Food & Drink
50 Best Restaurants
These spots are driven by a sense of passion and purpose that's evident from the moment we enter.
What makes a “Best Restaurant”?
We’re often challenged to answer that question, and the answer is always changing. Though the scene has slowed down somewhat in the past year, new spots continue to pop up in the city and surrounding counties. In 2020, it’s not enough anymore to serve great food, create a see-and-be-seen ambiance, or offer a buzzy bar menu. The restaurants on this list check those boxes, of course, but they also accomplish more.
Whether it’s the white tablecloth scene at the always enchanting Charleston in Harbor East or heartfelt Peruvian plates at Puerto 511 on Clay Street, these restaurants have a clear mission and particular point of view—they’re driven by a sense of passion and purpose that’s evident from the minute we enter. We can taste it in the brine of the Chesapeake Bay when slurping Huckleberry oysters at True Chesapeake Oyster Co. We can feel it as we watch the crew at Clavel drizzle crema over fried cod on blistered tortillas. We can sense it as we watch Azumi’s chefs cut shimmering slices of bluefin toro. We know it when we smell the smoke from La Cuchara’s master mixologists as they work their magic to make Old Fashioneds.
From the servers’ uniforms, to the paper the menus are printed on, to the presentation of the plates, the restaurants on these pages tell us a story that feels authentic and carries that narrative through with each and every element.
With all the choices out there, try tapping into what story is being told. Want a great al fresco spot? Go to Cosima along the rushing waters of the Jones Falls. Need an elevated experience inside a genteel dining room that always hits a home run? That’s Linwoods in Owings Mills. Want to wow your friends and family with your foodie prowess and show off little ol’ Charm City? Our cover model, Le Comptoir du Vin, named one of Bon Appétit’s and Esquire’s Best New Restaurants, is calling your name.
As the scene continues to thrive, there are great stories all around, and so many more just waiting to be told. We hope this feature inspires you to pick up your fork and listen. Maybe these meals will lead you to tell a few tales of your own.
The Place for Arepas
Canton | 2400 Boston St.
With Alma, warm proprietor Irena Stein has deftly created a restaurant that can be whatever you need it to be, from street-food vendor to welcoming cocktail bar to Latin-inflected fusion foodie destination. We worried when chef Enrique Limardo left for Seven Reasons in D.C., but thankfully new chef Karem Barragan is making her own mark. We crave the simple Venezuelan staple of arepas—corn pockets stuffed with an array of fillings from shrimp to lamb and also vegetarian options. At the same time, we are astonished by the sophistication in dishes like sumac-rubbed duck with spicy blueberry sauce and crispy couscous. We’ve yet to have a bad meal here and always look forward to our next visit.
The seemingly simple octopus and cracker, a crispy wafer that arrives warm supporting the succulent seafood dressed in roasted pepper aioli, chorizo oil, and garlic emulsion, is a masterpiece of balance.
The Place for Modern Interpretations of Goa Fish and Bengan Bhartha
Fulton | 7421 Maple Lawn Blvd.
It’s easy to be drawn in by the beautiful, glowing décor of the dining rooms at this Howard County Indian cuisine oasis, but when you leave, you’ll mostly remember the impeccable service and food. Ananda does standards well, like bengan bhartha—eggplant roasted with coriander, onions, and tomatoes—but it excels with dishes like its impossibly tender lamb shank, served over vegetable biryani. Start with an order of palak chaat, crispy spinach with creamy yogurt and pomegranate and tamarind chutney. It’s a pleasing combination of salty, sweet, and tangy flavors.
The four pieces of gobinda, a roasted cauliflower appetizer seasoned with lime, chili, tamarind, and toasted sesame, are almost a tease. We could eat 40.
The Place for Oodles of Noodles
HARBOR EAST | 1012 Fleet St.
With his Phillies baseball cap, Under Armour jacket, and white chef’s coat rolled under his arm, Julian Marucci looks more like a kid waiting at the bus stop on Fleet Street than one of Baltimore’s most gifted chefs standing outside his restaurant. It’s 10:30 on a Thursday morning in early fall, and Marucci is about to begin his 12-plus-hour shift at Tagliata in Harbor East. Although most diners don’t think about what happens in a restaurant prior to opening, Marucci says that morning is the most important part of the day. “If we make mistakes or are not paying attention to details, like we didn’t get a calamari delivery, or the pasta maker called out sick, it can put a huge damper on the day,” he says.
With its dining room full of mover-and-shaker patrons, the stakes at this Italian steakhouse run high. At 37, Marucci is both executive chef and partner, spending much of his days overseeing his staff of 40 and running among the kitchens at “Tag,” Italian Disco, and The Elk Room—all owned by Atlas Restaurant Group.
On this day, he’s playing with vinegars, trying to create his own concord grape-saba vinegar mix that will, if all goes well, offer the sweetness of the fruit without the acid. He’s also composing a new fall menu, jotting down words in his notebook: “Chestnuts, turnips, pumpkin, pear, rabbit, butternut squash.”
Thanks to Marucci’s artistry, Tagliata is known for its toothsome pasta dishes —and watching him make pasta is like watching a sorcerer at work. With nothing more than semolina flour and water, the chef performs parlor tricks as he makes, massages, rolls, and cuts the dough by hand. On this day, with the sweep of his fingers, he turns out a long, thin twisted piece of trofie from Italy’s Liguria region. “Making pasta is creative and intuitive,” he says. “I can add mushrooms or spinach or chestnuts to the flour.”
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, Marucci debated between being a cook or a car mechanic. “I can still remember my mom saying, ‘You should be a chef, you don’t like getting your hands dirty,’” he recalls with a laugh.
After various kitchen jobs, he started as a garde manger and sous chef at Charleston, also in Harbor East, and then spent nine years as executive chef at Cinghiale before joining the team at “Tag.” When Marucci came on board, he says, “I had to rethink my style of cooking. I knew that if we were doing the classics like chicken Parm, it had to be the best chicken Parm.” So he decided to use air-chilled chicken, marinated in buttermilk, herbs, and sweet Calabrian chili, with breadcrumbs, tomato sauce, and mozzarella, all house-made.
As the day wears on, after various staffers have cleaned and cut artichokes for the fried chicken and the merits of paw-paw gelato have been discussed, Marucci stands at the pass waiting for guests to arrive. Tonight, some 200 diners will descend on the Tuscan-inspired space.
Hours later, caffeinated by gulps of iced tea, Marucci moves into overdrive. Tickets are expedited and then spiked on the spindle as the chef assembles a dish of squid ink campanelle with sea urchin cream sauce, snips microgreens for a swordfish dish, and finishes a tenderloin with a splash of olive oil. The lights in the dining room dim, the golden hour of dinner service is in full swing, and all the hard prep of the day has, at last, come together. Marucci pauses to reflect. When asked what inspires him to repeat the whole process by morning, the chef smiles broadly and says, “I’ve got this beautiful playground. What more could I want?”—Jane Marion
The Place to Belly Up to the (Sushi) Bar
Harbor East | 725 Aliceanna St.
