Ned Atwater now has sort of an empire, with three bakeries-cum-soup/salad/sandwich spots spread across the northern end of the Baltimore metro. But economies of scale don't seem to have affected the creative, ever-changing menus at each location, all chock-full of local, seasonal ingredients and assembled with evident care. You usually have your chicken salads and field greens and a few other staples to count on, but they rarely lapse into the boring or expected. Always different, almost always superb.
The consistent wait for a table at Carma's on a Saturday morning tells the story. This tiny space off the hectic St. Paul Street drag in Charles Village serves some of the best coffee-shop fare you can get in Baltimore. Quick breakfasts don't get more sublime than the Icelandic yogurt, served with tiny bowls of jam and granola on the side. If you need savory, Carma's dishes consistently wonderful, creative soups, a handful of panini (get sesame noodles on the side), or, for something quick, a bagel smeared with one of a few homemade cream-cheese concoctions will do.
Rocker/baker Rodney Henry has remade the local desert landscape with his dense, flavorful pastry concoctions, ranging from staples like apple and key lime on up to bespoke pies like the Mobtown brown and the full custom custard (plus a range of meal-in-a-wedge savory items such as a pork barbecue pie).
Although the menu varies at each Donna's outpost, you know you can always count on fancy coffee drinks, comfortable pastas, and hearty dinner-sized salads, like the signature model made with roasted vegetables. The formula may be feeling a little dated, but it still works because of the quality of the food, the reasonable prices, and the way that each restaurant in this local chain feels like a neighborhood joint, whether you're in Charles Village, Mount Vernon, or Cross Keys.
Kader Camara's move from Antique Row to the sparkling, refurbished Railway Express Building has added a colorful splash of a dining room to his lunch take-out trade, encouraging a more relaxed time spent eating one of his tasty offerings. The sandwiches remain comfortingly filling without being overstuffed, and the paninis are still cheese-filled crunchy goodness. But the roasted salmon sandwich occupies a special place in the heart, with its spicy horseradish and thick-grained mustard colliding with the fruity sweet of plantains and omega-3-rich salmon.
Meli isn't just for dinner, it's also for coffee and pastries, cheese plates, scrumptious brunches, and lounging on the downstairs sofas with a newspaper and a mimosa. Like Kali's Court and Mezze, which are its brethren concerns, this Fells Point spot is impeccably decorated and staffed by veterans. But it is the entrées--the pistachio-encrusted lamb chops right on down to the tuna burger with fries--that impress the most.
If every neighborhood in the city had a café like this Bolton Hill fave, Baltimore would be a much more pleasant place to live. Inexpensive soups, sandwiches, burritos, and salads are the mainstays of the menu, but rounding it out are homemade quiches, savory and sweet tarts, meat pies, burgers, and a couple of vegetarian sandwiches. For the sweet tooth, cookies and pastries are available all day to act as companion to your cup of coffee, which you can get to go or sit and enjoy at one of the little window-seat tables.
For when an ordinary sandwich just won't do, seek this charming downtown lunch spot or its Canton sibling. Its menu offers an ample selection of familiar-sounding sandwiches--from the smoked turkey to the tuna melt--dressed in fancier duds: Jarslberg cheese and basil pesto mayo on focaccia for the turkey, artichoke hearts and oregano on a wheat roll for the tuna. Best of all are the meatless options--a hearty "health" sandwich and the whimsical white cheddar sandwich, which lays cheese atop slices of Granny Smith apples on honey-mustard-smeared bread. Excellent.
Sofi's is a good fit for its cramped quarters next to the Charles Theatre. It serves a variety of dessert crêpes alongside a menu of heartier savory crêpes that are big enough for a smallish meal. It gets packed quickly, especially around the theater schedule, but even with the crêpes made-to-order, the line moves fast. It's tough at times to get a seat, but that's the other upside to crêpes--they're pretty easy to eat standing up. Sofi's is also open now inside the Women's Industrial Exchange, where seating is more bountiful.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201