Food & Drink

With a New Wave of Dining and Nightlife, Federal Hill is Ready to Reintroduce Itself

The historic neighborhood is undergoing a culinary renaissance, and longtime business owners are welcoming the new energy.

For years, Ricardo Jones, owner of Sangria Patio Bar in Mt. Vernon, toyed with plans to launch a local eatery with Matthew “Bull” Lasinski of Alliance Restaurant Group. COVID-19 came. Then in the spring of 2020, Lasinski, owner of Southern Provisions in Canton’s O’Donnell Square, approached Jones with a probable location for the venture—the former Ryleigh’s Oyster space in Federal Hill.

Initially, Jones says the pair considered small revisions to the seafood fixture’s ambiance and polished pub fare.

“[Matthew] thought ‘maybe we could keep it the same and just upgrade the menu,’” to which Jones replied: “Let me think on it.” The rest, as the friendly restaurateur recalls, “just kind of hit one day.”

“I don’t know one person who doesn’t love New Orleans,” Jones says. “Everybody loves that city. We wanted to bring that feeling up here.”

And with NOLA Seafood and Spirits, the Creole-centered eatery that emerged last month, Jones and Lasinski are offering a taste of the Big Easy by way of East Cross Street. To help curate a menu for the concept, the pair consulted their good friend, and New Orleans native, Donnie Stykes—who now happens to be the personal chef of actor Michael B. Jordan. They kept some local staples like lump crab cakes and raw oysters in the seafood-heavy mix. And for six months, Jones says that Stykes prepared the staff to master dishes such as creamy crawfish étouffée, Gulf shrimp po’ boys, and slow-simmered “Uptown” gumbo. 

Meanwhile, the two-story former Ryleigh’s building—already equipped with wood beam ceilings, elegant mood lighting, and on-trend exposed brick—was refreshed with some cheery pops of greenery, sleek marble, and spacious, warm-hued seating in the upstairs lounge. 

“It’s all about the food and the vibes,” Jones says. “We want people to come in and have a great meal and a good time—and that goes for all ages. We’re going for fun.”

Cocktails and shrimp spinach artichoke dip at NOLA.
—Courtesy of NOLA Seafood and Spirits via Facebook

NOLA is one of many new chef-driven concepts adding to the staple pubs that the fresh-out-of-college crowd has long frequented in the heart of Federal Hill. Along with others—including Atlas Restaurant Group’s Chesapeake-influenced Watershed on the roof of Cross Street Market (plus all of the local merchants down below) and the forthcoming French-inspired No Way Rosè from chef Ashish Alfred—NOLA is ushering in a new, emboldened wave of hospitality to the historic neighborhood. 

For Anna Leventis, who acquired SoBo Cafe on West Cross Street ten years ago this month, it signals fresh potential for the storied neighborhood and its evolving restaurant scene.

“When I purchased SoBo, Federal Hill definitely had the reputation of college-type sports bars, because of our proximity to the stadiums. But at that point, we still had a number of restaurants. Corks was still open, and we still had Regi’s,” says Leventis, also the owner of SoBo Market on East Randall Street. “I’m one of the only restaurants left in the neighborhood. So I’m excited that new restaurants are opening and that [Federal Hill] is potentially going to become more of a dining destination, like some other neighborhoods in Baltimore.”

So what, exactly, is causing the sudden influx of new eateries? Jones speculates that it’s due to the ongoing development in South Baltimore.

“I think Federal Hill is actually changing, and part of that is probably because there are a lot of new buildings going up,” he says, citing the nearby Port Covington developments as an attraction to newcomers.

Also influential, he wagers, is the neighborhood’s proximity to major highways including I-95 and 295, which “bring in lots of transplants from around the area.” All of these things, Jones says, make Federal Hill a “prime location” for incoming business. However, they might be a deterrent when it comes to the brick-paved neighborhood’s default twenty-something crowd. 

“Rent, lease, everything is rising,” he says. “So if you’re 24, Federal Hill is not as affordable as it might be for someone in their early thirties.”

The exterior and a burger night special at SoBo Cafe, whose owner Anna Leventis acquired the West Cross Street cafe ten years ago this month.
—Courtesy of SoBo Cafe via Facebook

Young hopefuls planning to move to the historic district might see this new shift as a stumbling block. But for Alfred—owner of Duck Duck Goose, a modern Parisian restaurant based in Fells Point and Bethesda—this changing of the tides is what made Federal Hill an ideal place to bring a new dining venue. 

“We’ve had the opportunity to come here once or twice before, and I wasn’t sure that the timing was right,” Alfred says. “Federal Hill just felt very young to me. But over the last year or two, to watch the neighborhood evolve a little bit has just been really exciting.” 