With twice-a-week shipments from Tokyo’s famed Toyosu fish market and a nightly DJ mixing house music, this is where we go for some of the best, albeit priciest, raw fish in the city—and a good time. Whether it’s a simple spicy yellowtail roll for lunch or the massive Royal Platter (a sprawling selection of sushi, sashimi, and specialty rolls) for a party, it’s all a hit here. One-of-a-kind offerings are finished with whimsical toppings such as sweet gourd, pickled eggplant, and citrus vinaigrette, but no-nonsense items like pristine pieces of amberjack, bigeye tuna, and fluke also abound.
The mix of fancy mushrooms with ponzu butter and shisho is a great primer for the palate.
The Place for Steak If You’re Not into Steakhouses
Harbor East | 1425 Aliceanna St.
Foreman Wolf’s steak-centric spot continues to dish up a delightful, Argentine-infused experience, right down to the live trio that sometimes features a bandoneon, the traditional instrument of tango. The soaring dining area is flanked by the kitchen and a stately bar, while the mezzanine features cozier tables and an intimate mini bar with seating for about a dozen. Cocktails are crafty, the wine list slants South American, and the food is always delicious. We love the shrimp ceviche with its electric zing of fresh lime juice and chili spice. And don’t miss the seared octopus for its succulent texture and lively dressing. But this is a steak restaurant after all, and a 24-ounce, bone-in rib steak is a plump thing of beauty, glistening with house-made chimichurri and cooked exactly to order.
Don’t skip dessert, otherwise you’ll miss the apple-cinnamon empanada.
The Place for a (Dining) Room with a View
Harbor East | 400 International Dr.
At Bygone, no attention to detail is spared. The place drips in gold, feathers, and flowers. The backlit bar is stocked with rare elixirs, while the dining room—all velvet and floor-to-ceiling glass—sparkles and soars. With your head in the clouds (almost literally, from the 29th floor of the Four Seasons), the whole experience can feel a bit dizzying, but that only adds to the fun. Picture this: On one visit, a dollop of lobster salad on tomato focaccia amuse bouche wows and complimentary bubbly arrives at the table, followed by a plate of Dover sole artfully deboned tableside then smothered in smoked mussels and succulent prawns. A paper doily (remember those?) even gets placed under the ice-cream sundae, and chocolate truffles arrive with every bill. All these little touches add up to something big.
Not all food has to be cooked to be deeply delicious. Case in point: The wagyu carpaccio.
Dining Tip / Go on a Tuesday
The third day of the week is when fresh products such as seafood and produce often arrive.
The Place Where Food Equals Art
Harbor East | 1000 Lancaster St.
The face of Harbor East has certainly changed in the 23 years since perennially James Beard Award-nominated chef Cindy Wolf and her business partner, Tony Foreman, opened this Harbor East jewel. Thankfully, Charleston stands the test of time. Tables are set with bouquets of red roses, French porcelain, and glistening glassware. Service is utterly immaculate. Presentation is cinematic. Dishes like a luxe lobster curry soup, a tangy artichoke and saffron risotto with arugula oil, and pan-roasted sea scallops atop tiny hills of saffron potato purée are made with purpose and precision. The wine list, too, is full of exceptional finds. There’s a reverence in the dining room that borders on religion here, and for good reason—this is fine dining at its finest.
While the prix-fixe menu rotates, thankfully Wolf’s irresistible shrimp and grits is a constant.
The Place for Cassoulet, Pâté, and Other Francophile Forms of Fabulousness
Downtown | 206 E. Redwood St.
It was love at first whiff from the moment we walked into Steve Monnier’s charming ode to the cuisine of his homeland, France. Just before Thanksgiving, the scent of smoking turkey legs wafted from the open kitchen into the well-appointed dining room. They weren’t on the menu that night, but everything we ordered was sublime. Escargot maintained their earthy flavor, while garlic and herb butter added richness. Each individual element shined in the cassoulet Toulousain, a bowl of smoked sausage, pork belly, duck leg, and pork shank over a bed of tarbais beans. Coupled with outstanding service and a lovely atmosphere, Monnier has done his country proud.
The fish and shiitake mushrooms in the maquereau grillé are wonderful, but the mackerel bone broth takes the dish to another level.
The Place for Oenophiles
Harbor East | 822 Lancaster St.
Half-Price Wine Night—why do so many people do it wrong? Know that you’re not coming out ahead by ordering that $30 bottle. Not when you can indulge in Tony Foreman’s stunning collection of Italy’s best producers for half-off every Tuesday at Cinghiale’s wine bar. House-made pastas like potato gnocchi with black truffles or anolini stuffed with duck and foie gras draw us in, while mains like grilled duck breast and roasted squab knock us out. Peruse the charcuterie station before you’re seated at your table. You’ll find an abundance of imported meats, cheeses, and other flourishes that will be hard to resist.
Don’t believe in ordering chicken in a restaurant? You’ll change your mind after one bite of the chicken saltimbocca, a juicy breast wrapped in prosciutto on a bed of creamy polenta with Fresno chili.
The Place That Makes You Forget Every Other Margarita You’ve Ever Known
Remington | 225 W. 23rd. St.
Every year we debate. Does it feel fair to call Lane Harlan and Carlos Raba's small but mighty taqueria in revitalized Remington a Best Restaurant? And every Friday (or so it seems), as we make our end-of-week pilgrimage and take a spot in that never-ending queue for the best ceviches and tacos this side of Sinaloa (plus a bar program that earned a James Beard nom), we come to the same conclusion: Sí, sí, sí. As one fan summed up on TripAdvisor, “If Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera went on date night, they would probably go to Clavel.”
If you’re the only person in town who has never heard of queso fundido (melted chihuahua cheese with crumbled chorizo served with house-made corn chips), this, plus the aforementioned margarita, is your order. It’s a Baltimore rite of passage.
Inspiring Baltimore to see more, do more, and be more.
The Place to Pretend You’re in Sicily
Woodberry | Mill No. 1, 3000 Falls Rd.
Since opening in a historic mill building four years ago, this charmer—helmed by veteran chef Donna Crivello, who still oversees culinary operations but recently appointed new executive chef Jonathan Hicks—has been a bit off the radar, and maybe that’s because it can be hard to find as you take a harrowing hairpin turn down a cobblestone road and make your way toward the banks of the Jones Falls. But once you arrive, you’ll be richly rewarded with the pleasing platters of Sicilian-style seafood, delicious house-made pastas, and a stunning space, including an outdoor patio that’s one of the prettiest perches in all of Baltimore.
