Food & Drink
Best Restaurants 2023
From neighborhood newbies to fine-dining stalwarts, the culinary scene is back in full swing-and stronger than ever.
Edited by Jane Marion
With John Farlow, Suzanne Loudermilk, Amy Scattergood, and Mike Unger.
Photography by Scott Suchman
ABOVE: The scene and craft cocktails at Bondhouse Kitchen.
s the pandemic recedes, it’s time for restaurants—and those of us whose love language is dining out—to take a deep collective exhale. It’s been three years since that fateful March when the world shut down. And though many a plexiglass partition remains in place, we are at the dawn of a new dining era, a period of rebuilding—and change. When the going got tough, the tough got going, and restaurants rose to the occasion as they recalibrated to remain relevant. There were no rights or wrongs, only possible solutions as a matter of survival. Some ideas stuck (QR codes, streamlined menus, parklets, carry-out), while others fell by the wayside (meal kits, marketplaces).
While it’s never been easy, running a restaurant these days is harder than ever. Staffing shortages plague the industry, food costs remain sky-high due to rising energy costs and ongoing supply-chain issues, and with many spots relying on alfresco dining for extra income of late, there’s less profit in the colder months when outdoor seating isn’t an option.
It’s been challenging for consumers, too. Nowadays, dining out is a pricey proposition, especially when it comes to fine dining. Thanks to inflation, the average cost of an elevated entrée is suddenly $35 or so, while service fees and automatic tips as high as 23 percent drive up the total tab. (It’s a good thing that restaurants are thinking about economic equity for their teams, but how much is the public willing to pay to help shoulder the burden?) As if that’s not enough, some spots have strict cancellation policies leading (understandably) to automatic charges for no-shows and, to keep costs down, restaurants have abbreviated operating hours, which means that getting a coveted table on a Saturday night might not happen without proper planning. Yes, there are new obstacles, but one thing is certain: Restaurants are nothing if not resilient—and those of us who live to eat out are as committed as ever to paying the pros to whip up dishes that would never taste as good at home on our chipped china. (If recent history is any indication, after a period of unrest—9/11, the 2008 economic crisis—there’s a return to dining out, as we seek out feel-good experiences.)
Here in Charm City, with new openings and promising projects in the pipeline, it’s starting to feel like the good old days. Slowly, surely, steadfastly, restaurants are bouncing back and booming again. As you’ll see from the 50 restaurants listed below, there’s plenty of reason to rejoice. While the scene is still steadying, new spots are cropping up across the city, and the county is experiencing a growth spurt. Popular eateries—like Little Donna’s, which opened in the old Henninger’s space in Upper Fells, and a rebrand of Little Italy’s Velleggia’s, now inside the historic Cross Street Market in Federal Hill—show what’s possible when new neighbors pump fresh life into beloved landmarks.
Meanwhile, old faithfuls like The Prime Rib and Restaurante Tio Pepe carry on as they have for more than half a century. In fact, as we write, there’s more hope on the horizon, from Foreman Wolf’s still-unnamed spot in Hampden’s now-shuttered Cafe Hon to two Fells eateries, including Ashish Alfred’s Italian concept Osteria Pirata and the soon-to-open Baja Tap, a Mexican restaurant helmed by Greg Lloyd, the ex-head chef from D.C.’s buzzy Le Diplomate. Also worth highlighting, several spots of note opened recently (albeit too late to land on our list), including Woodberry Kitchen, rebranded as Woodberry Tavern, with James Beard Award-winning chef Spike Gjerde back on the scene, and horse country stalwart The Oregon Grille, under new ownership (Atlas Restaurant Group), with renovated digs and a new female chef.
So, take a deep breath of the fresh air that’s likely been heavily filtered through new germ-killing HVAC systems and grab yourself a trendy table all aglow with an LED cordless lamp. If you’re handed a paper menu, now something of a restaurant relic, take time to savor the weight of it in your hands. If service is slow, and your bill is higher than it once was, flash back to the past few years, when, after so much carryout, you’d do anything to eat out again.
Restaurants are mini miracles—against all odds, they’re still here, giving us a place to commune with family and friends and participate in one of life’s greatest pleasures. Once again, bon appétit! —Jane Marion
Tartare de carne with foie gras pâté, lemon zest, microchives, and truffle casabe at Alma Cocina Latina.
Ananda pretty much defines the destination restaurant. A mere 25-mile road trip from the city, it’s a stylish spot filled with fancy people, a gorgeous set-up (fireplaces! bookshelves! stained glass!), and a menu that’s worth twice the mileage. Brothers Keir and Binda Singh continue to orchestrate some of the best Indian food around—think comfort food made and served as if the place has Michelin stars. The elaborate dishes are as perfectly turned-out as the clientele, but don’t ignore the more traditional, often vegetarian offerings, like kaddu, a Punjabi dish made with baby acorn squash from Ananda Farm (yes, the Singhs have their own farm, where much of what’s on your plate is sourced), herbed goat-milk yogurt, and spices. Or the homey standards, like chicken tikka masala, palak paneer, and biryani. Do they have goat? Of course, they do: garam masala goat, no less, made with locally raised animals and more goodies from that garden. They’ll even give you a tour of the property if you ask.
Set inside the historic Latrobe building, now transformed into the Ulysses hotel, Ash Bar restaurant serves anything but hotel food. Thanks to the talents of culinary director Lauren Sandler, who ran Spike Gjerde’s canning operation at Woodberry Kitchen, and chef de cuisine David Pac, a former sous chef at Magdalena, the fare has a European flair and is simple and elegant. Expect everything from butter-poached lobster tails swimming in beurre blanc to chicken tortellini and classic appetizers like steak tartare and shrimp cocktail. There’s also a terrific cocktail menu (Corey Polyoka, a former managing partner at Spike Gjerde's Foodshed, wrote the bar’s original menu) and an aperitivo hour, from 4 to 6 p.m. with light bites (prosciutto and melon, salmon rillettes) and snacks (house-made rosemary chips, olives, almonds). But the menu is only part of the reason you should put one of Charm City’s most interesting new openings on your list. To say this place has a vibe is an understatement. You don’t visit this space as much as you fall into the fantasy of it—a phantasmagoric, moody oasis inspired by Art Deco and old-school Baltimore.
From top: An array of appetizers and pastas; a bowl of steamed clams; scampi with spaghetti; the art-filled interior.
t’s the calm before the storm at Allora—or more specifically, 4 p.m. on the first Friday in December. After a busy morning and the lunch rush, the restaurant is closed for a few hours as chef and co-owner Brendon Hudson and his small staff prepare for dinner. When it re-opens in an hour, every one of its 20 seats will be filled and turned over at least once before the night is through. If you don’t have a reservation, you’re out of luck, at least for a few weeks until a table is available at this tiny Roman-centered Italian restaurant that has become something of a phenomenon ever since it opened in September 2021. “We wanted something small to start,” says Hudson of the rowhouse that he and his business and life partner, David Monteagudo, chose to house Allora. “It’s easy to manage and easy to fill. We wanted to create that feeling of exclusivity for guests.” Almost two years into their endeavor, Hudson can’t believe they pulled it off. As he speaks, he’s wrist-deep in a bowl of ground beef, pork, and veal that he’s mixing for Bolognese. In a few minutes, he’ll add carrots, onion, celery, olive oil, salt, pepper, and a bit of thyme, then let it simmer in red wine.
From left: sous chef Daveen Rim, co-owners David Monteagudo and Brendon Hudson.
When the guests start arriving, they’ll be able to watch Hudson work in the extremely open and micro-sized kitchen. Despite its intimate, almost private nature, there’s a casualness to Allora’s atmosphere that mirrors its simple approach to food. “My go-to marinade is olive oil, salt, and pepper,” says Hudson. “It’s really all you need as long as you’re buying quality ingredients.”
Monteagudo decorated the space with prints by his favorite artists—Picasso, Matisse, Basquiat—along with photos of Hudson’s family. Hudson’s grandfather, Frank, was the purveyor of Velleggia’s in Little Italy for nearly a half-century. That restaurant closed in 2008, but Hudson and Monteagudo rebooted it last year in Federal Hill’s Cross Street Market, and that Italian heritage is an important part of Allora’s origin story.