In the coming months, Alfred’s newest concept, No Way Rosè—which will highlight a French bistro spin with a raw bar, elevated weekend brunch, and zero-proof libations—will take the place of the former Bookmakers Cocktail Club at 31 E. Cross St. In addition to providing South Baltimore visitors and Federal Hill residents with fare they might not otherwise find nearby, Alfred says that he’s excited to be included among the neighborhood’s long line of bar and restaurant owners. 

“What makes [having Duck Duck Goose] in Fells Point so great is the business owners that have been down there for years, who show up every day to scrub their front steps and put their furniture out,” he says. “I think the same thing makes these businesses in Fed Hill amazing, as well. Being able to rub shoulders with some people that have been behind the stick for as long as they have, that’s a huge accomplishment.” 

The feeling is mutual for Dave Rather, owner of neighborhood fixture Mother’s Federal Hill Grille.

“When we started 25 years ago, the neighborhood was definitely different,” Rather says. “There weren’t nearly as many bars and restaurants here. Now there’s like 25 more options. In one sense, it’s more competition. But in another sense, it means more options to attract other people to our neighborhood.”

As for Mother’s: “We love being in Federal Hill,” Rather sums up. “It’s come a long way.”

Get to Know a Few of the Neighborhood Newbies


Cross Street Public House: Andrew Carter and Jesse Selke—the partners behind Delia Foley’s and AJ’s on Hanover, both located a few blocks from the hustle of Cross Street—teamed up with local restaurateur-turned-pizza guru Andrew Zink to bring this slice of Motor City goodness to the former home of Stalking Horse. Earlier this month, the Detroit-style pizza joint unveiled a killer spread of cheesy, sharp-edged bites, ranging from a classic margherita with fresh basil to the sliced dill pickle and ricotta-topped “Big D.” 26 E. Cross St. Wednesday–Saturday: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Sunday: 11 a.m.- 2 a.m.

Hard Water Bar & Grill: Last May, this nautical eatery took over the previous Metropolitan Coffeehouse and Winebar space on South Charles Street. Dishes to look out for include “Shrimp Cargot,” (a pasta-less shrimp scampi served inside a toasty bread bowl,) grilled mahi-mahi tacos, melty flatbreads, and a host of handheld sandwiches. 902 S. Charles St  Monday- Friday: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Weekends: 10 a.m.-2 a.m.

NOLA Seafood and Spirits: With help from the Cane Collective team to curate sips—and New Orleans-based chef Donnie Stykes to supply authentic creole dishes—restaurant owners Matthew Lasinski and Ricardo Jones were able to channel the spirit of the bayou (and Jones’ love of the French Quarter) with this new spot, which opened in the former Ryleigh’s Oyster space last month. In addition to a lineup of live, jazzy tunes on weekends, patrons can expect a late-night menu to be offered in the coming weeks. Look out for the likes of “Mardi Gras Mambo Shrimp” and a vegan burger to be served past 10 p.m. 36 E. Cross Street. Monday – Friday: 4 p.m. – 2 a.m. Weekends: 11a.m.- 2 a.m.

Smokin Joe’s Open Pit BBQ: In August, the former home of Urban Deli  (before it moved to its current digs up Light Street) the took a saucy left turn, one that would allow this beloved pop-up shop to put down permanent roots. Stop in to sample farm-to-table takes on classic Southern comfort fare, including smoked chicken, pit beef, chopped barbecue brisket, and homemade sides. 1448 Light St. 

Wayward Smokehouse: We know, we know. This Southern-inspired hangout is far from new. But it did just unveil an outdoor patio, just in time to cheer the birds on with your chosen purple crew. All season long, crush tater skins and crispy sips while showing your support for the team. 1117 S Charles St.  Wednesday-Friday: 4-10 p.m. Weekends: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.


No Way Rosé: Remembering the French and Mediterranean cuisine that he enjoyed at Bagatelle—an upscale, brunch-forward bistro housed in New York City’s meatpacking district—Ashish Alfred of Duck Duck Goose was set on bringing Baltimore a similar experience in the form of this pink-emblazoned restaurant in the previous Bookmakers Cocktail Club. Expected to debut next summer, No Way Rosè will offer bubbly wines and swanky zero-proof cocktails, in addition to a raw bar and classic French dishes such as coq au vin. 31 E. Cross St.

P.A.L.M.: MaGerk’s Pub and Grill owners Paul and Jaclyn Dolaway are hoping that their latest spot, which heads to the former Social Pub and Pie space, will be what CBGB was to Blondie and The Talking Heads—a launchpad for eager local musicians. Unlike its predecessor venue, this one plans to offer tasty bites to boot. In addition to a five-night performance lineup, P.A.L.M.—which stands for “Pretty Awesome Live Music”—will serve up Tennessee favorites, such as pulled pork, biscuits, mac and cheese, and spicy Nashville hot chicken. 25 E. Cross Street