641 S. Montford Ave., (410) 732-3000, www.birchesrestaurant.com
Birches is a dual-purpose neighborhood restaurant. On weekday evenings, it's a drop-by destination for treats from the wood-burning grill--hamburgers and pizza, available with foodie-pleasing toppings like chipotle aioli, roasted shallots, applewood-smoked bacon, and Gruyere. On Friday and Saturday nights, it's a retreat for savvy, grown-up comfort food--wood-grilled steaks and seafood, chicken Benedict, and a dream-come-true steak sandwich. Meal-spanning musts: the cobb salad and the all-fired-up chocolate cake. The space is cozy and the staff is superfriendly, but one caveat: The bill quietly creeps up.
2701 Boston St., (410) 558-0202, www.bobrooks.com
It's quite simple: Steamed crabs taste better when eaten while looking at the water, Bo Brooks offers reliably large, meaty (and, alas, pricey) crustaceans at a primo waterfront location with stellar harbor views in both summer (on the spacious outdoor deck) and winter (from the comfortable heated dining room). The crabs are always excellent here. The only other menu items you need concern yourself with are the crab soups--Maryland is spicy and veggie-laden, the cream of crab thick and lumpy with back fin--and the house special gargantuan onion rings. OK, you can also have the soft-shell crab sandwich.
3123 Elliott St., (410) 522-0222
Movie location scouts should have Buddy's on file. It's about as typical a Baltimore-neighborhood-bar-with-a-dowdy-dining-room as they're likely to find. There is one anomaly--an open kitchen--a hint that Buddy's wants to dish up more than pub grub. And although the results are uneven, there are noticeable, admirable efforts to fancy up the fare--specials like a chicken velute underpinning a stuffed breast. But the most reliable things here are the standards, in particular a phenomenally satisfying crab cake, which is large, lumpy, silky, and pleasantly salty.
3301 Boston St., Suite 102, (410) 276-8900, www.cantonspearls.com
Canton's Pearls calls to mind a progressive country club. It's well-designed, with a steadily scheduled lineup of live jazz performances; and the menu deploys good-looking versions of food that appeals to the whiskey-and-gin crowd--pan-roasted New York strip, stuffed shrimp, grilled salmon. There's more adventure with the appetizers (pointlessly called “small plates” here) including tuna carpaccio and soft-shell crab. The splashy space lends itself particularly well to happy-hour mixing and comfortable brunching. Major incentives: the parking lot and the jazz.
2921 O'Donnell St., (410) 342-0999, www.coburnstavern.com
Unlike other taverns, Coburn's existence as a restaurant is not incidental. And the fact that it sweats the details is made clear by touches as simple as the charger plates set on the dining tables. Consistently, the food betrays evidence of finesse and careful attention, and the kitchen sends out food that looks like dinner, fully assembled plates with carefully sauced meat, seafood, and sides. Regulars know to pay attention to the specials and to show up on Wednesdays for $15.99 filet mignon dinners as well as the weekend breakfast and awesome brownie sundaes.
2318 Fleet St., (410) 732-1961, www.geckosonline.com
On the outskirts of Canton, Geckos' serves surprisingly good Southwestern cuisine in cheerful Santa Fe-influenced surroundings. The food tastes fresh and wholesome (a dandy mango-chipotle sauce shows up several times on the menu), and there are good selections for vegetarians, like the wild-mushroom-and-cheese enchilada packed with shiitake, cremini, and portobello mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and feta and goat cheese. Seek out the chilaquiles, a “poor-man's lasagna,” and the persuasive Key lime pie. The multilevel dining areas help diners avoid the college-crowd ambiance packed into the bar and around the pool tables.
2908 O'Donnell St., (410) 276-2233, www.helensgarden.com
This committed, urbane Canton restaurant deploys a comfortable but stylish date-place vibe, an affordable wine list, and well-rehearsed bistro dishes like pan-seared pecan-encrusted trout, blackened beef salad, and lamb brined and sautéed with honey, grapes, and feta. Regulars avoid the packed half-price entrée night on Wednesday, a victim of its own success. Impromptu trivia games erupt at the street-level wine bar, home of the self-proclaimed “Baltimore's longest happy hour” and a favorite retreat for more settled Cantonites.
2100 Fleet St., (410) 327-5477
Though the menu is pretty standard here--burgers, wings, fries, and the like--a few items, like the steamed shrimp, hot wings, and Old Bay fries, will draw you back to this neighborhood corner bar over and over. Specials, including 10 wings for $5 on Sundays and half-priced burgers on Wednesdays, make Kisling's particularly enticing when you're in the mood for some cheap eats. Take note, though: This place is a sports bar and attracts a sport-loving crowd. In other words, booths can be scarce during football season, so plan accordingly.