“David and I thankfully spent a decent amount of time in Italy,” says Hudson. “We fell in love with these small, mom-and-pop- run restaurants. They’re open all day. Super small, super intimate. They’re not too worried about presentation or anything super fancy. It should feel like you’re coming into your grandma’s house. But the food was always out of this world.”
They’ve recreated that at Allora. True of many of those Roman restaurants, they sell boxes of pasta and jars of olive oils and hot sauces to go. Much of the fare is served on mix-and-match grandma chic china. For breakfast, fig and prosciutto toast is a favorite; the prosciutto is flown in, along with wheels of Parmesan cheese, from Italy weekly. In addition to paninis, pasta is available for lunch.
The dinner menu changes often, with Hudson using as many local ingredients as possible. One of the more popular dishes is seared hangar steak (sourced from J.W. Treuth in Catonsville). It’s marinated in a 36-month balsamic glaze for two to three hours. Then it’s grilled for two minutes, put in the oven for another two minutes, and served rare—no exceptions. “Over there, the eating culture is so different,” says Hudson.
“Here, everyone has millions of dietary restrictions. Over there, you order it as it’s on the menu. On our menu, we’ll say that a steak is served rare. There’s no asking for a different temperature. If you don’t want it, you can order the chicken or the fish or something else. We look at it like, if we’re taking all this time to prepare it the way that we think is best, try it our way.” You won’t be disappointed. Unless you can’t get a table. —Mike Unger
Given its location on the ground floor of the posh Four Seasons Hotel, it’s not surprising that this Japanese restaurant is among the swankiest in the city. Nor is it particularly shocking that its sushi, some of which arrives daily from Tokyo’s Toyosu fish market, is quite good as well. (The tuna toro and spider roll filled with soft-shell crab are excellent examples.) But what we always appreciate when taking a seat at the dimly lit yet lively dining room—or outside on the patio—is the expert preparation and quality of the cooked dishes that emerge from the kitchen. Grilled Spanish bronzino is served with spinach, mushrooms, and an excellent chimichurri sauce. The miso black cod is always a winner, as is the Wagyu fried rice, which is sticky, spicy, and chock-full of juicy pieces of that special beef. If you go with a crowd, consider booking a teppanyaki table for dinner and a show, as the chef sets the food on fire in front of you.
Finally, the food at this high-end spot on the top floor of the Four Seasons Hotel matches the setting. It was perfectly acceptable before, relying on top-notch ingredients, refined preparations, and pretty plating, but the dishes didn’t elicit the “wow” factor you want from a place that requires an elevator ride to a luxe 29th-floor dining room with stunning views of the harbor (and equally sky-high prices). Alejandro Reiley worked his way up from sous chef to executive chef, and we are smitten with his creativity. On a recent visit, our opening dish was a hamachi filet that arrived under a glass dome. Once uncovered, pleasantly scented oak smoke puffs into the atmosphere to reveal delicate slices of fish with an ethereal buttermilk sauce studded with pink peppercorns and mint oil. A farm salad with roasted beets, pistachios, and salmon roe was also a beautiful revelation. A 36-hour short rib was meltingly tender, but we were particularly impressed with the “chicken three ways,” showcasing a fried drumstick, grilled thigh, and roasted breast with a celery-root purée. A chocolate delice layered with vanilla dacquoise and chocolate mousse capped an impressive meal. Go for the view—stay to be wowed.
When you enter through the etched-glass doors at this fine-dining delight, the whole world fades away. The dining rooms take on an air of holiness, amidst flawless table settings, flickering candlelight, and the quiet din of diners rendered speechless as French porcelain plates glide onto perfectly pressed white table linens. From the curry-tinged lobster bisque to the opulent foie gras-filled tortellini to the fantastic fried oysters, every dish from James Beard Award-nominated chef Cindy Wolf is a master class in sourcing, technique, timing, plating, and presentation. Equally impressive is the unerring army of waitstaff, the epic wine list, and the absolute care and concern of the entire team, including longtime maître d’hôtel Peter Keck, who makes it his business to remember special occasions, and co-owner-wine director Tony Foreman, who is always on hand to recommend a proper pairing or seasonal selection. Also of note, while Charleston remains a special-occasion spot, what was once the most expensive meal in town has now moved toward the reasonable range of fine dining. Here, for $89, you’ll get three exquisite courses, plus dessert (not to mention an amuse bouche, heaps of house-made bread, a few parting morsels of mini macarons or pâte de fruits)—and a meal that is simply priceless.
For a restaurant with a 13-page wine list and a menu featuring foie gras, venison, and air-dried Wagyu beef loin, Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman’s flawless Italian restaurant is utterly unintimidating. The welcoming spirit starts when you walk into the stunning waterfront space, which is divided between the casual enoteca and the more formal osteria. Whether you sit at the bar or a table, the service—and executive chef James Lewandowski’s food—is outstanding. Start with a selection of imported cheeses and meats, like the bresaola, made with Wagyu and sliced razor-thin yet filled with flavor. The menu includes first plates, pasta dishes, and entrees—and we recommend ordering one from each. The grilled calamari is topped with crispy carrots, which provide a pleasing textural contrast. The pastas, available in half and full portions, are all excellent, but the casunsei, a pork sausage-filled pasta in a rich brown butter and sage sauce, is a standout. Bottles of wine are half price on Tuesdays. We once asked Foreman if any of the wines on offer were “filler.” He bristled at the mere suggestion, assuring us he approved of every bottle on the list. When we went one chilly fall night, we passed on the $3,200 Barolo Reserva in favor of a $31 Valpolicella—and can confirm it was delicious. Sipping it between bites of the tender venison osso buco made us feel right at home.
In the beginning, Lane Harlan and Carlos Raba’s downhome taqueria in rundown Remington was Baltimore’s best-kept secret—a reasonably priced little hole in the wall with some of the best Mexican street food this side of Sinaloa. Eight years later, everyone knows about it—the place has been twice-nominated for James Beard Awards for its bar program, which includes the greatest collection of agave spirits in the city; Raba was nominated Best Chef in the Mid-Atlantic; while Harlan was dubbed “the most interesting woman in the restaurant business” by industry bible Saveur. Though the place continues to expand with additional outdoor seating and a second dining room, it’s never enough—there’s always a wait and an electric excitement that precedes a seat at the table. First-timers should order the signature lengua (beef tongue)tacos, the queso fundido, and at least one of the ceviches (if you only order one, make it the aguachile—that’s shrimp cured in lime with spicy cilantro pesto), but there are new hits on the menu, too, including the pescado Culichi, a mahi mahi dish in cream sauce with roasted poblano peppers.
From top: The plant-filled interior; salmon tiradito with mango citrus sauce; the Peligrosa cocktail; owners Mark Demshak and Irena Stein.
This Venezuelan gem’s move from Canton in 2021 helped strengthen the burgeoning restaurant row in Station North. And with good reason. Twenty-nine-year-old wunderkind executive chef-partner David Zamudio’s food has only gotten better since the relocation, which gave Alma more dining space, a bigger bar, and a sexier, sunlit feel. It’s a menu of all hits and no misses. A whole chicken is brined for 24 hours and served with a delectable, sweet corn sauce. Zamudio’s take on paella caramelizes the rice and includes, along with the requisite seafood, citrus aioli, sweet garlic emulsion, and pine nuts. There’s also a luxurious new version of the Venezuelan national dish, Pabellón Vegetariano, a large skillet of bomba rice tossed with plantains, beans, shiitake mushrooms, and pickled onions that offers a complexity of flavor and richness that can be hard to come by in vegetarian cooking. It’s a prime example of the innovation that’s kept diners coming back to Alma Cocina, no matter where it calls home.
With its blue velvet banquettes, cloud-like chandeliers, and stunning bar, this Bolton Hill treasure inside a 19th-century brownstone is astonishingly pretty. Luckily, the neighborhood bistro (helmed by owner-chef George Dailey) is all about style and substance. And when it comes to substance, there’s something for everyone. There’s a juicy-beyond-belief burger painted with bacon jam and layered with cheddar and frizzled onions, but if you want to get fancy, there’s also a superior dry-aged steak frites in bordelaise sauce (go on a Wednesday when it’s $27 instead of $38 and bottles of wine are 50 percent off). If you’re a vegetarian—and even if you’re not—the plant-based option is always an excellent idea. Even night owls are covered here: On Saturday evenings, bartender Gabe Valladares hosts a convivial after-hours cocktail party. His drinks, garnished with flowers, fruit, and served in teacups, could win a beauty contest.