The polpette appetizer. The menu description says it all: “Mamma’s meatballs with ricotta.”
The Place to Feel Fancy in Fells
Fells Point | 814 S Broadway
Fells Point has long been known as a great place go for Buds and bar snacks, but DDG chef-owner Ashish Alfred, voted chef of the year by the Maryland Restaurant Association in 2019, kicks things up a notch (or two) with this modern European bistro. As you might guess, the menu leans heavily toward duck-centric and foie gras dishes, as well as other elevated entrees. Here, the kitchen turns out visually arresting plates of pasta twirled with garlicky shrimp and sprinkled with edible flowers, a meltingly tender and anything-but-ordinary honey-roasted duck with a painted swoosh of beet purée, and French onion soup made with decadent duck broth. Make no mistake, this is foodie fare—and anything but child’s play, though the name suggests otherwise.
The roasted Japanese eggplant drizzled with lemon yogurt tastes as good as it looks.
The Place Where Pumpkins Are Not Just For Halloween
Mount Vernon | 806 N. Charles St.
Pat Karzai greets two of the evening’s first customers like family. “Hello, nice to see you!” exclaims the co-owner of Baltimore’s iconic The Helmand as she embraces Ann Sharp, a longtime regular. Karzai usually works in the back of the house, but on this November Thursday, she’s out front while her husband, co-owner Qayum, nurses a cold at home.
Hospitality is ingrained in Afghan culture, says Pat, a Pittsburgh native who married the Afghanistan native in 1973. “It’s something that my husband has always tried to instill in anyone who works here. These are our guests, and they should be treated that way.”
Standing to her right, longtime manager Assad Akbari extends his hand to Ann’s husband, Bob, whose brother owns the Howard County farm where The Helmand sources many of its vegetables, including the pumpkins for its beloved kaddo borwani appetizer. The Sharps’ visit is impromptu, but there are 52 reservations tonight. In the kitchen, chef Jan Boldak watches over spinach, mushrooms, and lamb, which simmer in large pots on a range. On a nearby counter sits a tray of half-cooked raviolis stuffed with leeks to be finished to order. These dishes, and many others, are heirloom recipes brought over from Qayum Karzai’s beloved home country.
The first ticket prints around 5:45—a kabob with grilled beef that has been marinating for about 24 hours. The skewer, also stuffed with thick pieces of peppers, tomatoes, and onion, is accompanied by basmati rice, which the restaurant can go through 50 pounds of a night.
Everything is served with their just-baked naan, prepared in seven to eight minutes in the brick oven behind the bar by a dedicated baker. Butter is brought with it to the table, if requested, one of only two concessions the traditional Afghan restaurant makes to the American palate. (Chocolate cake is the other.)
The tight kitchen has changed little since the restaurant opened 30 years ago, just like the dollop of sugar-baked pumpkin topped with tangy aged yogurt sauce. “The pumpkin we carve at my house with my son and daughter is different,” Akbari says. “The pumpkin we choose is called a sugar pumpkin.” Smaller, sweeter, and less fibrous than the ones typically used to make jack-o’-lanterns, these are cut into four-inch pieces, pan fried, sprinkled with sugar, then baked. The garlicky yogurt sauce is aged three or four days to make it thicker. But even after all these years, this dish, like this place, remains a star—some 60 helpings are served each night. “People order it during Thanksgiving and take it out of the state,” Akbari says.
As the evening progresses, the simple but elegant white tablecloth-ed tables in the dining rooms fill, but regardless of how many reservations are taken, no one is ever turned away. On weekends, The Helmand closes at 11, but Akbari has been known to field last-minute calls from hungry customers and have food waiting for them at 11:05. “This is Afghan hospitality,” Karzai says. “You can’t come into our home and not eat.”—Mike Unger
The Place to Embrace Your Inner Salty Dog
Hampden | 3601 Chestnut Ave.
With its nostalgic Chesapeake offerings (ever pine for coddies?), farm-fresh seasonal salads, and first-rate craft cocktails, Dylan’s is a pearl of a place, and we’ve fallen under its spell for simple ingredients with minimal manipulation. Get your meal going with an order of bicoastal bivalves, a bowl of Garden & Gun-approved oyster stew, and a classic craft cocktail like the Old Greg with bourbon, chamomile, and cardamom. The tasty trout sautéed in brown butter is our standing order.
It may sound like sacrilege to order a cheeseburger from an oyster operation, but the green chili cheeseburger, slathered with special sauce on a squishy bun, is an exception. Go Wednesdays for burger night to save yourself a few bucks.
The Place to Discover the Joys of Harissa
Bolton Hill | 305 McMechen St.
“The bread pudding with cherries is, well, the cherry on top.”
This polished-but-approachable newcomer has gained a following for its outstanding service and chef Andrew Thomas’ ability to master multiple styles of cooking. Start with the Moorish eggplant or South-inspired crab deviled eggs and move on to a small plate of fantastic charred octopus. Harissa, a North African hot chili pepper paste, is used in all, providing each with a subtle kick. Entrees like fig-glazed salmon make the meal even better, while bread pudding with cherries is, well, the cherry on top.
If there’s a better biscuit in the city, impossibly fluffy and accompanied by rich pimento cheese, we’ve yet to find it.
The Place Where New American Actually Feels New
Port Covington | 13 Rye St.
As the sun sets over the southern side of the Patapsco, Rye Street Tavern’s chef de cuisine-partner Brian Plante readies for dinner service inside the stone barn-style structure meant to invoke the look and feel of a Maryland horse-country farm. The restaurant’s dining room is a visual triumph with wood leather, suede, and steel details. The kitchen, with its wall of windows for the pastry team and state-of-the-art equipment like the wood-fired grill where Plante stands, is similarly well-appointed.
On this night, he talks to his sous chef about the taste and texture of the night’s she-crab soup, refines details for a Thanksgiving pumpkin roll with his pastry chef, and braces himself for the inevitable dinner rush that begins to swell around 6 p.m.
“In New York, restaurants get busy around 8:30,” Plante says with a laugh.
It’s a small distinction, but an important one for the Massachusetts-born chef who got his culinary education in Manhattan—first as a student at the esteemed French Culinary Institute, then at such Big Apple fine-dining dens as the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges, Mario Batali’s Babbo, and Joe’s Pub, where he worked with Michelin-starred, James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini of the NoHo Hospitality Group (which also owns Rye Street and Rec Pier Chop House).
Plante is well aware that Baltimore can be wary of transplants, and, above all, roots for its own. “We don’t want to be the New York guys in the Mid-Atlantic,” he says. “We want to be showcasing the culture of the area, developing really close bonds with farmers and fishmongers.”
