Before it closed in 1986, the Chesapeake Restaurant in the Baltimore neighborhood now known as Station North attracted diners from all over the country. Washingtonians would regularly step off the train at Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station and walk a block or so to spend an evening at the elegant spot. Musicians, movie stars, athletes, and locals sought a table in one of the six dining rooms in the multi-story building on North Charles Street to feast on dishes such as charcoal-broiled steaks, two-pound lobsters, jumbo imperial crab, and Caesar salad.
But as city dwellers relocated to the county, neighborhoods changed, and palates shifted to lighter fare, venerable dining establishments like the Chesapeake—and Danny’s, Haussner’s, and Pimlico Hotel—started to shutter, and Baltimore’s restaurant scene took on a different perception nationally. Though those of us who live here know better.
In a 2021 article, Forbes magazine noted that for years, “dining options in [the] Inner Harbor were mostly limited to fast food, big-name chains, and other mediocre spots targeting tourists.” Today, Baltimore restaurants garner the occasional mention in the national media. In fact, we have so much hometown pride, that every time it happens, you’d think we really rate, which we know we do, but not with the critics.
Ekiben, Fadensonnen, and Alma Cocina Latina got a shout out in Condé Nast Traveler in 2021. Le Comptoir du Vin in Station North was named one of Bon Appétit’s best new restaurants in 2019, and The Elk Room in Harbor East got a nod as a top bar in 2018 in Esquire. And yet, when you compare Charm City to other cities—New York, Chicago, even tiny Portland, Maine—we don’t get the culinary respect we deserve. Case in point: the highly coveted James Beard Awards.
Since the James Beard Foundation started handing out the prestigious honors in 1991, the attention that Baltimore gets is cursory. The judges have only tapped a city chef as a winner one time. And that was seven years ago when Spike Gjerde, the chef-owner of Woodberry Kitchen, received the award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2015.
The foundation has noted the Baltimore area in other ways with a nostalgic nod, instead of an acknowledgement of the present. In the past, Maison Marconi, which closed in 2005, and Schultz’s Crab House in Essex have been recognized as America’s Classics, a specialty category that honors locally owned places in a community. But it will be another dry year for Charm City when the Beard Awards are held June 13 in Chicago. None of this year’s Baltimore semifinalists made it to the next step.
There were three semifinalists leading up to the announcement of the finalists in March—CindyWolf, thechef at Charleston in Harbor East and co-owner of the Foreman Wolf restaurant group, for Outstanding Chef (of note, the beloved chef is a nine-time finalist for the Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic category but has never won it); Carlos Raba of Clavel in Remington for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic; and NiHao in Canton, operated by Lydia Chang, the daughter of acclaimed restaurateur Peter Chang, for Best New Restaurant. (NiHao also ranked No. 4 on Esquire’s 2020 Best New Restaurants roundup.)
“I was very sad and frustrated to not see Cindy on that list [of finalists] because she epitomizes excellence in Baltimore,” says Bill Addison, the restaurant critic at The Los Angeles Times and a former national restaurant critic for Eater, who grew up in Harford County. “I think that Cindy Wolf still deserves to have a place on the lists.”
In 2020, the Beard Foundation canceled its annual awards ceremony for two years to create a more equitable and transparent voting process and to devise a new code of ethics to promote diversity within its ranks and nominees. “There is a reckoning,” notes Addison about the changes. “And a reckoning should include a geographic acknowledgement. Baltimore gets overlooked between Washington and Philadelphia. Those two cities seem to hog all the nominations, and there are deserving chefs that should have a place on those lists in Baltimore.”
“…THERE ARE A LOT OF PEOPLE HERE WHO DESERVE RECOGNITION FOR THEIR WORK ON THE FOOD SCENE.”
Some dining sites like Eater only acknowledge Charm City’s presence in connection with the nation’s capital, recently posting “Baltimore’s 38 Essential Restaurants.” Washington is one of 25 cities the food website covers. Baltimore isn’t included.
“One of our issues is Washington. Washington is much bigger,” says Tony Foreman, CEO and wine director at the Foreman Wolf restaurant group. He notes that a lot more money is invested in D.C. restaurants and its proximity to Baltimore “hurts us” with the press. “We get lumped into one mega area with some writers. Michelin Guide goes to D.C. but does not come to Baltimore.”
Alex Smith, president of the Atlas Restaurant Group, which operates 21 properties in the Baltimore area, including Ouzo Bay and The Bygone in Harbor East, also posits that many publications and websites target markets where there are more people than there are in Baltimore.
“They focus on D.C. They focus on Philly. They treat us as a stepchild culinary-wise,” Smith says. “It’s unfortunate because there are a lot of people here who deserve recognition for their work on the food scene.”
The city is also left out of many of the food-destination roundups, which frequently recognize places like New York City, Los Angeles, and New Orleans—though Baltimore did get a rare slot in a 2019 Yelp list for “Top 10 Foodie Cities in the U.S.,” coming in at No.9.
Addison believes Baltimore should embrace its crab and seafood roots to attract diners. “As a dining culture, it has singular elements that don’t exist anywhere else,” he says. “Maryland crab houses serving Maryland crabs in season, spiced in a way that can be traced back to Baltimore’s place in the global trading economy, make it a global food destination.”
He’s a big fan of novelty dishes like gooey crab dip and crab fluffs and Maryland traditions like slurping oysters, eating coddies on saltine crackers, and chowing down on tender pit-beef sandwiches. “That kind of regionally specific goodness exists among communities and neighborhoods with a deep Baltimore lineage: the Black community, Little Italy, and Greektown,” he says. “They’re all adding to this flavor that is uniquely Baltimore and makes it very special.”