Situated along the waters of the Jones Falls, Cosima is about as breathtaking as a restaurant gets. The interior space—a historic mill building with exposed stone and brick walls and parts of the old boiler room still visible in the dining room from when the space was a sailcloth factory—is equally enchanting. And the entire place is an homage of sorts. Chef Donna Crivello’s menu tilts toward Sicily, the birthplace of her beloved grandmother, the restaurant’s namesake, Cosima. Throughout the menu, you’ll find dishes that are brightened by citrus, combining sweet (raisins) and savory (fennel), and salted with sardines and squid ink. Delectable pastas, which Crivello learned to prepare from her nonna, are all hand-made, and the petite wood-fired pizzas are terrific, too. The signature dish is a whole grilled bronzino—and rightfully so. It manages to be both light and wonderfully rich and is served with grilled lemon and delicate arugula salad. Dessert, all too often the downfall of a kitchen, is a winning proposition here. Don’t miss the scrumptious sfinci, aka Sicilian doughnuts, served warm, dusted with powdered sugar, and accompanied by a bowl of chocolate dipping sauce.
DOK KHAO THAI EATERY
The second location of Porntipa Pattanamekar’s ode to her native Thailand (the first is in Woodbridge, VA) is a wonderful embodiment of what makes the country’s cuisine so special. Bold flavors—sweet, spicy, savory, and the unfamiliar—shine through in almost every dish. Housed on the ground floor of a new building near Merriweather Post Pavilion, the attractive plant-filled dining room is bustling most nights. The extensive drink menu includes everything from cocktails (the Siam Mule, with vodka, ginger, lemonade, and mint, is excellent) to coffee, fruit teas, and mocktails. Duck rolls, sweet and packed with meat, stand out among the appetizers (make sure to dip them in mustard). While many of the entrees may sound familiar to fans of Thai food, Pattanamekar’s take on them is unique. Her house pad Thai features a homemade spicy sweet soy sauce that makes the dish. In a red curry dish, the addictive sauce soaks the salmon until every inch of the fish is packed with flavor. The sautéed spicy basil, Thai chile, garlic, and pepper in an order of chicken pad ka pow, like the best Thai food, positively lights up our taste buds.
DUCK DUCK GOOSE
Embedded along Fells’ busy harbor-and-bar scene, chef Ashish Alfred’s French brasserie feels almost like a secret, a door to an unexpected, downright arrondissement-esque menu where you’ll get terrific renditions of escargot bathed in garlic butter and presented in a little skillet with proper gear (tongs, a tiny fork) and a grilled half lemon; a soothing bowl of French onion soup, with the option of duck confit (the name of the place isn’t accidental); a duck confit entree that would please even Alfred’s hero Paul Bocuse paired with a crisp rectangle of potato cake and a pool of thick duck jus, then topped with a nicely acidic thatch of bright herbs. There are other Francophile favorites, too, like cheese and charcuterie boards, ratatouille and steak au poivre, beef tartare, and a croque madame. Unsurprisingly, foie gras is also on the offing—it’s tantalizingly placed on a burger, it’s an element in the short rib Bourgogne, and it’s a possible add-on with much of the rest of the menu. After all that, even if you’ve over-indulged, ignore the dessert at your peril: In late November, the featured sweet was a passion fruit pavlova, built to be cracked like an egg, that was light (as all the previous dishes were not) and spectacular.
DYLAN’S OYSTER CELLAR
Curiously, Dylan’s is not in a cellar—it’s above ground at the head of Hampden’s restaurant row on 36th Street—but it does have a stellar oyster raw bar. And yes, if you simply want to belly up to the bar and indulge in some half-shells, cocktails, and beers, it’s well worth the trip. But this place is bigger than that: It’s an airy, relaxed bistro where you could sit for hours, lingering over the kind of elevated seafood-shack fare that deserves much more than a quick happy hour stop. There are the first-rate coddies and anchovy toast, a deliciously messy smashburger, and noteworthy fried oyster sandwiches. But don’t ignore the large plates, which are a mash-up of highend dishes (pan-seared scallops, whole black bass with Espelette pepper) and comfort food (potato-leek soup with drop biscuits, red beans and rice). And if it’s on the menu, order the fish pie topped with a puff pastry carapace. It’s a wondrous version of an old-school pub classic. Creamy, well-seasoned, and deeply consoling, it’s large enough to share without resentment, and demands yet a few more pints.
THE FOOD MARKET
Some restaurants take their food too seriously. The Food Market—which celebrated its 10th birthday in Hampden last year (with a second location in Columbia)—is not one of them. Like the neighborhood it’s in—the setting for John Waters’ Pink Flamingos and the annual HonFest—this restaurant, helmed by chef-owner Chad Gauss, is quirky, playful, and downright fun with its art-filled walls, a bustling bar area, and over-the-top offerings. Whether you order a bunch of “little,” “small,” or “big plates,” or mix and match, you’ll find one-of-a-kind riffs on familiar foods, including cheesesteak steamed buns with cherry pepper mayo and Cheez Whiz (in this clever case, the so-called steak is melt-in-your-mouth short rib), plus “Corn off the Cob” beignets with Cajun powdered sugar, and the signature spaghetti and crab meatballs. Even the gratis popcorn sprinkled with truffle-basil Parmesan and the “Boring Caesar Salad” are anything but ordinary. The whole experience just screams “Welcome to Bawlmer, Hon!”
From top: A table awaits in the main dining room; the Dorade Royale with asparagus and seasoned potatoes; mezze appetizer; dinnertime at The Black Olive.
or most of its 25 years, dinner at The Black Olive began with servers escorting diners from their tables to a glass display case, in which fresh fish on ice gleamed like aquatic jewels. There, explanations of the flavors and the textures and the ways that the kitchen prepared them officially commenced, while the hungry patrons drooled in anticipation.
Firing the octopus on the grill.
Although the ritual ended in 2020 (a victim of the pandemic), little else has changed at this groundbreaking Greek restaurant since it opened a quarter century ago. “The longevity of the restaurant is very similar to the longevity of Greek cuisine,” says owner Dimitris Spiliadis, 52, who cooks alongside his mother, Pauline, the restaurant’s founding executive chef. “The food is very pure and basic. We don’t make the plates fancy to hide a bad product. The foundation is great ingredients.”
Spiliadis was just 27 when he opened what he says was the neighborhood’s first white-tablecloth restaurant in 1997 in a converted rowhome that once housed the Fells Point General Store. He and his mother had been running a catering business when they took the plunge. “My family has always had food at the center of its culture,” he says. “When I was growing up, guests would covet their invitation to come over and eat. Dinner was a very special thing.”
It still is. Many of the dishes created by Pauline remain on the menu today. The recipe for spreads like melitzanasalata, which combines grilled eggplant, garlic, balsamic vinegar, and olive oil, have been passed down through the family for generations. Taramasalata is made using black olive bread marinated in wine, olive oil, lemon, and fish roe.
On the night before Thanksgiving, the kitchen is preparing for the busy night ahead. Loaves of freshly baked bread to sop up those spreads sit next to the oven, waiting to be sliced. “My mother baked bread every day when I was a little kid,” says Spiliadis, who grew up in Mt. Washington. “One is onion seed, the other is olive bread. We use organic flour. It’s toward a sourdough, but it’s not as dense.”
The small plates are always popular, but Spiliadis’ skill and the quality of the ingredients are particularly evident in the entrees. Octopi from Portugal boil in a large pot containing red wine vinegar. When an order comes in, octopus is thrown on the grill for five to seven minutes and served piping hot and charred just so. Spiliadis expects most of the restaurant’s 65 seats to be filled this evening. When first opened, it sat just 35, but he bought the adjacent rowhome and combined the two buildings to create one of the most architecturally intriguing restaurants in the city. What once was a staircase to upstairs apartments got turned into an atrium, which gives the building an open, airy feeling. He used bricks to create decorative archways and reclaimed barnwood for the floor in one of the three dining rooms. There’s also a private dining table in the wine cellar, which holds around 3,000 bottles.