2900 O'Donnell St., (410) 675-9235, www.looneyspub.com
Homey Looney's Pub is one of our favorite chill out spots. It's relatively cheap, it has good food and beer, and you can catch a baseball game, a football game, or whatever sport is in season on one of the TVs. The crab cakes outstrip the usual pub-grub versions, and there's a scrumptious wing and shrimp special on Saturday afternoons and Sunday and Monday nights that goes down good with a bottle of beer. We have just one request--bring back the Thursday night lobster and mussels special for under $20.
2901 O'Donnell St., (410) 276-3160, www.mamasonthehalfshell.com
It's hard to imagine life before this locally owned, moderately priced casual seafood restaurant. The dark and woody place looks like a real oyster house, one that's been around a half-century, and the menu sticks wisely to mostly standard seafood applications. (There's even a section titled Connelly's Classics, devoted to fried specialties.) Naturally, oysters are served in myriad ways--grilled, fried, on the half-shell, on horseback, and, best of all, in a made-to-order peppercorn-flecked oyster stew. The restaurant always seems crowded as the upstairs fireplace tempts folks away from the lively bar scene below.
2907 O'Donnell St., (410) 675-0898, www.nachomamascanton.com
A smoky, divy, kitschy joint that serves tortilla chips in a hub cap until 1 a.m. on weekends, Nacho Mama's is a Canton institution that combines a shrine to Elvis and walls covered with Natty Boh paraphernalia with messy Mexican food and a touch of Cajun flavor. Mama's serves chunky guacamole, chicken and beef fajitas, gigantic wrappitizers (like a crazy pre-dinner burrito), fish tacos, heavy-duty salmon and pork and jambalaya specials, meaty enchiladas, and plenty of crabby apps. Traditional quesadillas, burritos, and tacos are brightened with such unexpected choices as artichoke hearts, feta, andouille, smoked Gouda, and portobellos. Be patient--the places gets hoppin', so just put your name on the list and get a cerveza at the bar while you wait.
2821 O'Donnell St., (410) 522-7678, www.portsidetavern.com
In addition to the expected wings, coconut shrimp, and variously outfitted burgers (served on good corn-dusted rolls), this eager Canton tavern trots out an ambitious roster of food--pecan-encrusted grouper, a sesame-encrusted tuna tower. The results have been uneven, especially the sometimes funny-tasting sauces, but soups and the toothsome steak sandwich are safe bets. Warm service, spiffy presentations, and the finished look of the dining room--dark blue paint and starchy white tablecloths--compensate for a lot. Dine early--the place clubs it up around 9 p.m. Brunch on Sunday and Saturday features creamed chipped beef, a breakfast lasagna, and a Bloody Mary “smorgasbord.”
845 S. Montford Ave., (443) 524-1454, www.redfishusa.com
Red Fish is a good-looking and clever Canton spot specializing in cunning little appetizers (half-price at happy hour at the bar) like lobster macaroni and cheese, warm Manchego cheese, and a mini-version of a filet mignon entrée braised in Guinness, soy, and honey. The mostly Mediterranean-influenced dinner menu branches out to include fusion delights like a wood-grilled Argentinean gaucho steak, jambalaya, and pan-seared halibut with lobster-tomato sauce. Lower-priced items are available, too, like a grilled-cheese sandwich toasted with Plugra butter and optional prosciutto. And the restaurant's kind concern for vegetarians is a major bonus.
2200 Boston St., (410) 675-7077, www.sipnbite.com
Sometimes, usually in the wee hours before dawn, you just gotta have a chicken liver omelet. Or a fried-egg sandwich made with burger, ham, and cheese. Or cinnamon raisin French toast. Or all three, to really bring on the food coma. If that's the case, strap on the feed bag at Sip and Bite, a 24-hour diner that has been a local institution for nearly three generations. The daily specials can sate more refined appetites, too.
2748 Lighthouse Point East, (410) 534-8888, www.sushisanbaltimore.com
This double-duty restaurant serves both Thai and Japanese cuisine (including sushi), which is great if you're open to inspiration but a bit of a chore if you're trying to make up your mind. Located in a Canton strip mall, the restaurant does most things passably well--Thai food feels freshly spiced (if a bit sugary and short on chile fire), and the sushi combinations display some obvious skill--but it's hard to find one thing that it does with excellence. Photos of grateful, smiling regulars testify that persistent diners find their way, but newcomers will have to grasp around a little. Low prices and the free-and-ready parking help tip the scales in its favor.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201