There's Never Been a Better Time to Eat in Baltimore

Charm City is worth a trip for the restaurants alone. Here are the places you can't miss.

Alma Cocina Latina
Photo: Irena Stein

The Chesapeake Bay's bounty has blessed Baltimore with oysters, rockfish, and the beloved Maryland Blue Crab, making it a known destination for fresh seafood. Visitors are spoiled for choice: Eat steamed crabs on the deck at L.P. Steamers in Locust Point, mammoth crab cakes at neighborhood gem Koco's Pub in Lauraville, or a dizzying array of bivalves at True Chesapeake Oyster Co. But Charm City's culinary scene now appeals to a broader palate, with more vegetarian options, international influences, and Black chefs representing Maryland food.

A prime example is Magdalena, a Maryland Bistro, located on the first floor of the Relais & Chateaux Ivy Hotel in Baltimore's Mount Vernon neighborhood. Under the direction of the restaurant's first Black head chef, Scott Bacon, the menu has taken on more vegetable-centric dishes, like the charred eggplant served atop smoked sweet potato yogurt. Grouper from local waters is tinged with berbere spice, while the grilled shrimp's romesco sauce turns up the heat with gochujang— reflecting the experiences of a chef who grew up in a Baltimore suburb, but whose well-traveled family inspired him to experiment with flavors.

"There are a lot of chefs trying to do more for the city and more customers that are willing to try different flavors than five to seven years ago," says David Zamudio, the Venezuelan-born executive chef of Alma Cocina Latina. Zamudio first started working there in 2016, which he followed with stints in Spain and Mexico before returning in 2019.

Alma Cocina Latina
Irena Stein

Zamudio has shifted the restaurant's focus from mostly Venezuelan cuisine to pan-Latin dishes, incorporating flavors from Mexico, Peru, and Argentina — sometimes all in the same dish. The burrata salad, for instance, features the sweet plantain eaten in Venezuela, blue corn tortilla from Mexico, and a chimichurri sauce that represents Argentina. Fans of their once-signature dish, arepas, will be happy to note that Zamudio and Alma founders Irena Stein and Mark Demshak will open Alma Arepa Bar spring 2023 in the same neighborhood, Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

Baltimore has, of course, always offered more than crab cakes or meat and potatoes. Residents have been savoring dishes like the yogurt-topped baked pumpkin appetizer at Afghani restaurant the Helmand for decades and the assorted chaats and samosas in Hampden's the Verandah Kitchen since 2011. Spike Gjerde won the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2015 for his seminal farm-to-table cuisine at Woodberry Kitchen, which showed as much love to produce as protein. (Woodberry Kitchen will reopen as Woodberry Tavern with an updated menu but the same commitment to local sourcing, according to a restaurant rep.)

Courtesy of Magdalena

But the city is getting more recognition for its diverse culinary scene. The JBA recognized Carlos Raba, chef at the buzzy taqueria and mezcaleria Clavel, as a semifinalist for Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, while Peter Chang's Szechuan spot NiHao was a finalist for Best New Restaurant. Chef Cindy Wolf also received her 13th James Beard Award nomination for her French-influenced Southern cooking at Charleston, one of the city's best fine-dining restaurants.

While seafood might always remain Baltimore's bread and butter, more Black chefs like Bacon are redefining who gets to represent the city's cuisine. The one-year-old Blk Swan in Harbor East serves Baltimore staples like crab cakes and an upscale spin on the Baltimore chicken box — fried chicken with fries that's usually reserved for carry out. Jasmine Norton, who became Maryland's first Black woman to own an oyster bar when she debuted the Urban Oyster in 2019, says she will reopen her seafood restaurant in the Hampden neighborhood early next year with 58 seats and a chef's table. Amanda Mack will reopen an expanded version of Crust by Mack bakery, serving her sellout crab pies in midtown Baltimore this fall, after running out of space in Whitehall Market.

The shift in dining experiences is due, in part, to massive urban developments that bring new chefs to the mix. Lexington Market, a downtown food market in operation since 1782, will reopen late fall after a $45 million overhaul and half of its vendors will be Black-owned, including the hearty breakfast spot from Sunny Side café, Connie's Chicken and Waffles, and Bmore Vegan Joint. The latter joins Baltimore's expanding list of meatless options. Los Angeles-based celeb vegan chef and restaurateur Matthew Kenney opened the upscale Liora and pizzeria Double Zero last year in a new downtown luxury apartment building. While some locals grumble about the gentrifying effects of new developments, Bacon says, "The blossoming food scene has helped propel urban development as much as the other way around."

Alma Cocina Latina
Irena Stein

One of Bacon's favorite restaurants is Alma neighbor Foraged, whose chef owner Chris Amendola searches for seasonal ingredients in the woods. The restaurant serves one of the city's most impressive "crab cake." Made with lion's mane mushrooms, its texture is remarkably similar to the real thing. "He forages a ton of ingredients and has been inspiring to me," Bacon says.

A block from Foraged, four-year-old Le Comptoir du Vin has garnered acclaim for its simple French dishes that change daily and its otherworldly sourdough. Other noteworthy independent restaurants include the two-year-old eclectic comfort food spot, Sally O's, from Top Chef alum Jesse Sandlin, and CookHouse, which opened in a historic brownstone just before the pandemic hit.

Says Bacon, "I think that the food and hospitality scene in Baltimore is something very special that is gaining a lot of momentum and will be relevant in the rest of the country very soon."

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