Although the glass display case is empty, Spiliadis still gets roughly a half-dozen varieties of fish daily. Sea bass, rockfish, sole, yellowfin tuna, salmon, and halibut from around the world are available this evening. Mediterranean sea bass is the most popular. Fifteen of the raw, whole fish sit on ice atop a counter, their scales more pink than rouge. Diners won’t get to see them in this state anymore, but they won’t enjoy eating them any less.
“We decided after 25 years of business, people trust us,” says Spiliadis of those bygone tours of the fish case. “They know us.” —Mike Unger
The “crab cake” at Chris Amendola’s hyper-seasonal eatery encapsulates the spirit of the restaurant, with its wall of edible herbs and wooden mushrooms gracing every table. Using lion’s mane mushrooms, it doesn’t try to mimic Maryland’s iconic dish, but channels it to create something unique. Its texture and appearance resemble a crab cake, and its earthy flavor is enhanced by a remoulade that includes local beets. Similarly, an al dente risotto with mushrooms, parsnip, and Parmesan provides everything we love about the Italian classic. Of course, as Amendola is a master forager himself, fungi and fresh vegetables dot the menu, but there’s plenty for meat-eaters, too. A piece of monkfish sits atop a roasted mushroom ragu, loaded with bacon. Deviled eggs are topped with rich smoked trout. The menu changes frequently, but Amendola’s whimsical creativity is on display year-round. The James Beard committee agrees, too. He’s now a semifinalist for Best Chef Mid-Atlantic.
GERTRUDE’S CHESAPEAKE KITCHEN
The Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries may be miles from landlocked Gertrude’s, but you can count on the restaurant to deliver the best the estuary has to offer. That’s been chef-owner John Shields’ mission since he opened its doors in 1998. Gertie’s lump crab cakes, named after Shields’ grandmother, are still the flavorful, golden patties they’ve been since the beginning. The beloved Maryland crustacean also stars in several other dishes, including a luscious cream of crab soup laced with sherry and a custardy crab quiche boosted by oozy Swiss cheese. If you’re looking for a vegan alternative, try the zuchettes, a clever impersonator featuring shredded zucchini tossed with crab seasoning. Fried oysters are another temptation. They’re lightly encrusted in cornmeal, making the nuggets perfect for dipping in remoulade. While we always like a down-and-dirty crab shack, we really appreciate Gertrude’s serene setting—white tablecloths, flowers on the table, romantic lighting—inside the Baltimore Museum of Art. You don’t need a body of water nearby to bask in its treasures.
GUNTHER & CO.
Gunther & Co. may look like a rehabbed loft crossed with a brew pub—it’s housed in the Gunther Brewing Co.’s old boiler room—but the restaurant is hardly a suds-friendly roadhouse. For one thing, it’s gorgeous: The vaulted ceilings and Brewers Hill location give the place a fashionable feel, as does the elaborate menu, laced with eclectic ingredients and dishes, like a tahini-zapped take on a Caesar salad, za’atar flatbread with greengarbanzo hummus, Sichuan-spicy dumplings, and the justly popular Thai hot pot, jammed with fish, seafood, curry, fresh herbs, and spices. It’s an extraordinary bowl of intense flavors, and not to be missed. There’s a lot to order here, including fancier items like tea-smoked duck, a bone-in Berkshire pork chop, sous-vide short ribs, and a gochujang-spiked faro risotto, as well as a lengthy, pastry-cheffed dessert menu that includes not only a panna cotta and chocolate pavé, but a well-curated cheese plate. Go with a group so you can taste as much as possible. After almost seven years, and still going strong, Gunther remains exciting as ever.
As Baltimore’s iconic Afghan restaurant marches into its 33rd year, it doesn’t miss a step. The menu celebrates the unique culinary heritage of the Karzai family’s native Afghanistan and its flavors—turmeric, ginger, mint, apricot, prune, and pepper. The food here is just delightful, a perfect balance of comfort and adventure. On one recent visit we brought out-of-town guests who were completely unfamiliar with Afghan fare. Hours later, they were cooing over every dish and raving about every aspect of the meal. It’s worth noting the influence of the restaurant’s namesake, Helmand Karzai, son of owners Pat and Qayum Karzai (the brother of Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan). His passion for small wineries and family producers translates to a wine list that pairs flawlessly with the menu.
This cozy pizzeria, co-owned by siblings Stephanie and Josh Hershkovitz, is, well, a lot more than a cozy pizzeria. Josh has degrees in philosophy and sculpture from the University of Chicago, no less, and logged years in the kitchens of chef Cindy Wolf’s restaurants. That dexterity and intelligence shows in the restaurant’s menu, which ranges from a short list of stellar house-made pasta dishes to rustic entrees, from pan-seared duck breast with parsleycaper sauce and couscous to short rib with Brussels sprouts and polenta. Order at least one of the Neapolitan-style pies—made in the 5,000-pound, Italian-made, wood-burning pizza oven—which come in red, white, and a vegan option (Josh is a vegan), plus a marvelous take on Frank Pepe’s classic New Haven clam pie. The antipasti are pretty great, too—the meatballs with house-made ricotta are de rigueur—and the few desserts are as remarkable as the rest of the menu. If there’s a strawberry-pistachio cake in evidence, get that, too. And the service? It’s on-point as well: deft and comfortable, like you stopped for dinner at some relaxed ristorante run by long-lost friends.
There’s a heat that’s palpable at this superb Basque restaurant from the moment you pass through the front door. Flames from the wood-fired asador dance in the heart of the open kitchen, just past the oversized bar that’s the ideal spot for enjoying sublime cocktails, pintxos (bite-sized snacks), raciones (Spanish olives, Cantabrian anchovies), tinned seafood, meats, cheeses, and inspired entrees of this cavernous mainstay. If that sounds a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. Everything that emerges from co-owner-chef Ben Lefenfeld’s kitchen is terrific, starting with chorizo, Manchego, and shishito peppers layered on a slice of baguette. The small beef empanadas are among the best we’ve had in the city, their shells sturdy but not tough, the meat shredded and moist. Warm tetilla, a cow’s milk cheese, comes with piquillo peppers so delicate that we cut them with a spoon. The menu shifts with the seasons, but on a recent visit, a hefty filet of trout served atop a bed of sautéed spinach with butternut squash purée was a delight. There’s an excitement at La Cuchara that makes the restaurant, even almost eight years after its opening, well, hot.
LA SCALA RISTORANTE ITALIANO
Your first clue that La Scala is someplace special is the valet stand outside, a time warp moment on an otherwise quiet Little Italy street. Walk inside chef-owner Nino Germano’s restaurant, extant for over a quarter-century, and you’ll get more of those flashbacks: The uniformed staff seem from another era, which technically they are. You’ll find pepper grinders the length of lacrosse sticks, excellent housemade pasta, and a dish—gamberi fra diavolo—that a Baltimore City-born-and-bred friend had recommended (at a Ravens game no less) as his regular order. After tasting it, we can see why. The calamari fritti are disconcertingly good: tender rounds and deep purple tentacles of deftly fried squid, paired with a vast dish of marinara sauce. And then there’s the tiramisu, the Platonic ideal of the Italian dessert—light and airy and creamy and cakey and dusted with cocoa and, best of all, barely sweet. Order an espresso, the other litmus test of Boot Country joints, and maybe get an extra shot—and more dessert, and a spoon—for the ride home.
