1501 Bolton St., (410) 383-8600, $$
Why We Go: It might be the chalkboard scrawled with the changing list of specials, Eurostyle, or the neighborhood's big Victorian townhouses, or the sweet sense of exclusivity we get from a small restaurant: b's a weeknight place that makes us feel kinda rich.
What We Eat: The rum French toast served at brunch--thick, crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside, and filling enough to induce a post-meal nap--thankfully doesn't smell or taste like alcohol, but gets a little bit of spiced-rum-caramel flavor. For lunch or dinner, you can and should order from the excellent daily specials list (which includes a meat, risotto, fish, and more), but anchor every meal with an appetizer of b's sautèed calamari in tomato sauce atop triangles of polenta.
What We'd Change: Call us unrepentant winos, but every time we're finishing up our crème brûlèe and patting our fat bellies, we find ourselves wishing b could find a way to build an actual bar, or that the flower shop across the street was a charming tavern.
133 W. North Ave., (410) 545-0444, www.joesquared.com, $$
Why We Go: Happy hour features unique variations on Joe Squared's already diverse sandwiches, salads, and pizzas, in a chill atmosphere, and it's all available until 1:30 a.m.
What We Eat: The specials, like thin-crust pizza with carrot-infused dough topped with chicken in a coconut curry sauce, and the seafood potato skins with monkfish and a bacon cream sauce, are ambitious without being too pretentious.
What We'd Change: The bartenders shouldn't be smoking. That's just gross sometimes.
1723 N. Charles St., (410) 727-7732, www.sofiscrepes.com, $
Why We Go: Try to find someplace else in the city that will make you a sandwich wrapped in an egg crepe. It's delicious, don't question it, just go.
What We Eat: The savory ham, Gruyère, and Dijon crepe and the sweet crepe with Nutella spread.
What We'd Change: Although Sofi's has expanded from its original kiosk-sized counter, we still wish there was more seating.
1711 N. Charles St., (410) 332-0110, www.tapasteatro.net, $$
Why We Go: We're going to a movie at the Charles and popcorn's nice, but they don't serve sangría at the snack bar.
What We Eat: Hot, cold, and room-temp tapas, baby: a satisfying piece of potato, onion, and pepper Spanish omelette; oh-so garlicky garlicky mushrooms with oil; tangy Teatro tenderloin; risotto cakes with chorizo; hot, delicate battered and fried vegetables; and a perfect little helping of roasted eggplant and sweet peppers with yogurt sauce. And sangría.
What We'd Change: Nothing succeeds like success, and the menu is somewhat carved in stone, so we'd like to see more specials.
1724 N. Charles St., (410) 727-8815, $-$$
Why We Go: One of the best menus in town if your dinner train has both vegetarians and carnivores on board--and a no-brainer if your final stop's the Charles Theatre or the Everyman.
What We Eat: The gigantor-sized soups of the day; the hearty, smoky portobello sandwich; the build-your-own pizza, possibly the only place in town where you can get tempeh as a topping; and assorted vegan sundaes.
What We'd Change: The menu of nonalcoholic drinks could be a little more creative, and we'd love it if our after-dinner cup of mint tea arrived piping hot rather than tepid. But take it as a good sign that our complaints about Zodiac are this nitpicky.
=8 W. Biddle St., (410) 244-7227, www.badger-inn.com, $$-$$$
Why We Go: Sonny Sweetman remains a star, and his ever-changing brief menus treat us like an adult. It's nice to go someplace that doesn't bother condescending to dull-dining expectations. The below-ground, cultural-district dining rooms make us feel amorous.
What We Eat: Whatever he's got. Sometimes the tasting menu. It changes all the time (unlike other places that say they do but don't). But we have our eyes peeled for the return of the seafood pot au feu and an appetizer of melted pumpkin, filled with crabmeat.
What We'd Change: The service is polished, but it would be better if it took its cues from its customers and did not come across so rigid. We think the tables are configured weirdly, too.
D23 N. Charles St., (410) 539-0994, www.akbar-restaurant.com, $-$$
Why We Go: Akbar's got a better than average all-you-can-eat midday buffet and the best intimate ambiance of any of the three Indian restaurants crammed into a two-block stretch of Mount Vernon.
What We Eat: You can't really go wrong with the spicy-but-not-too-spicy lamb vindaloo with well-cooked and ample chunks of lamb, a meat that can too easily turn tough and chewy.
What We'd Change: The weekday lunch buffet offers a few different items than the frankly better weekend version. We want that chicken tikka masala all week long, damn it.
@24 N. Charles St., (410) 547-8485, www.brasselephant.com, $$$
Why We Go: For a fine-dining experience that's a little uppity but not too stuffy, and to, you know, say that we went.
What We Eat:¼Cider-braised rabbit, rack of lamb with roasted shallot mashed potatoes, veal porterhouse. The menu features a lot of seasonal meat, eclectic and original sides, and an ample wine list.