Like its now-developing Port Covington neighborhood—once considered an industrial no-man’s-land—the three-year-old Rye Street took some time to hit its stride. “We learned that we can’t just put whatever we want on the menu,” says Plante. “We needed a narrative.”
With locally sourced meat, seafood, and produce, daily crab offerings, and whiskey-fermented peppers and vinegars, the menu speaks that story more clearly now—Chesapeake cuisine comfort food that also points toward Maryland’s past. “AC [Andrew Carmellini] got me a nice book called Eat, Drink, and Be Merry in Maryland that’s from 1932,” says Plante. “One of the dishes it inspired is a new clam dish that has Colonial Maryland sausage in it.”
To further his mission, Plante has amped up items like an Appalachian-inspired pork and beans with red-eye gravy, while also offering a nod to his native New England with dishes such as a seafood bake utilizing Old Salt clams from Virginia.
While Plante’s 12-hour days usually entail butchering, budgeting, and putting a final set of eyes on dishes before they’re delivered during dinner service, when it’s quieter—as it is on this Thursday night in late November—he works the line. While many rising chefs tend to delegate to their staff, this is Plante’s preferred place. “One of my favorite things to do is to cook or jump on a station,” he says. “I tend to be a lot happier when I do that—first and foremost, I’m a cook.”
Despite the hum of conversation coming from the dining room and the hubbub of staffers tending to their stations just as service starts to pique, tickets pile up, and the rhythm of the kitchen quickens, he calls this his “peaceful time.” “If you don’t like this part, you’ve picked the wrong industry,” he says. “I’ve worked all day and prepped. The outside world doesn’t matter now—it’s all about the cooking.”
Indeed, as Plante loads Maryland white oak under the grill and slicks up the skin side of a piece of red drum that will later get paired with shrimp and grits, beads of sweat form across his forehead. Still, he remains calm and centered. “Everyone always told me that I should be a chef,” he says. “I’ve always gravitated toward the kitchen, and I ate oysters on the half shell when I was a year old. I've always loved being in the kitchen, but I don’t think that most people understand how much work it is. They don’t realize how many decades it takes to get there.”
Clearly, as Plante swirls his house-made steak sauce across a plate and positions luscious slices of flank steak on top, he has arrived. —Jane Marion
The Place to Step Outside Your Comfort Zone
Annapolis | 17 Annapolis St.
From the outside, on its quiet leafy street in West Annapolis, the craftsman cottage of Flamant is unassuming—perhaps another fish-and-chips pub, like most other state capital eateries. But inside, Belgian chef Frederik de Pue is crafting some of the most adventurous cuisine in the state. Be bold and order the foie gras lollipops, escargot donuts, or black garlic octopus tart, if on offer. They’re all divine, rooted in the comfort of European technique with a touch of whimsy.
The steak tartare with caper aioli is far from ordinary.
The Place That Kickstarted Hampden’s Culinary Renaissance
Hampden | 1017 W. 36th St.
It’s a frigid Wednesday night, yet every table at The Food Market is occupied. Since opening in 2012, the elevated comfort-food restaurant has delighted diners with its top-notch cocktails and playful approach to the likes of Amish pretzels with beer-cheese fondue. Remarkably, it shows no signs of slowing down. Start with a Mary Jane, a spicy blend of tequila, ancho chile liqueur, avocado, lime, and agave nectar. Know that the menu, divided into littles, smalls, and bigs, is larger than many similarly hip restaurants, so misfires do happen on occasion. But successes, like the luscious roasted beef short rib, are far more common.
Two boneless breasts of fried chicken are crunchy, moist, and juicy with a tangy hint of pickle brine.
The Place to Go Whole Hog
Hampden | 3520 Chestnut Ave.
While many restaurants have hopped on the farm-to-table bandwagon, chef Chris Amendola takes it one step further. He’s been foraging the forest floor for years. And finally, after stints in other lauded, locavore kitchens (most impressively, Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in the Hudson River Valley), he has a place of his own to experiment. The aptly named Foraged boasts an adventurous menu, featuring items like a house pâté and an entire “Pig Parts & Pickles” list that included our best (and bravest) bite, a salty-sweet pork snout. In season, you’ll find always-approachable dishes such as fried Chesapeake oysters with a spicy remoulade and a juicy seared pork belly over savory sautéed pear and cabbage.
Order anything featuring funghi, like the hearty mushroom stew with poached egg and ricotta, as Amendola knows his morels from his chanterelles.
The Place That Put Chesapeake Cuisine on the Map
Charles Village | 10 Art Museum Dr.
Though it underwent a slight name and menu refresh last fall, Gertrude’s, inside the Baltimore Museum of Art, is as devoted to the Chesapeake as it’s ever been. New odes to the watershed include crispy “catties” that mix potatoes with Blue Channel catfish (a riff on Baltimore coddies), and a crab cake du jour meant as a foil to chef-owner John Shields’ classic broiled beauties made from his grandmother Gertie’s recipe. (On a recent visit, the cake of the day was a spiced-up version made with sweet corn.)
Despite the seafood-centric menu, the brined pork chop with cornbread stuffing is a sure-fire star.
Dining Tip / If something isn’t to your liking, don’t be afraid to return it
Trust your palate. Whether the steak is overcooked, the wine has started to turn, or a dish just falls flat, the kitchen needs to know now. You work too hard not to get proper mileage out of those dining dollars, and good chefs want the feedback—the good and the bad.
The Place to Embark on a Flavor Journey
Brewers Hill | 3650 Toone St.
Maryland restaurant veterans Nancy Hart Trice and Jerry Trice continue to offer up a globetrotting menu with something for everyone at Gunther & Co. Seafood lovers will enjoy their raw bar, succulent seared scallops over rice noodles, or tuna poke bowl. Carnivores will appreciate the tea-smoked duck breast and grilled hanger steak with piquant chimichurri. Those with more basic ’buds can tuck into mac and cheese, a burger, or a chicken sandwich accompanied by a pile of fries or salad. Everyone will be tempted by attractive cocktails and an eclectic wine list, too.
It’s only slight hyperbole to call the Thai seafood hot pot, rife with shellfish and swimming in phanang curry broth, a dish to die for.
The Place for Pizza
South Baltimore | 1843 Light St.
As old-school corner hangouts close across the city, a respite can still be found in South Baltimore. Here, Hersh’s brims with both locals and county dwellers: couples sipping craft cocktails at the bar, groups of girlfriends sharing a laugh, parents and kids tucking into a smattering of wood-fired pizzas, pastas, and small plates. In an age of fancy foodie experiences, sibling-owners Josh and Stephanie Hershkovitz guarantee a good, simple family meal with their Neapolitan pies and elevated entrees like crispy lamb with borlotti beans, salsa verde, and whipped feta. On Wednesday nights, all wine bottles are half off.
