Best of Baltimore
Best of Baltimore 2023
Our annual celebration of the best that Charm City has to offer.
Edited by Jane Marion
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN TSUCALAS
This European-style, Lauraville community restaurant, inspired by the foods of the Abruzzo region of Italy, is everything you want in a cafe. The food, generously sized plates of pastas and paninis, is pretty-as-a-picture and made with care, and the ambiance—midcentury modern meets the Mediterranean—invites lingering. Depending on the day, go for lunch and then move onto amaro or a glass of vino or some dinner. If you come early, you can enjoy an expertly made cortado or cappuccino while reading a good book or chatting with husband-and-wife owners Paul and Sam Mincarelli, who are always on hand to tell you about seasonal specials or make small talk.
The Oregon Grille
Dining alfresco at this steakhouse standard, located in the heart of hunt country, has always been a pastoral pleasure, but after a recent renovation (here’s looking at you, Patrick Sutton), the historic property is more stunning than ever. Follow the footbridge at The Oregon Grille—now under the ownership of the Atlas Restaurant Group—to one of the newest and most picturesque patios around. From the massive stone fireplace and gorgeous bluestone flooring to the string lights, topiary plantings, and live music, it’s the scene-iest seat in an always-packed house. Also, eating en plein air makes the already delicious food (you had us at filet mignon with truffle butter) taste even better.
Sometimes we get tired of the same trendy design details that seem ubiquitous at every new spot—the small LED table lights, the cool gray walls, the electric fireplaces. Enter Ash Bar. Situated inside the hipster Ulysses hotel, the new Mt. Vernon spot oozes glamour. While sipping on Sidecars, we feel oh-so-stylish just sitting in the space with its plush purple velvet chairs (made by 138-year-old French furniture designer Maison Drucker), red banquettes embroidered with exotic animals, mood lighting, and high-gloss burled wood walls and ceilings. The whole place is meant to evoke an old dining car of a steam train or a luxury ocean liner. In other words, Ash is smoking hot.
Nearly everything about George Marsh’s barbecue joint is perfect. The brisket so flavorful that saucing it seems like a sin. The proper, ever-so-slight pull needed to get the heavenly pork off the bones of the dry-rubbed spareribs. The chef-driven specials that elevate typical barbecue joint fare. In late May we had shrimp and sausage boudin, a Cajun delicacy not often found in these parts. It was outstanding. The smell from the smoker in the parking lot out back lures us in every time we’re near, and we’ve yet to be disappointed. That’s right, Heritage has a parking lot. We told you the place is perfect.
Easy Like Sunday
Breakfast places are popping up around Baltimore faster than toasted bread. But one stands out—Easy Like Sunday in The Village of Cross Keys. Sean and Anna MacCuish (daughter of G&A Restaurant owners Andrew “Andy” and Alexia Farantos) partnered with Antonios Kokolis to open a charming space in the former Village Square Café in March. They’ve transformed the indoor dining area with eclectic chandeliers, driedflower bouquets, and greenery. The all-American menu, with nods to global ingredients, is full of temptations, with dishes like a wow-worthy brunch burger with cowboy bacon (cooked with maple syrup and sprinkled with red-pepper flakes), short-rib hash, and ricotta-stuffed French toast. And who doesn’t want a mimosa sampler?
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN TSUCALAS
Thames Street Oyster House
This town has a plethora of places to slurp oysters and enjoy elaborate displays of seafood on ice. But this Fells Point mainstay is a cut above the other raw bars, with its impressive array of oysters—at least 12 different varieties from the East and West Coasts, plus Canada—quahogs, Maine lobster claws, and massive shrimp. If you really want to impress, consider a deluxe “grandiose” shellfish tower, rife with fruits of the sea and an assortment of outstanding mignonettes and sauces. Here’s how you know it’s pro: They use freshly grated horseradish in their cocktail sauce. Sit among the A. Aubrey Bodine photographs and watch the boats floating on the Patapsco—or settle in for some Chesapeake oysters and maybe a local ale at the beautiful wooden bar.