What We'd Change: More of the bar food available in the dining area and vice versa.
1106 N. Charles St., (410) 547-6925, www.belgianbeer.com, $$-$$$
Why We Go: To show off the faded, vibrant elegance of Mount Vernon to out-of-town friends walking down from Penn Station, to meet pals at the bar.
What We Eat: Garlic fries and sausage platters to soak up the Resurrection Ale at the bar; in the dining room anything on the shifting kaleidoscope of opulent entrèes (seared black bass over grilled radicchio and truffled mashed potatoes, topped with a saffron butter sauce), and surprising desserts like pumpkin flan.
What We'd Change: The sound level--the big dining room amplifies even moderate conversation to a din, so people raise their voices to compensate, in a vicious cycle.
859 N. Howard St., (410) 669-7303, $
Why We Go: Because it's got the best sandwiches in Mount Vernon, if not the city. And there's the always gracious welcome from owner/chef Kader Camara. But really, it's the sandwiches.
What We Eat: The turkey breast on a baguette is the one to pick, with the turkey sliced extra thin, crisp shredded lettuce that actually came off a head instead of out of a bag, perfectly toasted bread, and a light and subtly spicy dressing.
What We'd Change: Cafè Mocha is closed Mondays, which always ends up being the day we crave those sandwiches the most.
8 E. Preston St., (410) 244-1020, $-$$
Why We Go: Dionysus' cozy little downstairs bar is a perfect place to start a night, or end one, and you drinkers shouldn't forget the more upscale Mediterranean options in the underrated upstairs dining room.
What We Eat: They do a solid, juicy burger, but our favorite is the white pizza, a practically perfect mixture of creamy (the ricotta and mozzarella ), chewy (the crisp but doughy crust), and salty (ham).
What We'd Change: Sometimes you just want a quiet burger without doing the full-on sit-down meal thing, but the crowds have, well, crowded us out of the downstairs lounge. Guess you can't argue with success.
1100 Maryland Ave., (410) 385-0318, www.dukemrestaurant.com, $$
Why We Go: It's a perfect melding of local comfort and exotic thrill. Ethiopian cuisine is mostly eaten with the hands, which gives the experience the informality of a rib joint, but the staff is friendly, attentive, and gracious.
What We Eat: Special beef tibs--a spicy pile of lean steak bits served alongside onions, tomatoes, and almost invisible bits of jalapeño peppers, all spread on spongy injera bread. The yellow peas and cabbage vegetable sides are savory meals in themselves. Wash it down with Ethiopian beer.
What We'd Change: Nothing. Last year we'd have said, “Make it bigger,” but then Dukem expanded upstairs into a more formal and traditional dining area.
15 W. Eager St., (410) 244-0405, www.edenslounge.com, $-$$
Why We Go: Creative Ethiopian tapas served in a stylish backdrop with live music makes it a great date spot to start or end your evening.
What We Eat: The spicy catfish tenders with sweet potatoes, asparagus, and corn bread and the lamb chops are hearty but not overwhelming bar food.
What We'd Change: Despite the fact that Eden's invites you in for a real sit-down dinner experience, the place works much better as a bar and lounge.
806 N. Charles St., (410) 752-0311, www.helmand.com, $$
Why We Go: The Helmand is the city's go-to first-date, graduation, parents-in-town, anniversary dinner restaurant for excellent reasons. This Mount Vernon Afghan restaurant's elegant atmosphere and flavorful, affordable (!) menu add up to treasured memories.
What We Eat: Afghan food's complex, though not fiery, spices go well with just about everything at the Helmand, though we're partial to the aushak, ravioli filled with leeks and topped with yogurt and ground beef (also available in a vegetarian version). The perfect starter is always the kaddo borwani, the Helmand's mega-favorite pan-fried baby pumpkin, and finish things off with homemade cardamom-spiked ice cream.
What We'd Change: The Helmand's dècor has been a bit long in the tooth for a few years now, and a makeover may be in order.
818 N. Calvert St., (410) 528-0818, www.iggiespizza.com, $
Why We Go: Because of its convenient location--perfect to match with a show at Center Stage--and status as one of only a very few places to get gourmet pizza in town.
What We Eat: Pizza, of course. While any of Iggies' excellent toppings taste good on this Mount Vernon pizzeria's light, slightly charred Neapolitan-style crust, mushrooms taste best, so get the funghi, featuring 'shroom ragu, leeks, and goat cheese.
What We'd Change: Even after several years of operation, Iggies' crust works well as a platform for its high-quality toppings, but it isn't as good as it could be. Work on that.
800 N. Charles St., (410) 332-0332, www.minatorestaurant.com, $$
Why We Go: Minato offers some of the tastiest and freshest sushi in town for very reasonable prices. And the friendly and attentive staff makes sure we have an excellent dining experience every time we go.