Kale and pistachio pie with house-made sausage is a study in taste and texture.
The Place to Order the Entire Menu
Station North | 1729 Maryland Ave.
On a Tuesday evening in late September, summer lingers in the still-sticky air as a half-dozen people hang around outside on Maryland Avenue to get into Le Comptoir du Vin. By the time owner Rosemary Liss unlocks the front door, the crowd has easily doubled. “Sorry,” she says, jumbling her keys. “We’re still getting used to this.”
Liss is referring to the sudden popularity of the eclectic Station North bistro that she opened with her partner, Will Mester, since it was named one of Bon Appétit’s 10 best new restaurants in America the week prior. After the magazine hit stands, business tripled, and the tiny staff (originally of four) had to find a method amidst all the madness.
“It’s definitely been a learning curve, but very exciting,” says Liss a few months later, sitting in the front window amidst stacked chairs, the typically bustling dining room dim and quiet on their Monday off. “It now feels like a Saturday almost every night.”
Any day of the week, the buzz is justified. In an age of sprawling industrial restaurant spaces with massive menus and waitstaff in matching plaid, Le Comptoir is a breath of fresh air. It is intimate, warm, and unassuming, until you take that first bite of celery salad and realize that every detail—from the hand-scribbled menus to the mounted marlin and framed picture of actress Goldie Hawn—is imbued with intention.
Before opening in November 2018, Mester worked in many lauded kitchens, including the local likes of Woodberry Kitchen, Parts & Labor (“Remember the raw cheeseburger?” says Liss. “That was all Will.”), and Bottega, whose space is now occupied by Le Comptoir. The couple met at the latter after Liss returned from an internship at the Nordic Food Lab in Copenhagen, and before long, inspired by a bistro of the same name in Lyon, France, as well as a newfound appreciation for natural wine, they started to dream about opening something of their own.
“We wanted to create a space that didn’t exist,” says Liss—something small, convivial, unfussy. “And just have it be good,” adds Mester.
Today, that sense of both ease and determination is on full display in his open galley kitchen, which he shares with sous chef, baker, and fellow Woodberry alum Kelsey Martin, whose sourdough is reason alone to visit. The meticulous menu shifts with the chef’s whims, but its handful of staples and specials always work to elevate the scratch-made simplicity and humble decadence of European eating. One bite, and the flavorful French lentils, made with curry, labneh, and a heap of fresh parsley and mint, will become the comfort food you forever crave, while more adventurous offerings, like the buttery steak tartare or pig head terrine, are a testament to Mester’s mastery of technique. And then there’s the natural wine list, which Liss has artfully curated.
“Some people come into the space and are a little wary about the fact that everything’s on a chalkboard or they don’t know every ingredient,” she says. “But as soon as the food comes out, you start to see them relax and enjoy themselves, and, by the end of the meal, it all makes sense.”
As more epicures flock from near and far for that sort of transformative experience—weeks after the Bon Appétit nod, they were also named a best new restaurant by Esquire magazine—they plan to stay true to their original intentions. “There’s this really beautiful balance we’re always working on,” says Liss. “We just want to get better and craft a diamond of a restaurant,” adds Mester.
We’ll say it here: They already have.—Lydia Woolever
The Place that Brings Buenos Aires to Baltimore
Butchers Hill | 32 N. Chester St.
When we asked our server for more addictive chimichurri for our bread, he declared, “I like the way you roll.” We could say the same thing about owner Sebastian Cardona’s outstanding new Argentine restaurant near Patterson Park. Everything from the service to the steak strikes the right chord. We thought the squid ink pasta with roasted tomatoes and octopus in a white wine reduction couldn’t be beat until the 16-ounce ribeye arrived. It was perfectly red in the middle and green on the top—yes, that chimichurri pairs well with everything on the menu.
The Provoleta is baked provolone cheese with a house sauce that’s essentially a tasty little pizza minus the crust.
The Place That Taught Us How to Pronounce Pintxos
Woodberry | 3600 Clipper Mill Rd.
Lucky for us that the celebrated Basque Country—with its multitude of Michelin-starred restaurants—was a source of inspiration for chef Ben Lefenfeld when he, along with his wife, Amy, and brother, Jake, opened his first restaurant. An order of pan con tomate with Spanish olives soaking in lemon, garlic, and rosemary, the wood-fired double-roasted chicken breast with pumpkin, and a shrimp fricassee with rockfish broth and saffron are a fitting homage to the region. The banquettes are stylish, but our favorite M.O. is to sit on a stool at the marble bar, fill up on half-priced starters and pintxos (bite-sized appetizers), and down a cut-rate cocktail at one of the best happy hours in town.
The patatas bravas served with a spicy tomato sauce works magic on the humble potato.
Dining Tip / Preview the menu before making the reservation
Yes, going on a blind date can add to the adventure of it all, but do your homework when dining out. Reading the menu online can help you know if it’s a place you really want to eat.
The Place to Revisit in a Neighborhood You’ve Been to a Thousand Times
Little Italy | 1012 Eastern Ave.
Let’s face it: There’s not much shiny and new in Little Italy. But among the time-tested restaurants (many of which we still love), La Scala sets itself apart by continually looking forward. You probably remember its indoor bocce court, classic pasta dishes (the gnocchi is excellent), and beloved grilled Caesar salad, but did you know about its happy hour “Mexitalian” menu? Try the Mexican lasagna—made with chorizo—which emerges from the kitchen piping hot and perfectly gooey.
Saltimbocca alla Romana is tender veal sautéed with mozzarella, prosciutto, sage, and cognac. Enough said.
The Place Where a Good Steak Never Goes Out of Style
Hunt Valley | 1201 Shawan Rd., Hunt Valley
For 23 years now, the Oregon Grille has offered traditional fine dining in a cozily gentrified horse-country setting. You’ll find classic dishes like shrimp and grits, featuring a zesty tasso ham-tomato gravy and garnished with green onion, as well as (slightly) more modern touches like roasted beet salad, a jewel-toned affair highlighting local goat cheese and balanced by a yuzu miso vinaigrette and red-veined sorrel. And, of course, there are steaks: OG prides itself on its cooked-to-order prime cuts, and that’s where the menu excels. Eating here is a bit of a throwback, but that’s the point.
“Eating here is a bit of a throwback, but that’s the point.”
The Key lime pie may be the best in Baltimore.
The Place Where the Amalfi Coast Comes to Charm City
Locust Point | 900 E. Fort Ave.
With its oversized lemons, sea-meets-sky tableau, and pristine plates of fresh-caught seafood, there’s nothing quite like the allure of the Amalfi Coast. But can food this region-specific also translate in Locust Point? Remarkably, this new spot captures some of that old Italian magic with its ocean-centric plates, including a delectable dish of grilled heads-on shrimp, a lemony whole bronzino broiled just so, and a saffron-kissed seafood stew—an easy dish to overcook with so many individual elements (clams, calamari, shrimp, scallops, fish), but not here. And while seafood dishes shine, house-made pastas are also menu stars.