There’s a reason why the hip Union Mill mainstay is always buzzing, no matter when you go. Of course, the coffee program—featuring blends from Washington, D.C.’s Small Planes roastery—is as reliable as ever, with exotic offerings like lavender lattes and Japanese iced coffee. But for more than a decade, Artifact has also been churning out some of the best breakfast and lunch fare in the game (while upholding its unwavering commitment to regional sourcing). If it’s been a while since you’ve visited, go for the Brunch Banh Mi, layered with eggs, bacon, herby mayo, and crisp radishes. Another winner: the savory Ham Jam biscuit, topped with cheddar, slow-cooked kale, and pepper jelly.
This family-friendly dive bar has all the things: oozy mac and cheese, addictive smashburgers, double-pepperoni pies, and a menu filled with well-appointed stoner junk food, including a pizza topped with pulverized Doritos. At this cozy, quirky bar on a Canton street corner, you can sit in the booth with your kids or sidle up to the bar with your drinking buddies—or do both. Opened by Baltimore-born, Top Chef alum Jesse Sandlin in 2022, The Dive is open late for a “hot dog party” of foot-long hot dogs, and has a pickle pizza that, if it’s not already your go-to comfort food, soon will be. Fried bologna sandwiches? Check. Frozen blue margaritas? Check. French onion disco fries? Double check.
The flagship of Baltimore’s public market system, Lexington Market just got a $45-million reboot, and it’s put that money where our mouths are. The storied market—founded in 1782, it’s the longest-running public market in the country—now fills a 60,000-square-foot, two-floor complex with over two dozen vendors, and an emphasis on Black- and women-owned businesses. Anchoring the market are legacy folks like Faidley’s Seafood, Super Fried Chicken, and Buffalo Bill’s, while newer stalls like Connie’s Chicken and Waffles, Trinacria, and Ovenbird invigorate the experience. The Baltimore Museum of Art has a space, as does a fourth-generation cobbler and Market Bakery, open at the market since 1972 and still making Berger cookies.
FOODIE FIELD TRIP
Old Westminster Winery
The wine alone is well worth the 45-minute drive to this family-operated farm in Carroll County, but these days, a visit to the gorgeous grounds of Old Westminster Winery goes well beyond just tastings and tours. Throughout its 10 years, Old Westminster has evolved into an all-out celebration of Maryland agriculture—complete with its own coffee, cocktail, pastry, and woodfired pizza programs. Before you go, reserve a patio table or spring for a private greenhouse to eat your way through the locally sourced snacks (the prosciutto and arugula pie, for example, features Migrash flour, Caputo Brothers mozzarella, and Chesapeake Farm to Table arugula) while cracking a canned wine or popping a pét-nat.
For home cooks, the experience of stepping into this beautifully curated market in the heart of Pigtown is pure wonderment. Not only does chef/owner Sylva Lin offer a coffee bar, sandwich menu, and a variety of house-baked goods, she also keeps the place packed to the gills with everything from local meat and produce (sourced from Moon Valley and Agriberry farms) to pantry items and treats near and far. (On a recent visit, we picked up cheesecake-flavored Kit Kats from Japan.) Whether you’re curating a meal or need a last-minute ingredient (tinned salmon, gochujang sauce), CA’s got the goods.
Last March, when a white car plunged off Pier Six into the Inner Harbor, Phillips Seafood sous chef Tom Walsh, who happened to be in the restaurant on his day off, dove into the Patapsco to save the stranger trapped in the fast-sinking car. Walsh helped break the glass to bring the passenger to safety (and was later treated at an area hospital for cuts to his hands). The humble hero turned down offers of publicity, though others felt differently about Walsh’s show of selflessness. “Give the sous chef the key to the city,” posted one person on Twitter. We couldn’t agree more.