LE COMPTOIR DU VIN
Just a few days into the pandemic, and a few months after landing on Bon Appétit’s coveted 2019 list as one of the country’s best new restaurants, this snug Station North bistro transformed itself into a bottle shop. Through the darkest days of COVID, co-owners Rosemary Liss and Will Mester kept us fueled on carryout with some of the best sandwiches in the city. But we longed for the days when we could sit on the cafe chairs again inside this charming rowhome. Since February 2022, much to our delight, the restaurant has been back in bloom with dinner service—and, as evidenced by the crowds that form before the doors even open at 5:30 p.m., it has maintained its near cult status for true foodies. Natural wines are still sold to go, but Comptoir also now boasts a new seasonal back bar, which turns out well-balanced craft cocktails, plus a patio area for alfresco seating. The food is right where the duo left off—basically a chalkboard menu of mostly small, rustic plates with no particular rhyme nor reason beyond the seasons and only based on whatever inspires Mester (mostly western and central European countryside cooking). One day you might find flavorful gigante beans with stewed tomatoes and peppers or a delectable mussel toast with saffron aioli; another visit might mean scallops with snail butter or a lamb shoulder with buttered beans. Go with your friends and get one of everything, including—make that especially—the off-the-charts house-made desserts. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.
A first trip to Liora, the vegan fine-dining restaurant from restaurateur Matthew Kenney, might seem like a genre-specific excursion or a favor to your vegan friend. But once you start in on the dishes, you’ll quickly forget that it’s vegan and will simply appreciate the remarkable flavors, textures, and tastes, not to mention the technical skills, that are showcased in your dinner. Open since 2021 with executive chef Natalie Carter (formerly of Great Sage in Clarksville) helming the kitchen, Liora has a relatively small but wildly inventive menu, with geographically diverse dishes like bibimbap, udon noodles, tacos, fondue, and risotto all agreeably sharing space. So-called barbacoa tacos are built from beetroot, the “crab cake” is jackfruit, and the fondue is fashioned from nuts. But what elevates the dishes isn’t so much their provenance as their marvelous flavor, relying on spices, herbs, acidity, and seasoning rather than the more traditional (and perhaps easier) combo of butter, animal protein, and salt. Striking cocktails come from a bar shared with the Kenney-owned pizzeria next door, which you can see through the pass like a promise of even more food. “It’s not every day you get a plant yolk,” said our server, a vegan for eight years, remarking on the bibimbap's customary “egg,” whose yolk is a blend of tahini, turmeric, and lemon. It really is part dinner, part magic trick.
Clockwise from top left: Maine lobster offering from the raw bar and a classic martini with olives; colorful drinks are served on the deck; the interior space with water views.
Short of being on a boat, if eating on the water is your thing, this Naptown newbie, situated along the “Ego Alley” channel of the Severn River, is one of the best places in the state capital for enjoying the fruits of the sea and watching the mega-yachts dock while still standing on terra firma. The Patrick Sutton-designed restaurant has all the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from an Atlas Restaurant Group property, including a wrap-around second-story deck replete with fire pits and Adirondack chairs, a see-and-be-seen rooftop bar with potent cocktails, and impeccably tasteful dining rooms. Sip on a martini, then consider the catches of the day (many of which are on show in the glitzy fish case), as well as crab cakes made with Maryland meat, Chesapeake oysters, and one of the very best versions of Maryland crab soup we’ve ever eaten. If your leanings are more toward the land, venture to the steak side of the menu for an aged porterhouse or pork chop. Diners beware: The restaurant can get overrun, especially on a warm-weather weekend. (Avoid the Annapolis Boat Show at all costs.)
While head chef Scott Bacon’s farm-to-fork menu is at the mercy of the growing calendar, Magdalena shimmers in all seasons. The concise menu buzzes with new ideas, such as a lovely pepper-crusted venison loin with seared mushrooms and mushroom aioli entrée or the mulled wine-poached pear with spiced pecans and bitter greens appetizer. The options change regularly, but it’s hard to go wrong. While true fine-dining dens are more of a unicorn these days, Magdalena, whose name is an homage to owner Eddie Brown’s beloved grandmother, rises to the occasion. The restaurant is housed inside the extravagant Ivy Hotel and it shows—you’ll find luxury ingredients (foie gras, truffles, caviar), gracious service (if you can, ask for longtime server Dottie), a deep wine list for the serious oenophile at the table, and a ritzy vibe. The cream- and gold-accented room with the bank vault—which once belonged to banker and industrialist John Gilman, who built the mansion—is particularly stunning. If you really want to splurge, reserve a room; the restaurant is open for breakfast to hotel guests every morning.
Maybe it’s a Pavlovian response to binge-watching Stanley Tucci galivanting around the Mediterranean on Searching for Italy that makes us crave the old country’s cuisine. Or maybe it’s the simple notion that in a sea of new-fangled restaurants, we’re always looking for one that has an identity all its own. Whatever the reason, chef Matthew Oetting’s Marta (which took over the former Salt Tavern space) is a neighborhood spot that’s fast on its way to becoming destination dining. With Marta, Oetting honors the classics but adds a modern spin with dishes such as scallop piccata and lobster cacciatore. Our first suggestion as you move through the menu, even if you settle on a more substantial entree: Order as many of the house-made pastas as you can. Oetting, who learned the magic of mixing flour and water at New York City’s famed Scarpetta, raises pasta-making to an art form, whether he’s making his version of a carbonara sauce with miso egg yolk and blue crab served over strands of spaghetti or an envelope-pushing ravioli filled with duck and foie gras. Round out the meal with a nice bottle of old-school Italian wine, then conclude with a glass of amaro. Eat your heart out, Tucci.
THE MILTON INN
Set inside a 281-year-old fieldstone farmhouse, The Milton Inn keeps one foot in the past while standing firmly in the present. The original elegant staircase, the unhurried throwback service, and the vintage framed menu on the wall featuring Terrapin alla Maryland from the restaurant’s first incarnation invoke another era altogether. But co-owner (along with Cindy Wolf and Tony Foreman) and executive chef Chris Scanga, who draws on classical French cuisine, doesn’t only pull from the past to keep this place going. Yes, you’ll find timeless preparations here that are largely rooted in the Languedoc region of France—escargots in garlic-herb butter, onion soup gratinée, roasted guinea fowl. But Scanga, who sources from the finest Mid-Atlantic farms, also devises dishes that appeal to a more modern palate. Coquilles Saint-Jacques rôties, a classic scallop dish, is paired with shishito peppers and local sweet corn soubise, when in season, while the restaurant’s rotating vegetarian offering, a throwaway dish in many places, is treated with reverence here. (On our last visit it was gratin de courgettes—zucchini and Yukon gold potato gratin, baby carrots, haricots verts, almond pistou.) A pan-roasted duck breast is coupled with grilled gem lettuce, baby carrots, and duck bacon and topped with local blueberry compote. Even the burger, in this case made of venison, gets a contemporary twist with duck bacon and a duck fat brioche. With such divine dishes and an ambiance to match, we’ve seen the future at The Milton Inn—and it’s bright.
Dinner at this tucked away restaurant in the back of Harbor East’s Atlas Quarter entertainment district is much more than a meal. But let’s forget for a moment the jazz and blues bands that grace the performance area on weeknights, and the circus, sideshow, and burlesque performers who entertain on Friday and Saturday nights. This restaurant would thrive even if its stage went dark forever. Executive chef Martin Gonzalez’s French-inspired menu is heavy on steaks and seafood, but his own touch is evident throughout. Duck confit and savory crepes pair nicely with tart grapes and jalapeños, creating a sweet and spicy sensation in every bite. After passing a display case packed with rib-eyes and strips, it’s tough to not order one. They’re pricey (at $46, the six-ounce filet is the cheapest), but the nine-ounce American Wagyu bavette ($50) is an uncommon cut that’s juicy and tender. Seafood also stars here, and along with the shellfish tower that’s almost required at a restaurant like this, the wild skate is a solid choice. Monarque is not an everyday restaurant (although it does have an impressive and affordable happy-hour menu), but for a special night out, there’s nothing quite like it in Charm City.
The location of your table just might foretell your destiny at Ouzo Bay. On a recent visit, we were seated across from the seafood display featuring fresh-caught fish from around the world and felt compelled to order a beautiful Aegean branzino from the Mediterranean. It’s grilled in the kitchen and arrives at the table whole but deboned and drizzled with Greek olive oil, offering chunks of mild, sweet meat. But before getting to the main event, we indulged in a wedge of spanakopita, thick with spinach, leeks, and feta, and perched atop a delicious slurry of harissa yogurt. Charred calamari, dotted with feta and floating in a puddle of citrus vinaigrette, was another successful starter. In addition to the fish, we turned to the land section of the Greek-inspired menu for a chargrilled chicken upgraded with harissa honey. And while lima beans may seem ordinary, these imported white beans soared with tomato sauce and feta. A cinnamon-perfumed baklava pulled it all together at the end. The popular waterfront restaurant may have a reputation for glitz and glamour, but the well-prepared food sticks to its earnest Aegean roots.
