enough of her.

Sports Guy How do we love Mark Viviano, WJZ-TV sports director? Let us count the ways. 1. He breaks news, the most famous example being the Cleveland Browns' move to Baltimore in 1995. 2. He affects no annoying "guys like us" jock swagger, instead delivering sports news clearly and professionally. 3. He's as good reporting from the sidelines as he is delivering no-frills accounts of the day's highlights, and 4. He keeps sports news in perspective, realizing, as the late and great Chris Thomas (formerly of Channel 11) once remarked, that a billion Chinese don't give a damn about American athletics.

Story The saga of Cindy McKay, the multi-state black widow and thief, made for classic narrative—or a Coen Brothers cinematic treatment. Starting with McKay's faked suicide at the Ocean City inlet, reporter Justin Fenton at The Sun unspooled several hundred miles of yarn on McKay in a three-part, front-page series in April. We eagerly awaited each segment's arrival to see how involved McKay's sons were in the insurance-yielding murder of at least one of her husbands, or just how low McKay would go to rip off the charities she worked for. Fenton's spare style let the facts of this bizarre, Ma Barker-like tale shine through. Do we smell a book deal?

TV Anchor Local television news desks have become retirement homes for our longtime favorites—not a bad thing, especially since it means that we get to continue enjoying the affability and straightforwardness of WMAR Channel 2's Mary Beth Marsden. The station may be in the ratings basement, but with Marsden's humor and good grace setting the tone for folks like Terry Owens and Jamie Costello, we often wonder why.

Weatherperson Why is it that WJZ's Bob Turk gets our psyche permanently set on mild and sunny? Most likely it's his lack of histrionics, his soothing aspect no matter what the weather. Bob will give us the full poop on inclemency and havoc, to be sure, but as "The Sunshine Kid" begins to head into the sunset after a legendary run in Baltimore, his laidback presence has become calming and avuncular, as if to say: "Bring the heavy weather on. We can handle it."

TV Reporter (who isn't Jayne Miller) There's no "I" in team, unless it's the I-Team. So, it's fitting that our closest-to-Jayne selection is a member of her WBAL hit squad: Barry Simms. In the past year, Simms exposed bad contractors, took on incompetent repair crews from Home Depot, and was hot on the trail of slimy "home rescue operators" who buy homes from people who are having a hard time affording them, then rent them back at exorbitant rates. He's done it all with a no-nonsense, low-key style. It's not for nothing that Simms won awards this spring from the Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists.





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