The pappardelle zafferano, chock full of crab, shrimp, and scallops, is a dream in saffron cream.
The Place Where We’ve Never (Ever) Had a Bad Bite
Owings Mills | 25 Crossroads Dr., Owings Mills
What makes a classic? It’s a place that never disappoints. Day in, day out, after 30-plus years, an excellent meal at Linwoods is always a given. Here, even something as basic as a piece of grilled fish glossed with olive oil really sings. The open kitchen thrums with energy and teamwork, which helps explain the success—owner Linwood Dame oversees his crew with master-of-the-house efficiency, while his wife, Ellen, tends to the smallest details, even bringing her own beautiful bouquet from home to sit on the hostess stand.
The litmus test for any Maryland restaurant is a broiled crab cake—seemingly simple, but easy to get wrong. This incarnation doesn’t get in the way of the sweetness of Maryland meat, and the creamy corn pudding accompaniment offers the perfect pairing.
The Place for Your Last Supper
Mount Vernon | 205 E. Biddle St.
Yes, the name brings to mind someone saintly, which helps explain why there’s something truly divine about eating in this gem of a restaurant. That’s likely because chef Mark Levy gives reverence to every impeccably sourced ingredient. On one visit, that might mean an unctuous venison tenderloin with sautéed foie gras, or a decadent seafood platter, spilling over with poached shrimp, ceviche, and raw oysters. A night here makes us feel like we’re sitting in the lap of luxury, which we are, since the restaurant is set inside a Gilded Age mansion, now the posh Ivy Hotel. And always, there are fine touches like a velvety lobster bisque amuse bouche and indulgent upgrades like the ability to add white truffles or foie gras to any plate.
Like most dishes these days, the Maryland crab and Maine lobster salad with Indian curry, preserved corn, and onion bhaji is seasonal, but if it’s there, order enough for everyone at the table.
The Place to Eat Your Vegetables
Station North | 1709 N. Charles St.
One of the newest residents of a neighborhood that’s quickly becoming known for upscale dining, Orto, which means “vegetable garden” in Italian, has already gained a reputation for serving some of the best house-made pasta in the city. It’s praise that’s well deserved. Peruvian-born chef Stefano Porcile has created alluring dishes, like ravioli stuffed with four cheeses, Sicilian tomatoes, chive oil, basil, and butter, that use simple, fresh ingredients in perfect harmony. The same concept is evident in snacks, like boquerones (marinated white anchovies) and exceptional entrees, like grilled branzino drizzled with lemon oil.
The pappardelle and maitake mushrooms stands out for its potent depth of flavor.
Dining Tip / Pick the right dining companion
There’s nothing worse than taking your vegetarian family member to a steakhouse or your gluten-free friend out for pizza. Part of the fun is picking off each other’s plates. For a heightened experience, invite an up-for-anything diner who loves sea urchin and beef heart as much as you do, even if that means leaving your significant other or BFF at home.
The Place to Raise a Glass and Toast “Alla Famiglia!”
Annapolis | 177 Main St., Annapolis
Walk into this 14-year-old Italian eatery in the heart of Annapolis and you immediately feel like, yes, you’re famiglia. From the hostess who whisks you past the heavy drapes to the waiter who can tell you the origin of every grape, grilled meat, and garnish, hospitality is first-rate. The coastal Italian cuisine, with a menu rich in fresh pastas, just-caught seafood, and savory sauces that inspire dunking, is just the olive in your martini. Expect the sort of opulent, old-world experience they just don’t make like they used to.
The house-made panna cotta forever changed our opinion of the oft-disliked dessert.
The Place to Feel Sexy Over Flaming Saganaki
Harbor East | 1000 Lancaster St.
After eight years, Ouzo is practically the granddaddy of the Atlas Restaurant Group’s properties. But it’s far from resting on its olive branches. A recent refresh of the dining room and menu, including a new list of enticing mezzes (hello, garlic shrimp with white wine and capers), and a sister bar, Ouzo Beach, across the street, have made this Mediterranean hotspot the place in the city for elegant Aegean fare, with a happening happy hour to boot.
A whole fish on the grill and a flaming saganaki cheese appetizer are touchstone plates here.
The Place for a Truly Baltimore Experience
Fells Point | 504 S. Ann St.
The decor of this small Fells Point staple is a bit less funky since it reopened in 2018 following a fire (thankfully the large marlin caught by Bud Tiffany, who owns the restaurant with his wife and chef, Karin, just switched walls), but the food—and the experience, infused with hon-like hospitality—remains as charming as ever. The menu changes weekly, but if you see the spicy calamari ragù with charred cherry tomatoes and squid ink pasta, or the three-hour French onion, a deconstructed version of the soup with braised short rib, order them immediately and thank us later. Of course, the garlic bread, too, always and forever.
A just-right filet or New York strip is usually on the menu, and a constant reminder of why we love steak in the first place.
The Place with a Certain Je Ne Sais Quoi
Roland Park | 4800 Roland Ave.
This temple of classic French-bistro cuisine by Foreman Wolf is both a neighborhood boîte for well-heeled Roland Parkers and a special occasion spot for the rest of us. Dining at the lovely Louis is never less than a joyful experience. Dishes like snails in herb butter, rainbow trout in almond brown butter, and butter-topped steak frites are sumptuous and satisfying. Service never slips—a dropped fork is immediately replaced, wine and water glasses are promptly refilled, menus are brought to the table tout suite, a whole roasted chicken is expertly carved tableside. The entire scene—worn marble tables, a grand fireplace, gilded mirrors, servers in starched aprons—is the closest thing to Paris this side of the Atlantic.
The onion soup is totally transcendent.
The Place with a Pioneer Spirit
Annapolis | 164 Main St., Annapolis
The husband-and-wife team of Jeremy and Michelle Hoffman have been pickling, fermenting, and of course, preserving food at their cozy Annapolis bistro since 2015. At brunch, lunch, or dinner, always indulge in a selection of Preserve’s medley of seasonal pickled vegetables, like carrots pickled in house-made hot sauce. The underdog catfish is a favored base here, baked in lemon and brown butter for dinner, or smoked atop a bed of kale, quinoa, carrots, pickled onions, and feta with Dijon dressing for lunch.
Funghi lovers should focus on the mushroom-stuffed pierogies, smothered in a beer cheese sauce then topped with a generous portion of fresh maitakes.
Dining Tip / Don’t order the burger at a pizza joint
Or the pizza at a burger joint. Let common sense rule. Order whatever the specialty of the place is.
The Place for Time Travel
Mount Vernon | 1101 N. Calvert St.