But Addison realizes that those outside the state might be looking for something more avant-garde when it comes to designated food cities. “There seems to be this implied notion of innovation, fresh takes, and varieties of cuisine that make a place especially exciting,” he says. “If you’re talking about that notion of hotness and freshness and winning awards, it’s a Catch-22. You don’t make it onto those [awards] lists if people don’t travel here to eat. And if you don’t eat here, you don’t understand how fantastic the traditions are and how there is innovation percolating on the ground.”
Currently, Beard committee members are not technically required to visit the semifinalists’ restaurants before selecting the finalists, although they usually do. The top five finalists in each category get in-person visits to decide on the winners.
The voting body, which was expanded in 2021 to reflect the demographics of the U.S., now includes food and beverage writers, restaurant critics, book authors, food-studies scholars, and culinary instructors. A returning judge this year, Nikki Buchanan, a dining critic at Phoenix magazine, reported how she was advised by the Beard Foundation to watch videos about bias regarding race, gender, age, and how to recognize it. Her takeaway: “America’s most prestigious awards organization for the restaurant industry is making efforts to get it right.”
“In the end, with the Beards, there’s always a flavor of the month,” Foreman says. “We do our own thing, and it’s not particularly connected to what’s going on in the U.S. We largely research what they’re doing in Europe.”
He acknowledges that outsiders may think of Baltimore as just a crab town. “You watch Monday Night Football, and you hear the announcer say, ‘Here we are in the big crab cake,’” he says. “Our city is a more complete melting pot. There are some of the best tacos in the country, some of the best Italian in the country. And so on. There’s no one schtick.”
Foreman thinks that certain media outlets also peg Baltimore as one-dimensional. “I don’t think it’s that way. We’re the city of John Waters,” he says. “We have some quirky stuff. It’s cool. It’s quality.”
Craig LaBan, a restaurant critic at The Philadelphia Inquirer since 1998, thinks cities like Baltimore go unnoticed because of changes in the media industry that affect coverage. Publications have folded, and magazines like Esquire, GQ, and Bon Appétit have lost some of their luster and had their budgets slashed, which means less travel for the food writers who cover the scene. “It’s a disadvantage for a small market,” he says.
But he points out that getting recognized nationally shouldn’t be the goal. “What’s more important is building a dining scene to serve the community at a high level,” he says. “The awards are so flawed, so capricious.”
Foreman agrees. “Charleston is 25 years old, and it’s more popular than ever,” he says. “Why? We’re here for the guests. We cook and clean for a living. There are plenty of places that get written about, but they don’t have that kind of loyalty.”
LaBan suggests that Baltimore capitalize on positives like affordability. “There are people who can’t afford New York or D.C.,” he says. “Baltimore has that advantage. The opportunities are there for chefs.”
He also thinks that David Simon’s The Wire gives Baltimore a certain allure, despite being a crime drama. “It’s the characters, the personalities, the texture,” he says. “What comes through is love. There’s terroir to Baltimore.”
“ONCE PEOPLE ARE HERE AND EXPERIENCE THE CITY, THEY FIND OUT WHAT BALTIMORE HAS TO OFFER.”
But Alex Smith worries that The Wire has led to a national impression that Baltimore is a dangerous place to visit. “While there is a lot of crime, there are also a lot of areas that are really safe,” he says. “I can’t solve the crime. All I can do is work to change the public perception and let people know that there are a lot of great things going on in the city.”
His solution is to provide jobs that pay a living wage and to create a culinary culture that brings people to local businesses to change the narrative of the city. “That’s part of what we’ve been trying to do at our restaurant group,” he says. “Once people are here and experience the city, they find out what Baltimore has to offer.”
Al Hutchinson, president and CEO of Visit Baltimore, acknowledges that Baltimore may be an underdog in the national arena. “What we’re attempting to do is uplift the storytelling about our local establishments,” he says. “We do that through our website, where we really highlight the local food scene in Baltimore.” He points to a recently produced directory that highlights Black-owned businesses.
He also credits local food bloggers like Chyno: The Blue Bearded Foodie, Charm City Table, and Eat More Baltimore with increasing the visibility of Baltimore restaurants. “Their voices are very important to make sure we continue to get the word out that Baltimore is a food destination,” he says. “I think the Baltimore food story is top of the line, but we have to do more to continue to tell that story.”
Ashish Alfred, chef-owner of Duck Duck Goose in Fells Point, Bethesda, and one recently opened in Washington, D.C., and No Way Rosé in Federal Hill, supports the narrative. “I moved here to open a restaurant,” says the Bethesda native, who lives in Canton. “Baltimore restaurants can stand up to other restaurants. I can say this as somebody who owns a restaurant in D.C.”
Alfred recognizes how frustrating it is not to get media attention. But he soon realized that even though he wasn’t getting write-ups in his early years, his restaurants were doing well. “It used to drive me crazy,” he says about the lack of national reviews. “Then I realized it’s about doing a good job for the sake of doing a good job.”
He, too, is concerned about the city’s public-safety reputation.
“Baltimore’s not seen as a food destination because people don’t want to come to Baltimore, and I can’t say I blame them,” he says. “People can’t come down here with their families without being accosted by the squeegee kids. And parts of the city that were once considered very safe and secure, now people have second thoughts about them because they see what happens in the news.”
Still, he backs his adopted city whole-heartedly. “Baltimore is a city made up of amazing people,” he says. “It’s an exciting city to be in the hospitality industry, despite all the odds. . . .The recognition will come. It’s not here yet, but it’s coming.”