From top: Spatchcock chicken with mashed potatoes and sorghum-glazed carrots; an array of craft cocktails; the kale Caesar; bartender Todd Dalgliesh shakes and stirs.
t’s happy hour, and a group of teachers are burning off steam from what has already been a long week (never mind that it’s only Wednesday). But they’re not drinking pitchers of cheap beer or eating plates of nachos, and no TVs are mindlessly blaring in the background. In fact, there are no TVs here at all.
“This is a neighborhood spot, but it’s not a sports bar,” says Ahmed Shah, Bondhouse’s general manager, who met the New York-based owner when they both attended the University of Maryland. “You’re not going to get Fireball shots here. There’s not going to be a rowdy crowd. Our goal is to make it so whoever comes in feels comfortable.”
Chef Dominic Stewart.
There are many reasons why. Its friendly staff and inviting aesthetics—plants dotting the bar area, small dining rooms, and a lovely outdoor patio—give it a welcoming aura. The kitchen was originally led by Arthur Palarata, who came from Woodberry Kitchen. Now, it’s helmed by Dominic Stewart, previously at nearby Keystone Korner, and it hasn’t lost a beat. The small menu is heavy on upscale comfort food like corn dogs, fried chicken, and chili, but the best bet in this category is the anything-but-average mac and cheese.
“We start with our mornay sauce, then we add heavy cream,” says Stewart. “Then we add our cheeses to make that sauce velvety. A lot of people think I use Velveeta.” —Mike Unger
Every time we visit this Indian fine-dining den, Keir Singh has been on hand to greet diners. His warmth and sincerity create a welcoming introduction to the 2019 establishment he co-owns with his brother, Binda, along with Ananda. During a recent dinner, Keir, looking resplendent in a royal-blue jacket, held court in the ornate dining room. You sense nothing is going to go wrong on his watch. On warmer days, garage doors are rolled up to expand the setting into a splendid outdoor area with fountains, greenery, and, in the cooler months, heaters. As is true at the Singhs’ other restaurants, both indoors and out complement the accessible Indian fare interspersed with New American offerings. We lean toward the former, relying on starters like gobinda, a sweet-tangy roasted cauliflower dish, and samosa chaat with chickpeas and potatoes. A fish curry with black cod and lamb saag in creamed spinach are impressive mains. We like to finish with rice pudding, uplifted with cardamom and pistachios. This isn’t your grandmother’s dessert, to its credit. And we suspect she never served it in an atmosphere this glamorous.
What do you get when you combine a verdant oasis designed by Patrick Sutton with a farm-to-table-forward menu designed by Chopped champion executive chef Jay Rohlfing? A huge hit, as evidenced by the cool-kids crowd that comes dressed to the nines at Perennial. From the get-go, the two-year-old restaurant opened to great fanfare—after all, finding big-city sophistication in the ’burbs can be a challenge. Perennial’s gorgeous interior and lush, greenery-filled patio are great places to unwind. Plants play a central role on the menu, too. Rohlfing cooks with the seasons, whether that means heirloom tomato salad with mozzarella, sunflower pesto, prosciutto, and basil blossoms in late summer or melted Brie with apple butter and flash-fried blueberries in late fall. There’s also a lineup of terrific signature standards that never moves off the menu. Among them, the inspired Utz-crusted halibut with root slaw, the fried lobster tail with honey butter and lavender salt, and a fat filet mignon topped with crab Oscar. Nightly live music adds to the vibe—and every meal here feels like a garden party.
PETIT LOUIS BISTRO
“Petit” may mean small in French, but Petit Louis is little in name only. After 23 years, this French brasserie has an outsized following, and rightfully so. “Louis,” as it’s affectionately known, strikes the perfect balance between upscale neighborhood casual (especially for the Roland Park crowd who get the $52 whole roasted chicken to-go) and outright special occasion spot. In many ways, it functions like a dinner club that needs no membership, though reservations are recommended. While regulars have been known to get an oh-so- French double cheek kiss from maître d’hôtel (and actual Frenchman) Patrick Del Valle, he makes everyone feel at home with a hearty “bon soir!” or “bonjour!” upon arrival. Here, over plates of trout amandine, magret of duck, and steak frites, business deals go down, lovers get engaged, friends reunite, and children blow out birthday candles planted in profiteroles.
On a recent spontaneous visit to Preserve, we were worried. Reservations can be hard to come by, and so is parking, but somehow we easily snagged street parking and were seated immediately in the intimate, brick-walled space with an open kitchen. You may not always be quite as lucky, but trust us, it’s worth the effort. There’s a reason the place is packed—it’s one of the few Annapolis restaurants offering innovative fare, and chef Jeremy Hoffman (who worked in Thomas Keller’s famed Per Se in NYC), and his co-owner wife, Michelle (who was a maître d’ at Danny Meyer’s Union Square Café in NYC), do it with cool gusto. The kitchen’s reliance on pickling, preserving, and fermenting is evident throughout the Chesapeake watershed-inspired meal. If you only order one starter, focus on the crispy kale, a palate-pleasing mix of crunchy greens tossed with a zingy pepper jelly, a scattering of red onions, and dollops of cumin yogurt. If you’re up for more, the Parmesan-encrusted pierogies stuffed with creamed spinach and tangy pepperoncini are worthy of your attention. The burger with Roseda Farm beef, cheddar, and pickles satisfies any cravings for comfort food. And a lightly battered catfish with thick-cut fries pleases with a malt vinegar aioli. Finish with a cast-iron cobbler with stewed apples and cream cheese frosting and begin planning your next visit.
Upper Fells Point
From top: Serbian pancakes; pierogies with red chile garlic oil and sour cream for sharing; the intimate dining room; heirloom recipe box.
Robbie Tutlewski first started cooking alongside his Serbian grandmother, Donna, in the family’s Indiana home kitchen. As a boy, he would help roll pierogies, bake bread, and make soup. “We cooked together a lot,” says Tutlewski. “I come from a family that made pies instead of buying a crust from a store and my grandmother made palacinkes every morning.”
Given his upbringing, it was practically preordained that Tutlewski’s first jobs would be in hospitality. There was a pizza joint. Then a hippie cafe. Then Olive Garden. At the age of 19, after he took a job at Applebee’s, his mom convinced him to apply to culinary school. Before long, he enrolled at the famed Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Chicago, where he learned culinary basics. His biggest takeaway at the time? “I realized I can’t be working at Applebee’s when I’m around all this great food.” By 2007, Tutlewski moved to Phoenix, Arizona, landing a job at the acclaimed Pizzeria Bianco, where he was schooled in pizza-making by artisanal pizza pioneer Chris Bianco. After several years, he moved again, this time to D.C. to work as a sous chef at the Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat. Still, he dreamed of opening his own place. What finally spurred him was his father’s words in the months before his death from cancer. “He was like, ‘Just do it,’” recalls Tutlewski. “‘Sell your grandmother’s pierogies and apple pies. . .’”
So, after years in the making, the 39-year-old chef opened Little Donna’s in Upper Fells in June 2022—with the restaurant’s name as a tribute to his grandmother, who stood only 4’6” but loomed large in his life and continues to do so on his menu, where Donna’s palacinke (Serbian pancakes) and pierogies are made daily and her recipe card box sits high on a shelf in the bar. In fact, food and family are at the fore of everything the chef does here, and there are nods to his relatives throughout the menu, from the “Jillie Billie” horchata-rum drink named after his late sister to Bob’s Green Salad in honor of his dad. The dishes serve both to honor those he has loved—and lost—and as a tribute to “the culinary journey I’ve been on for the last 25 years,” he says.
Owner-chef Robbie Tutlewski finishes a dish.
With its lace curtains, plaid upholstery, and antique bric-a-brac, even the nostalgic décor of the restaurant in the old Henninger’s space is an ode to his heritage. “It was important to us to get a very grandma and grandpa, Eastern European, gastro tavern vibe,” says Tutlewski. “I love antiquey stuff, old things that have history.”