Don’t look for kale or beets at this unapologetically old-school steakhouse that feels like a supper club. Though it may sound like an oxymoron, after 55 years, The Prime Rib remains unchanged, while also improving with age. We suspect that has to do with the fact that our appreciation has deepened as the dining scene——ever in search of the next culinary innovation—stands on the shoulders of this giant known for its outstanding service, straightforward yet stellar steak-and-potatoes fare, and ripped-from-the-Deco décor. All hail the late, great C. Peter “Buzz” Beler, the founder of The Prime Rib, who passed away late last year.
In this crustacean-crazed town, the jumbo lump crab cake is at the top of the heap.
The Place for Modern Soul Food
downtown | 235 Holliday St.
David Thomas is a classically trained pianist, and in the kitchen of the modern soul restaurant he opened with his wife, Tonya, in 2017, his natural rhythm is obvious.
“It’s a dance,” the chef says on a busy night in early December as he glides from the range, where he snags pieces of blackened chicken, to a counter, where he plates them around a tower of kale Caesar salad. He has a private event in the back, where a steady stream of the restaurant’s renowned fried chicken and catfish makes its way, and he also tends to an 11-top in the lively dining room. The after-work crowd lingers at the bar sipping drinks; soon they’ll be hungry, too.
Thomas and his line cook, Romain Mpoko, are moving quickly, but they’re not rushing. With one eye seemingly always on the kitchen monitor that lists the outstanding orders, he calls out instructions like a quarterback at the line of scrimmage. “Go ahead and start 27, I’ll meet you here at 109,” he says. “You’ve got the chicken down there, right? Then we’ll go on with 60.”
It all makes sense to his dedicated team of four in the kitchen. The result of this orchestrated chaos is some seriously innovative food, like his vegan kale take on traditional Liberian greens, seasoned with garlic powder, smoked paprika, and Mexican chiles. Of which he needs more—now. “You got those greens for me, Little One?” he shouts to one of the cooks.
“Coming in hot!” responds Tavia McNeil, before barreling around the corner with a steaming hot vat.
“He calls me that because I’m the smallest one in the kitchen,” she says. “Smallest one with the biggest mouth,” Thomas chuckles.
Then he turns his attention to a simmering pan of jollof rice, a West African dish he makes using peppers, onions, berbere spice, and butter instead of the traditional ghee.
Despite being fleet-footed during service, Thomas is a contemplative man, approaching his food with an intellectual edge. In Baltimore, “We are the only African-American restaurant, for lack of a better description, that’s cooking at this level,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m not saying that to put anybody down, but what we’re doing is different. All chefs want to be cutting-edge. I’m driven toward that, but I am more interested in finding and working with these ingredients that our ancestors worked with, paying homage to some of the simplest things in our history, while maybe putting a slight spin on them, to make something new.”
Just before 8 p.m., the monitor finally relents, and a bartender delivers Thomas a mezcal cocktail and pint of Diamondback Brewing’s Green Machine IPA, rewards for a spirited day of work. He got here 12 hours ago and won’t leave until after 10.
“I grew up watching my grandmother cook, so her memory is constantly embedded in my mind,” he says of his beloved relative, whose mother was a slave. “She’s been my inspiration for a long time, and I’m still chasing her recipes today.” —Mike Unger
The Place for the Best Ceviche in the City
Downtown | 102 Clay St.
Chef Jose Victorio Alarcon and his wife, Connie de Victorio, have carved out a slice of Peru in their modest restaurant on Clay Street. For lovers of international cuisine, this is a true treasure, seating only about 35. Reservations are essential for Alarcon’s elegant multi-course prix fixe menu that spotlights the flavors of his homeland through the lens of classical culinary technique. Each plate is a little masterpiece, leaning into bright citrus, vegetables, and seafood to delight the palate. Puerto is BYOB, and we recommend bringing a fine wine of your choosing, as the food here deserves more than a bottle of Barefoot from the nearby liquor store.
One word: ceviche. There are two listed on the menu—order both.
The Place That’s Way More Than a Hotel Restaurant
Fells Point | 1715 Thames St.
If you’re in the mood to dress to the nines and stay out until the elevens or twelves, Rec Pier Chop House, inside the Sagamore Pendry Hotel, awaits you with classy cocktails, sumptuous seating, and a mouthwatering menu. The heavy metal lined up at the valet station—Mercedes, Porsches, even a rare Lamborghini sighting—will shame almost anything most mortals drive. But you’ll quickly get over it once you tuck into a filler-free Maryland crab cake or sop up the olive oil drippings from the creamy burrata dressed in pesto.
Lest you forget, Rec Pier is a chop house, and the wagyu flat-iron steak is a carnivore’s dream, while the smart wine list offers plenty of Bacchanalian beverages with which to wash it down.
The Place to Soak up Sangria and Sauces
Mount Vernon | 10 E. Franklin St.
Not much has changed since this venerable restaurant brought its authentic Spanish dishes to Mount Vernon in 1968. The waitstaff still dons red sport coats, the (strong) sangria still flows from ceramic pitchers, and more than 20 sauces used to flavor the proteins are still made in-house daily. The best thing about Tio’s menu? Though some have their favorites (read: the paella), it’s so big that you can savor something new on every visit. A recent meal consisted of mussels swimming in salsa verde, certifiably addictive papas fritas, and chicken and lobster tail in a delicate sherry sauce with saffron rice.
Even if you’ve had it before, the candied pine nut roll paired with a cup of Spanish coffee for dessert is a requirement.
The Place for Meals On Wheels
Columbia | 8335 Benson Dr.
If you’re a fan of Indian cooking and the finer points of eating out, Royal Taj is the place for its lavishly appointed dining room, elegant bar stocked with Scotch, and three-tiered carts on which your food arrives with great fanfare and old-school flair. All of the appetizers are so appealing, one could easily make a meal out of two or three, like the generous kabob platter or the onion ring-like bhajia.
We appreciate the traditional dishes at Royal Taj, and although it sounds like a cop out, an order of the chicken tikka masala is a given. With a tomato tang and just the right amount of spiciness, it is among the most flavorful versions of the classic we’ve ever had.
The Place for Spaghetti and a Side of Puccini
Mount Vernon | 405 N. Charles St.
Where else but Sotto Sopra can one indulge in two of Italy’s most valuable contributions to culture—food and music? Opera Nights at Sotto Sopra draw on talent from Peabody Conservatory and other local performers to accompany your dinner. And such a good dinner it is, from fried polenta scented with bergamot to classic fettucine Bolognese. Sotto Sopra is an Italophiles paradise.
Bring your appetite and go for the spaghetti Neri alla chitarra—this amalgam of crab and crawfish in porcini mushroom cream sauce over black spaghetti is a beautiful marriage of land and sea.
