NOTE: Click on a restaurant's name to get more information in our Eat Guide.
1017 S. Charles St., (410) 962-1554
Ahh, long-lasting Banjara. One of the best parts of living in or near downtown is the privilege of having Banjara's Indian cuisine delivered right to your door. Food here is both smarter and more subtle than the usual parade of carry-out curries and jumbled jalfrezis. Try the crab Malabar, Baltimore's staple seafood done à la coastal India, or anything involving Banjara's incredibly tender lamb and yogurt (specials change, but there's usually something). That is not to say that the usual suspects, your tandoors and samosas, do not also benefit from the kitchen's veteran skills.
1444 Light St., (410) 234-1900, www.bicyclebistro.com
Debonair Bicycle, with its polyglot menu of globetrotting fare, is one of Baltimore's smartest and most cosmopolitan restaurants. It's also one of the city's most fun places to dine. Who can resist chef/owner Nicholas Batey's creations when he is so clearly enjoying the making thereof? (We know this because the open kitchen design makes Bicycle a kind of Wild Kingdom observation post for cooks). The menu changes according to the season and available ingredients, but it always draws heavily from Asian and South American influences. Small plates like soy-blackened scallops (with kafir leaf-rubbed cashews, no less) are a great way to sample Batey's inventive culinary talents, but simple gifts like butter-laden mashed sweet potatoes are just as delish.
1032 Light St., (410) 576-3938, www.blueagaverestaurant.com
When a restaurant offers more than 100 kinds of tequila, its menu can be somewhat beside the point. Like, really, who cares? Blue Agave, however, tries hard to serve highly authentic Mexican food and generally succeeds. Simpler dishes like burritos de carne asada, pork carnitas, and quesadillas are what the kitchen does best; sometimes the more exotic dishes get a little muddled, like maybe the cooks have unfettered access to the tequila. Surprisingly, desserts are terrific. Mexican cuisine isn't renowned for its sweet endings, but Blue Agave's house-made tres leches cake and flan of the day are outstanding.
1026 S. Charles St., (410) 752-3810, www.corksrestaurant.com
At Corks the wine list is every bit as important as the dinner menu (where entrée descriptions are accompanied by specific wine recommendations). The owners are wine fanatics who search out vintages both excellent and obscure and then craft a seasonal menu to complement their wine finds. We love that many wines are available by the glass, allowing each course to have its own appropriate quaff. The food is intelligent but fun New American, with standout dishes like a duck breast with watercress salad and mission fig tartlet. Attention to detail is evident in everything that Corks does, from smoking its own trout to removing menu items when ingredients do not meet the chef's demands for excellence.
American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, (410) 244-6500, www.joyamericacafe.com
The exuberant Joy America Café is the perfect culinary counterpart to the equally ebullient Visionary Art Museum. The menu of high-end Latin American fare is good enough to distract diners from colorful outsider art and the Baltimore skyline, both on view from inside the airy dining room. Lunch is nicely priced; try the the “fairly traditional” crab cakes, or one of the flavorful burritos. Dinner brings more adventuresome dishes, like the updated chile relleno rendered from a cornmeal-encrusted portobello mushroom and stuffed with tart cheese. Perhaps the best way to enjoy the Joy America experience is to order from the varied, tropically flavored small-plates menu.
1017 Light St., (410) 468-4468
Tori Yang's quiet, often overlooked storefront Federal Hill sushi bar has been around for a while, doing nothing more spectacular than creating fresh standards and colorfully pretty sushi combinations. Regulars sit at the bar and devote attention to the maki specials. Put it on your list for lunchtime raw-fish cravings, or for Sunday evenings when you don't feel like dressing up. The liquor license is a major plus.