On this rainy fall morning, like most mornings, Tutlewski is hard at work in his kitchen preparing for the day’s dishes—from a pickle plate with deviled eggs to stuffed pork schnitzel. He mixes the palacinke batter, divides the pierogie dough he’s made the day before with a cookie cutter, and then, using a small scoop, fills them with potatoes, horseradish, sour cream, and butter. He also kneads a different batch of dough for a menu mainstay: his impossibly crisp pizzas. “We don’t use wild yeast,” he explains, “because that’s the pizza that will sit in the fridge and hold up for a few days—that’s not the pizza we are going for. My pizza is of the moment—you have to eat it right away.” Later, just before service begins at 5 p.m., his small kitchen crew arrives. From the cramped kitchen, as diners trickle in, Tutlewski peers anxiously through the small square peephole in the door that leads to the dining room. “I’m always shocked that people show up,” he says. But mere months after opening, Tutlewski has a handful of regulars—and new patrons arrive every week. The sight of patrons in the dining room seems to fuel him. “What Donna instilled in me is the act of feeding people,” says the chef. “My personal love language is acts of kindness.” —Jane Marion
THE PRIME RIB
When The Prime Rib founder Peter “Buzz” Beler passed away in 2019, we feared it would spell the end of this 58-year-old Baltimore institution. Thankfully, that didn’t happen, as he left it in the capable hands of his relatives Rebecca and Brenda Dolan. For a while, there was a long-held rumor that the venerable Calvert Street steakhouse might be moving to more modern digs in Cross Keys, which would mean no more Sinatra-era styling. But Rebecca confirms that the restaurant is staying put. Instead of worrying about all this, on a recent Saturday night, we settled into a black leather banquette and relaxed as the jazz trio kicked into high gear and our flawless gin martinis (chilled and filled to the brim) were placed on a gold charger by our suited server. The vibe is decidedly retro, which is just how we like it. Don’t look for kale, cauliflower, beets, or any newfangled preparations here. At The Prime Rib, there are no Vs or gluten-frees on the menu. Instead, you’ll find prime, aged beef served with fresh shaved horseradish, shrimp cocktail, clams casino, and those famous potato skins. In other words, it’s always 1965 at The Prime Rib—now and (hopefully) forever.
Chef Jose Victorio Alarcon continues to flourish after Puerto 511’s near-death experience during COVID lockdown and the rollercoaster of dining rules that ensued in the months that followed. And we thank the food gods for that. We will forever appreciate the spare-but-cozy main dining area, where tables are close enough to foster a lively atmosphere without being on top of one another, and chef Alarcon always impresses us with his sophisticated dishes and clear-toned flavors of Peru. We adore his seasonally rotating prix-fixe menu, which changes even more regularly based on what ingredients are available, but you can almost always count on dishes with vibrant citrus and tropical flare. Peru is the birthplace of ceviche, so there’s usually some sort of fantastic version of it here. We are also grateful that Puerto 511 remains BYOB, one of the few such establishments in the city. Hit your favorite wine shop beforehand and splurge on something special, because the food here definitely deserves it. If you can swing it, bring two bottles of wine—an unoaked white and a medium-bodied red—so you’ve got fish and meat courses covered. After all, this is the kind of place to sit and stay a while.
RESTAURANTE TÍO PEPE
When you peruse the menu inside one of the dimly lit, cavern-like, stone-walled dining rooms at Tio Pepe, you’ll find a long list of Spanish specialties. But this place is so old school that it also has a secret, word-of- mouth menu for savvy regulars. If you’re a newcomer, go with a veteran—aka a Baltimore lifer—who can rattle off the off-menu items that make our server smile as we order them: the 303 (lobster, crab, shrimp in Champagne sauce—one of 26 house-made sauces), the 202 (grouper, salmon, rockfish, depending on the night), and the whole stuffed lobster floating in whiskey-kissed cream. If you stick to the menu, the suckling pig, the paella, the bottomless pitcher of sangria (of which some 150 are consumed each week), the Spanish coffee (more brandy than caffeine), and the baked Alaska are all famous, as are the Depression- era prices and the Brobdingnagian portions that could easily feed two, three—or even four. Chef-owner Emiliano Sanz, who started his career in a Madrid kitchen at age 12, has presided at Tio’s for 52 of its 55 years. And Oscar, the often-requested server in his signature red coat, isn’t far behind. In other words, they’re doing something—make that everything—right.
Some of the best Indian cuisine in the region can be found in Columbia at Royal Taj. Prepare to be positively wrapped in generosity upon arrival, as everyone on the floor has a greeting for you. And what a floor it is. Opulent chandeliers, lavishly upholstered chairs, and an enormous marble bar imbue the dining experience with a sense of old-world luxury inflected with images of Indian lore. The menu boasts traditional classics like tikka masala and roganjosh (lamb curry in creamy tomato sauce), a range of tandoor favorites, as well as vegetarian and vegan options. The fare is more lustily spiced than the bland take-out versions you may be used to, but not so much as to have you chugging lassi to save your tongue. If you’re a fan, be sure to check out their whiskey carts, loaded up with decadent offerings from around the world.
On a late fall day, no sooner had we sat down with a menu on the pretty patio than our server swooped in to pluck the paper out of our hands, as it was smeared with red sauce. It may seem like a small gesture, but it’s that kind of attention to detail that makes this swanky spot one of the jewels of fine dining in Charm City. Thankfully, there’s similar care in the kitchen. Chef-partner Julian Marucci excels in all Boot Country fare, whether it’s a seasonal special such as a roasted beet-stuffed mezzaluna in late summer or pumpkin agnolotti with balsamic brown butter and hazelnut granola in the fall. There are plenty of innovative dishes (the squid ink campanelle with blue crab and uni cream is an umami dreamscape), but the signature standards—from eggplant Parm to a superior version of rigatoni a la vodka—are celebrations of the genre, too. Add in a deep wine list, clever cocktails, live music, and a dressy but never stuffy vibe, and it’s always a good time. Reservations go fast, so plan accordingly.
Long before the culinary renaissance got started in Station North, this tapas restaurant, owned and operated by the Karzai family, was serving delicious small plates of potato croquetas, gambas al ajillo (that’s shrimp in garlic olive oil), and grilled octopus—all of which have been on offer since the early days. Not much has changed in the 20-plus years since Tapas Teatro opened, but why mess with a good thing? With its century-old exposed brick and convivial vibe, the restaurant, which adjoins The Charles Theatre, is infused with energy as moviegoers cycle in and out every hour or so (and the kitchen serves up to 10 p.m.). But if you’re not adhering to any schedule, it’s also a great place to stick around, especially in the warmer months if you were lucky enough to score a sidewalk table. Whenever you visit, order the obligatory sangria—it’s packed with enough fresh fruit to make a meal and is all too thirst-quenching. (And if you do decide to see a movie, it can travel with you, too.)
THACHER & RYE
There’s a more minimalist feel in the bar and dining rooms of this converted brownstone that houses Bryan Voltaggio’s latest fine-dining concept than there was at Volt, the previous restaurant that occupied the same space and turned the chef into a celebrity, thanks to his star turn on Top Chef. Thankfully, the food and service at Thacher & Rye, named for Voltaggio’s son and the primary grain used to make Maryland whiskey, are as spectacular as ever, making it the premiere dining destination in Frederick. As you move down the menu, the offerings are divided into small plates and entrees. But however you decide to mix and match, you’re in for a treat. A bowl of tuna tartare, served with incredible tahini toast with bread from the nearby Twin Bears Bakery, features dollops of egg yolk pudding that add a richness to the natural flavors of the fish. The lasagna, ethereal sheets of noodles layered with pepperoni Bolognese, is like none you’ve ever had. And short ribs that are smoked, then prepared sous vide for a total of 48 hours before being grilled, are served topped with crispy beef tendon puffs. Every bite of the dish reveals Voltaggio’s maximum brilliance in the kitchen.