The Place to Fish—No Rod or Reel Required
Columbia | 10215 Wincopin Cl.
There’s so much more than sushi to explore at this longtime Columbia lakefront favorite, where a line of raw fish acolytes often forms at the door. Of course, chef specials like the Dragon Roll, a combination of tempura shrimp, avocado, and fish egg wrapped with seaweed and topped with lobster, are as palate-pleasing as they are aesthetically striking. But don’t ignore hot dishes like steamed shrimp shumai or nabe yaki udon, a bowl of fresh seafood, chicken, and noodles in a complex broth. Service can be a bit brisk at times—pretend not to notice. Sit—and stay—for another roll.
Though it’s more than enough for two, it’s hard to share the beef negi maki, thin strips of meat rolled around scallions topped with a savory sauce.
Dining Tip / Order wines by the glass to see if they are to your liking
Is it tasty? Is the red cooler than room temperature? Is the white ever-so-slightly warmer than the fridge? If so, order a bottle.
The Place for OG Tapas
Station North | 1711 N. Charles St.
Way before Station North was anointed an arts district or small plates became part of the local lexicon, even long before we really fully understood the art of sharing, Pat and Qayum Karzai’s Tapas Teatro unveiled this forward-thinking menu featuring dozens of tantalizing tiny bites. Every visit is an adventure in mix-and-match, from skewers of pollo a la brasa (grilled chicken with cumin aioli) to berenjena asada (roasted eggplant with curried vegetables and minted yogurt) and potato and cheese croquetas drizzled with truffle oil. Grab a table in the dimly lit dining room or sit in the newly expanded bar area and make friends at the long communal table to increase your sharing options.
A pitcher of fruit-filled red sangria is obligatory for all the obvious reasons.
The Place Where Eating Less Is More
Old Goucher | 3 W. 23rd. St.
Since it started serving supper, Larder in Old Goucher has become a new respite for feeding both body and soul. From Wednesday through Saturday (plus weekly lunch and Sunday brunch), owner-chef Helena del Pesco brings her Michelin-starred experience (at Chez Panisse, no less) and farm-to-table ethos to a minimalist open kitchen, first opened as a daytime-only cafe in Lane Harlan’s Socle complex. Whatever the hour, you’ll find seasonal offerings from an impeccably mindful menu rooted in del Pesco’s relationships with local growers. Their goods are the stars of her scratch recipes, like chicken pozole and quinoa-stuffed squash. Just know that it’s all about quality over quantity here. Small plates, oftentimes vegetarian and gluten-free, pack a nutritious, hearty punch. To make the most of your outing, sit in the shared courtyard or upstairs at Fadensonnen, and your server will find you.
“Just know that it’s all about quality over quantity here.”
Chevre pepper jelly Motzi toast is proof that we should never quit carbs.
The Place for Lobstah and Chowda
Fells Point | 1728 Thames St.
With a grand hotel, a newly renovated Broadway Market, and the all-around reinvigorated neighborhood that is Fells, we tip our sailor’s hat to one of the area’s original foodie destinations. With so many spots chasing the next big thing, there’s nothing like the enduring appeal of a great seafood spot that sources the very best fare from the Mid-Atlantic to New England. Credit goes to Rhode Island-trained chef-partner Eric Houseknecht, who lets the protein do most of the work. Look for a huge selection of East and West Coast oysters and marvelous riffs on Down East fare, including Gulf of Maine hake with slow-stewed tomatoes, Block Island scallops with sweet corn succotash, and New Bedford swordfish with lemon-ricotta ravioli. If you have trouble scoring a dinner reservation, lunch is a total treat.
First timers should order the award-winning lobster roll, though the less ubiquitous clam belly roll also rates.
The Place for Sips and Slurps
Hampden | 3300 Clipper Mill Rd.
Set inside the historic Whitehall Mill, True Chesapeake shares a name with its Southern Maryland oyster farm where the restaurant’s bivalves were raised. As one might expect from the state’s first oyster farm/restaurant, the shellfish plays a starring role here. For the uninitiated, chef Zack Mills ensures that there’s plenty of appealing preparations for first-time oyster eaters. A good place to start is the semolina fried oysters with Swiss chard and hollandaise or a classic roasted half-shell version with Old Bay butter. Of course, purists will want to indulge in raw Skinny Dippers or Huckleberries from the farm or Johnson Bay Salts from Assateague. (The house-made cranberry-horseradish mignonette is downright drinkable.) And if you want to forgo oysters entirely, there are plenty of other finds, from crab dip mac and cheese to rockfish. Need more reason to go? General manager Chelsea Gregoire, named Esquire magazine’s Beverage Director of the Year, has developed a cocktail menu that’s playful—and downright delicious.
The handmade spaghetti, a lovely carbonara-style pasta dish with middleneck clams and bacon. Orders go fast.
Dining Tip / Remember the name of your server
A good server is hard to find. If you've found one, keep your receipt so you can refer to it and ask to be seated at one of their tables on return visits. You may not remember what you ate, but you’ll always remember stellar service.
The Place for Cheap Wine and Great Pizza
Annapolis | 909 Bay Ridge Ave.
This adorable Annapolis spot, where the line forms 30 minutes before lunch and dinner service, gets everything just right. For starters, there’s the concise, reasonably priced menu of farm-fresh, organic ingredients highlighting thin-crust brick-oven pizzas with house-made mozzarella. It’s also a delight to discover that it’s the small plates, such as sliders with pork and veal bratwurst, sauerkraut, and gruyère sauce, or, say, a plate of sea urchin pasta with lemon chives, where the menu truly shines. Enjoy more than 60 wines by the glass and a homey, informal atmosphere that makes it feel like you’ve just been invited to a friend’s house for dinner—that is, if your friend can cook and owns a Craftsman bungalow.
Chesapeake Littleneck Clams. They sit in a pool of curry cream broth, and pieces of pumpkin balance out the saltiness of the seafood.
The Place to Support Local Growers
Woodberry | 2010 Clipper Park Rd.
When it comes to the farm-to-fork revolution, this chic, rustic spot in a rehabbed machine shop has led the way. And chef-co-owner Spike Gjerde, who won the coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic in 2015, is the poet laureate of farm-forward dining (while his business partner, Amy Gjerde, deserves a medal for her herb-growing acumen). The approach to local, seasonal dining is bar none here: as winter turns to spring and spring to summer, you can see it happening on a sometimes-daily basis by just reading the ever-changing menu: Tilghman Island crab cakes and cukes in August. White wine-braised fennel with carrots, wheatberries, and black garlic in November. Whatever the month, 13 years in, this institution remains a dining darling and is the place that spawned so many other wannabes in Charm City.
Go for the bake shop board piled high with house-mademuffins, doughnuts, and Danishes during brunch.