Charly’s Sue Creek
Chef David Quiroz at Charly’s Sue Creek in Essex reels in diners with creative dishes like seafood nachos, deep-dish pizzas, and Korean-influenced burgers, but the must-have menu item is a palate-pleasing lobster roll. It’s a pricy but sumptuous treat ($33) to enjoy indoors at the waterfront restaurant or outside on the deck or courtyard. You won’t be disappointed with the pileup of buttery Maine lobster tucked into a toasted, split-top bun and paired with deliciously salted French fries. If you need extra butter, of course you do, there’s an accompanying dish of the melted elixir to add to your sandwich.
Rosalyn Vera’s Fells Point taqueria is a deceptively small, modest place—a counter and some chairs fronting a bustling kitchen inside and a few more chairs out on the sidewalk. But the restaurant turns out remarkable food worthy of a spot many times its size: from beautifully constructed tamales to punchy bowls of pozole served during weekend brunch to elaborate tortas to the myriad tacos, loading made-to-order tortillas built with fresh Masienda masa. Although every day is a good day for tacos, go on Fridays, when Vera and her family make tinga, a chipotle-spiked chicken stew, and birria, the beef stew from Jalisco. Get as many birria tacos as you can manage—and a dozen warm tortillas to take home.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JUSTIN TSUCALAS
A burger tastes best when its components work in concert. It also helps to use top-notch ground beef, which isn’t a problem for this Remington restaurant with an attached butcher shop. The cheeseburger at JBGB's—short for John Brown General & Butchery—shines because it achieves perfect harmony. Two four-ounce griddled patties are topped with house-made pickles, smothered in a Big Mac-type sauce, covered with shredded lettuce, and enhanced with mustard. It all fits between a high-quality bun that somehow contains this juicy, decadent creation without disintegrating. Served with a heaping of fresh-cut, perfectly crisp fries, it’s enough food for two to split. But we won’t be doing that—we want this baby all to ourselves.
Ever since Salt Tavern’s closing in 2018, we’ve eagerly waited for the Butchers Hill space to be brought back to life. In late 2022, the wait was finally over—and wow, was it worth it. With Marta, owner-chef Matthew Oetting puts a sophisticated spin on Italian standards and makes them new again. Think ravioli stuffed with duck and foie gras or a luxe lobster cacciatore. The renovated 1904 space is warm and inviting, with granny-chic wallpaper and an intimate bar area serving terrific craft cocktails, too. During the pandemic, when dining out felt like a distant dream, this is exactly the kind of place we fantasized about—an intimate neighborhood spot that’s both chic and convivial.
What makes this tiny, takeout-only Gardenville pizza joint special? Gil’s menu is as basic as it gets. Pizza and pizza only. The pies are all one size, which is just a tad too big for the box. Cheese is $10.25; toppings $1.75 each. Every pizza emerges from the oven like the one before it, and the tens of thousands before that—piping hot with perfectly melted cheese, sauce with just a hint of sweetness, and delightfully doughy crust. While you wait, check out the photo of the 1944 International League champion Baltimore Orioles. Gil’s opened in 1958 and has been doing things just about the same way ever since. What makes this tiny takeout-only pizza joint special? Everything.
The Inner Harbor’s Ramen Utsuke is the second ramen-ya from Osaka native Shigehiko Okiebisu and his family, who also own Kippo in Fells Point. Open since 2019, Utsuke turns out bowls of Hakatastyle tonkotsu ramen much like Kippo’s, but showcases a larger menu with more vegetarian bowls. So there’s shio ramen made with wafu dashi broth—a combination of bonito and kelp—and a creamy variation that includes soy milk. You’re here, though, for the black and red tonkotsu ramen, built around rich pork broth and topped with slices of pork chashu, as well as woodear mushrooms, scallions, bean sprouts, and a bright orange-yolked egg. The black is from black garlic oil; the red from spicy chile oil. And if you can possibly still be hungry, there are taiyaki ice-cream sandwiches for dessert.