What We Eat: Any of the stunt rolls or sumptuous pieces of nigiri. Currently we're addicted to the red tail maki stuffed with shrimp tempura and topped with spicy tuna, the sweet succulent eel is quite possibly the city's best, and we'll always pony up for the decadent Minato sushi lunch special.
What We'd Change: We wouldn't change a thing, which is a bit of a problem, as Minato is moving a few blocks north to 1013 N. Charles St. this month. Here's hoping that the change of venue doesn't harm one of our favorite restaurants.
909 N. Charles St., (410)685-7427, www.mvstable.com, $-$$
Why We Go: The downstairs bar, the pinball machine, the friendly everybody-knows-your-name atmosphere, and the drunken shenanigans. Apparently, the Stable serves food too.
What We Eat: Hefty meaty platters like rib racks and steaks. We're also into the Raven wings, the toasted ravioli, and big sandwiches like that fat cheese steak deal made with real sirloin that's better than you would expect this far south of Philly.
What We'd Change: Start serving the weekend brunch all week, and after our late-night visits to the downstairs bar, we wouldn't mind a cab stand in front of the building. They don't expect us to drive home, do they?
920 N. Charles St., (410) 547-0001, www.mughalgarden.com, $-$$
Why We Go: If you're entertaining a large group for either a fancy dinner or a spur of the moment Saturday lunch, Mughal's capacious dining room and solid North Indian cuisine are the way to go.
What We Eat: Where other local versions can sometimes feel like you're eating a spicy orange milk shake, Mughal's chicken tikka masala has a sauce that's the perfect consistency and so tasty you'll end up ordering more naan to sop it up.
What We'd Change: That naan can be a little dry and overly crispy sometimes, especially during the lunch buffet. We'd recommend bringing some fresh to each table.
1101 N. Calvert St., (410) 539-1804, www.theprimerib.com, $$$
Why We Go: No place else makes a special evening feel as special. If anything has ever gone wrong here, we didn't notice it, and the swinging-'60s glamour hasn't worn off a bit.
What We Eat: We eschew the eponymous cut in favor of the butter-soft filet mignon, which we like prepared simply with those signature scallops of horseradish. Always, potato skins.
What We'd Change: For such an institution, the Prime Rib has never felt like part of the neighborhood. Monday-night bar specials would make Mount Vernonites feel comfortable wandering in.
800 St. Paul St., (410) 230-0450, www.redemmas.org, $
Why We Go: For the warm and fuzzy feeling that comes from anarchists and communists coming together to serve a great cup of coffee, for their fascinating book and magazine selection, and for the free internet terminals and Wi-Fi access.
What We Eat: The Tofutti “cream cheese” and veggie sandwich on a sun-dried tomato bagel, the organic, fair-trade Bolivian-roast coffee, and assorted vegan treats.
What We'd Change: A Mount Vernon coffee shop that doesn't open until 10 a.m.? That means the downtown crowd can't get their caffeine fix here during those bustling morning hours when Baltimore most feels like a real big city. Then again, maybe that's the point.
802 N. Charles St., (410) 528-1616, www.saffronbaltimore.com, $$$
Why We Go: Because we'd follow former Soigne chef Edward Kim and his intricate but not ostentatious food anywhere. And the portions are enormous for fine dining.
What We Eat: On a recent visit the Cajun fried oyster with seaweed salad and a spiced tobiko remoulade blew our minds. And we positively refuse to leave without stuffing our faces with the banana spring roll.
What We'd Change: Our salaries, so we could afford to eat here all the time.
1200 N. Charles St., (410) 837-9999, $$
Why We Go: Sammy's does its thing best on freezing cold winter nights. The heat's always toasty enough that we can sit at the bar without worrying about icy drafts from the front door; it's got those sparkly, tall windows and plenty of light; and behind the granite-topped bar stand several long rows of sweet, warming, comforting booze.
What We Eat: A combo order of the menu's side dishes--which include big fat meatballs and a bowl of crunchy, garlicky broccoli rabe with sausage--can make a hearty meal. The duck ravioli is simple, flavorful goodness, with a bare hint of rich gaminess; sop up the dish's extra butter with the crusty loaf of complimentary bread.
What We'd Change: Someone should hire a proofreader to correct the typos in its menu. Admittedly, a petty complaint, but damn, Sam, couldn't someone have read it before you sent it to the printer?
10 E. Franklin St., (410) 539-4675, $$$
Why We Go: To eat and be treated like we live in Roland Park at this fine-dining Spanish restaurant.
What We Eat: Anything and everything, but especially the house salad with its tangy, piquant dressing, the absolutely sinful snails in drawn-butter appetizer, any of the special fresh-fish preparations, the exotic veal kidneys, beef tournedos, and flan so good you won't care how many years it's taking off your arterial life.
What We'd Change: Our chosen career, opting for something that would permit us to eat here more than once or twice a year.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201