1105 S. Charles St., (410) 752-8561, www.matsuri.us
Matsuri stands out as much for its broad array of Japanese cooked dishes as its sushi. Witness the robata appetizers, flavorful skewers strung with beef, seafood, or vegetables and then grilled. Vegetarians will find Matsuri friendly, indeed; half the robata are vegetarian, and other dishes like agedashi tofu make for a satisfying meat-free meal. Of course, the sushi is very fine too, especially if you pick something from Matsuri's impressive selection of sakes to go with it. True sushi fanatics might want to try one of Matsuri's periodic sushi-making seminars, hands-on yummy fun.
902 S. Charles St., (410) 234-0235, www.metrobalto.com
Serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner, this is one of those multitasking spots that can be a hit if you arrive at the right time in the proper mood or a miss if your timing's off. The ebb-and-flow between Metropolitan's wine-bar and coffeehouse identities requires some experience, but it's worth the trouble. The cool woody interior (formerly the original One World Café) attracts laptop users by day, and the wine bar has become an oasis for Federal Hill residents wanting to avoid the frat-house atmosphere that pervades neighboring spots. The regular menu comprises adult fare like sesame-coated salmon fillets and light fare like quesadillas and Reubens.
1002 Light St., (410) 539-7344, www.regisamericanbistro.com
If you can overlook the Fox News channel playing on the TV, this enduring and cozy Federal Hill spot has a lot to offer--very patient, even indulgent service and a gracious atmosphere carved out of twin 1860s rowhouses. The eclectic house specials include terrific calamari, potato-encrusted beef, Black Angus steaks, and, most of all, specimen panko-encrusted crab cakes, served with smashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. Al fresco dining, good Sunday brunch, and the bar's welcoming atmosphere for solitary travelers are also pluses.
6 W. Cross St., (410) 752-1518, www.sobocafe.com
Sobo Café serves classic American cuisine smack dab in the middle of Federal Hill's drinking district. The menu changes faster than the pH level in the harbor, with nightly renditions of traditional Yankee staples like mac 'n' cheese and chicken pot pie. Sobo regularly offers more creative choices, as well, like the seared duck breast with maple chipotle cream, asparagus, and Gorgonzola polenta and the blackened grouper with crab imperial and covered with a honey white wine coulis. The ambiance is intimate and inviting--a great way to kick off a first date before venturing into the local nightlife.
1006 Light St., (410) 528-2146, www.ten-o-six.com
Chef Tom Chungkasoon's Federal Hill restaurant looks a little careworn, but the sharp Thai-fusion menu still outdoes virtually every other place in town in sheer audacity--medallions of ostrich, sweetbreads, rack of boar, and frog legs with fried garlic show up. There are plenty of triumphant executions here--ink in a date with the days-cured salmon, wrapped in shoestring potatoes and served with crabmeat beurre blanc. Moderately priced Thai dishes offer up tantalizing nuances of flavor. Pass up the drab dining room in favor of the foodie's seating near the open kitchen.
2019 Light St., (410) 385-8587, www.thaiarroy.com
Thai Arroy is the prettiest little storefront Thai restaurant you ever did meet. The smartly costumed servers and decorative touches, like elaborate cloths placed under glass-topped tables, help distract from the reality that the food is just shy of greatness. The vegetables are pleasurably crisp, and the larb, a cold peppery beef salad finished off with fresh mint, is excellent, but meals are often too mild. Still, Thai Arroy is a favorite spot for affordable lunch specials. For dinner, try the ped chu-chee, perfect duck topped with chile paste in coconut milk.
1117-21 S. Charles St., (410) 385-0355
This trendy Italian restaurant shoots high, and sometimes misses, but low prices soften the occasional blow. There's great, cosmopolitan energy in the noisy dining room, and the waitstaff is eager for you to love the kitchen's food. Everything on the menu reads really well and favorite ingredients like Gorgonzola, pancetta, and fennel pop off the page. The results on a recent look-see, though, were full of close calls, dishes that came near greatness but were undermined by uneven cooking or overwhelmed by excessive herbing. Try visiting on a weeknight, as the waiting area is cramped and seated diners are troubled by those waiting. Go on a Tuesday for half-price bottles of wine. Sidewalk seating in fair weather.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201