THAMES STREET OYSTER HOUSE
Open for a dozen years in an old converted rowhouse along Fells Point’s waterfront, this two-story seafood stalwart has a fantastic raw bar and drink menu befitting its location. Start with the little paper checklist at your seat or on your table, the kind you get at sushi bars, that reads like a fishmonger’s cheat sheet and includes the name, home state, price, and detailed description of raw offering delicacies such as Jonah crab claws, tins of Portuguese sardines with a grilled baguette, Dutch pickled herring with caperberries, and, yes, raw oysters, clams, and quahog clams. Order as many as you can, with the caveat that you’ll need to save room for the obligatory, award-winning lobster roll and anything longtime executive chef-partner Eric Houseknecht has on the menu. The place is as narrow and crowded as rowhouses can get, so consider going for lunch, when there are specials—bouillabaisse on Friday, whole fish on Saturdays, Eastern Shore oyster stew on Sundays. Not only is the Marseillais stew excellent, but it comes over house pappardelle, of all things, creating a creamy, saffrony glory that might make it difficult to think of dessert. Try, as they’re awfully good, too: Nor’easter eggnog, passion fruit pies. You won’t find them anywhere else.
Clockwise from top: Firing orders on the grill line; the dining room; the grilled tenderloin salad with crispy onions.
A steady stream of diners starts flowing through the front door of this 35-year-old Baltimore County favorite around 5:30 at night, and they don’t seem to stop until every seat in the dining room, on the “grill line,” and at the bar is taken. Many seem to know at least one other customer or one of the veteran servers or bartenders on hand—it’s that kind of place. The upscale restaurant is run with an eye toward quality and consistency, both in the front and the back of the house. It’s evident in the dishes that emerge from the open kitchen, like octopus that’s perfectly grilled and served with hummus, black olive tapenade, and pickled banana peppers. The blackened mahi mahi has crisp skin, but the interior of the fish remains flaky and smooth, with extra kicks of spice delivered by the pico de gallo that topped it. For those looking for something a bit less fancy, the pizzas are enduringly popular—just like the restaurant itself.
TRUE CHESAPEAKE OYSTER CO.
Once a pioneer occupant at Whitehall Mill, True Chesapeake is now surrounded by other great tenants, which in turn lends a warmer and more welcoming feel to the entire restaurant. A friendly staff certainly helps, and we love the airy, lofty feel of this converted industrial space with crushed oyster shells embedded in the bar. TCOC farms their own oysters on St. Jerome Creek in southern Maryland, so it’s no surprise that the menu is a veritable oyster celebration. We suggest going straight for The Chef, The Shucker, The Farmer—a riot of oysters Rockefeller, Old Bay roasted oysters, steamed mussels, clams, and Gulf shrimp. It serves as an appetizer for four or a meal for two and showcases just how well TCOC does seafood. Anyone in your party not interested in bivalves will still come away impressed by chef Zack Mills’ riff on fried chicken with butternut squash broth or his truly decadent burger slathered with bacon mayo and stacked with fried pickles. (And if you’re a pasta fan, his middleneck clams and spaghetti small plate is the stuff of legends.) The beer list is impressive, the wine list features a section dedicated to Maryland, and the cocktails are on point, too. Bring your out-of-town friends here if you want to show your Chesapeake pride.
Cut through the crowd and the party atmosphere at Cross Street Market, then head straight to this 46-seat haven with its green velvet curtains and checkered floor. Velleggia’s opened its doors last November, though it’s the second iteration of the same-named Little Italy legend that debuted back in 1937 (before closing in 2008). Owner Brendon Hudson (whose great-grandfather was none other than Enrico Velleggia), along with his partner in both business and life, David Monteagudo, are focused on house-made pastas, veal, and seafood. The duo, who also own Allora, put a modern spin on the classics, such as an oysters casino with tomato sauce and prosciutto. First-timers should focus on the house-made pasta. The lobster fra diavalo, with its al dente spaghetti, gobs of lobster, and spicy marinara, is a must, as is the vegetarian pasta e fagioli. This version features tubular paccheri pasta coated in a sauce consisting of creamy beans and hearty greens. There’s also an impressive pasta and seafood dish that’s basically the entire ocean—shrimp, lobster, clams—over a pile of linguini. Given the restaurant’s provenance, it’s no surprise that it’s off to such a great start.
XENIA GREEK KOUZINA
You can’t help but feel immersed in the serenity of the sea at Xenia. The main color scheme is azure, the seating has gentle curves, and the dining room’s main light fixture looks like a wave. The soothing ambiance suits the delicious Greek fare, including whole fish, which are grilled and deboned in the kitchen before being served with a delicate lemon sauce. If you want excitement, start your meal with the flaming cheese saganaki, a fine choice that will draw all eyes to your table as a server sets the dish on fire. Or you can dig into an excellent Greek salad or avgolemono, a chicken-lemon soup bolstered by tiny orzo. The spanakopita appetizer is large enough for a main meal. We also liked the satisfying pastitsio, a savory macaroni-andbeef dish draped with creamy béchamel. Between the food and setting, Xenia is a dreamy refuge.
From top: Duck confit with morello cherry sauce, wild rice pilaf, and grilled fennel; the sunlit space; new executive chef Amy Hessel; the falafel-crusted salmon with fava beans and herbs.
mong the many great joys of The Tilted Row, open since 2019 on the ground floor of a spiffy, modernist Bolton Hill apartment complex, are the open kitchen and the chef’s counter that fronts it. There, you—along with some of the restaurant’s many regulars—can pull up a chair and have the pleasure of watching executive chef Amy Hessel and her team cook and plate your dinner in real-time. There’s lots of patter among the kitchen crew and they often chat with the customers, like friendly bartenders crossed with a Chef’s Table kitchen brigade. Many of the regulars come in specifically, understandably, for the fried chicken—a Thursday Blue-Plate special served with biscuits, coleslaw, and cinnamon-butter that is a floorshow to watch being made. If you order Hessel’s falafel-crusted salmon, and you should, the process is more restrained but equally instructive. Hessel, in a black chef’s coat and red bandana taming her dark curls, will call out, “Fire salmon medium rare,” then begin to assemble the dish while one of her kitchen staff of five reads the temperature of the fryer oil for the chicken and calls back, “Can I get a biscuit in the oven, please?”
Hessel actually made falafel as part of the three-course meal she cooked when interviewing for the head chef job in the summer of 2022. This is remarkable for a number of reasons, not least because owner Ziad Maalouf is originally from Lebanon—where falafel is a traditional, beloved dish—and Hessel is not. At 44, she grew up in Houston, Texas, and came back to her family’s hometown of Baltimore in 1998 to attend Baltimore International College’s culinary program, where she excelled in both savory and pastry—the combo as much a rarity as the number of women running fine-dining kitchens.
“I’m a unicorn, because I also like front-of-house,” says Hessel, who holds a degree in restaurant management. “I can run every facet of the restaurant—and I love every part of it equally.” She worked various jobs to help support her family. She started a baking business. She owned the New Freedom Rail Trail Café in York County, PA, where she and her husband and three kids still live. Shortly after closing the cafe, she saw the open position at The Tilted Row. “I knew from the second I applied, this was where I needed to be,” says Hessel. “I love what I’m doing when I’m creating. Whatever I can imagine is able to be a reality.” That reality is what’s on display when she works later that evening, plating the falafel-crusted salmon with bright green favas and dots of fresh herbs, and a wide brushstroke of Lebanese tahini. There’s also a towering stack of ratatouille Napoleon, and a signature side dish of Hasselbeck carrots. “I’ve always been drawn to those flavors; even when I cook at home, that’s what I’m reaching for in the spice cabinet,” says Hessel of the Middle Eastern direction of much of the restaurant’s repertoire, which is dusted with as much za’atar, dukkah, and Aleppo pepper as a Damascus spice market.
Long before making it for her future employer, Hessel made falafel at her cafe. “I told my husband, this is either going to be the most brilliant thing ever, or I’m going to fall on my face, and he looks at me, and he’s like, ‘Well, it’s really good.’” So are the desserts, because Hessel makes all of them, too, including a brown-butter toffee cake and a chocolate-pistachio-date cake with orange-blossom whipped cream that looks like the most beautifully plated candy bar. “I wear a lot of hats,” she says, and although there’s no actual toque, you imagine one, tall as her restaurant’s lofty ceiling. —Amy Scattergood