Now more than ever, a good server can be hard to find. But at Charleston, an unerring waitstaff is as important as any other element of the experience. Here, the service—neither overly rushed nor so slow that you’re ready for a nap—never wavers. Dinner starts with a server who arrives with Swiss-timing efficiency to take your drink order. Then, after you’ve had time to settle in, you’re presented with the multi-course tasting menu to ponder. (Each dish is described in mouth-watering detail.) Once the courses start to come, the timing between them is perfection. On Charleston’s watch, you’ll want for nothing—from extra cornbread to new napkins, and even reading glasses (if you’ve forgotten yours at home). There’s a reason that this Harbor East fine-dining den earned a James Beard nomination for Outstanding Hospitality in 2023.
Located in a small, unpretentious Columbia shopping mall, this family-owned-and-operated Japanese restaurant has been offering excellent sushi since 1987. Despite the bells and whistles—raised tatami rooms with sandals lined up at the entrance, servers dressed in kimonos—the sushi bar is welcoming and unpretentious and serves a fine menu of toro, uni, sea bream, yellowtail, eel, and other standards, plus daily specials that can include monkfish liver and softshell crab. There are also elaborate, colorful rolls showcasing lobster, roe, tempura, oysters, and various sauces, if you want something more intricate than nigiri. We like the purist options, particularly the toro and sea bream.
Dok Khao Thai Eatery
Walking into this second location of Porntipa Pattanamekar’s Thai restaurant excites the senses. The Columbia dining room is lively and colorful, much like the food itself. An extensive drink selection that includes coffees, fruit teas, and mocktails is a good place to start. Can’t-miss dishes abound. Among the house specials, lychee duck curry, spicy tilapia in mango sauce, and red curry salmon all live up to the spicy symbol that accompanies their names on the menu. Green, yellow, and panang curries also are available, along with fine versions of fried rice, drunken noodles, and the owner’s special-recipe pad Thai. Its thin rice noodles, roasted pork, egg, bok choy, peanuts, bean sprouts, and spicy-sweet soy sauce create a symphony of flavors you won’t soon forget.
Kara Mae Harris
What started as a part-time hobby for her, paging through old recipes in the stacks of heritage cookbooks at the Enoch Pratt Library and then cooking the dishes at home, has become Kara Mae Harris’s mission, as she revives long-forgotten Maryland recipes. Through her blog, Old Line Plate, and a new cookbook, Festive Maryland Recipes, Harris dips into the past with dishes like deviled fish sticks, stuffed ham, and shad roe croquettes to celebrate our state and bring vintage recipes—and Maryland history—back to life. Along the way, she’s inspired chefs like Woodberry Tavern’s Spike Gjerde, who calls her work “a great resource. It’s a living, active part of what we do here,” says Gjerde. “One of the reasons our cuisine has not been celebrated as much as, say, Low Country or Creole and Cajun cooking is because we haven’t had folks like Kara doing the research. There’s a larger benefit to her work to chronicle, and by extension celebrate, the cooking of the Chesapeake region.”
Land of Kush
Opened a dozen years ago by husband-and-wife team Naijha Wright-Brown and Gregory Brown, Land of Kush is a cozy, art-filled space in Mt. Vernon that sports an eclectic plant-based menu that will reassure anyone worried about missing flavor along with dairy and meat. There are vegan iterations of barbecue ribs, chicken tenders, mac and cheese—and, this being Baltimore, crab cakes made with seitan—and a wealth of side dishes. The jollof rice is addictive, as is the garlic-spiked raw kale salad. The collard greens, smoked and jacked with peppers, is better than most that rely on ham for seasoning. There’s also brunch, with glutenfree pancakes, veggie sausage, and “chickUn” and waffles, which itself is worth the trip.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY SCOTT SUCHMAN
When this cog in celebrated chef Peter Chang’s culinary empire opened in 2020, it received critical acclaim from magazines near (Baltimore) and far (Esquire, who named it one of America’s best new restaurants). Despite those accolades, it closed earlier this year to recalibrate. When it reopened in February, the result was a more approachable but no less successful menu. The new version hypes Chang—his photo and rave reviews dot the exterior of the building and the back of the take-out menu—and his influence is found everywhere. While the outstanding signature Peking duck is thankfully still here, it’s now joined by recognizable dishes like Kung Pao chicken, fried rice, and lo mein. Once again, NiHao has earned its way back onto our pages.