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Eat Feature


Speakeasies, Cocktails, and All That Jazz

Eat Special Issue 2002

Time to Eat City Paper's Dining Guide 2002 | By Michelle Gienow

1900-1919 A Toast to the New World Power | By Michelle Gienow

1920s Speakeasies, Cocktails, and All That Jazz

1930s Hard Times, Good Eats | By Michelle Gienow

1940s War and Peas | By Michelle Gienow

1950s Rock 'n' Roll 'n' TV Dinners | By Michelle Gienow

1960s Power to the Peoples | By Michelle Gienow

1970s Sideburns and Szechwan | By Michelle Gienow

1980s Blackened Ron and Nancy | By Michelle Gienow

1990s Boom and Buzz | By Michelle Gienow

2000s Onward and Inward | By Michelle Gienow

Eat 2002

Posted 2/27/2002

Unprecedented economic prosperity put money in everyone's pockets in the '20s. And the newly prosperous turned around and spent it on electric gadgets and state-of-the-art kitchen appliances (Crosley radios and gas stoves, not DVD players and cappuccino machines). Women won the right to vote, jazz music ruled the airwaves, and Charles Lindbergh made the world a little smaller with the first trans-Atlantic flight. The '20s were heady, hedonistic times, but of course Prohibition (1920-'33) kept everyone from getting too happy.

Despite the Volstead Act and the revenuers, however, most people drank more than ever before. In fact, many of the most familiar and popular cocktails of the alcoholic pantheon were created during Prohibition--invention (i.e., adding fruit, juice, and soda) mothered by the necessity of covering up the awful taste of bootleg liquor. The sheiks and shebas of the '20s liked to drink their sidecars in the supper clubs and cabarets of the era, which often served as fronts for speakeasies.

In today's gloriously open-bar world, it's tough to find a place where both the music and the food are good. One standout exception is Fells Point's Ze Mean Bean Café (1739 Fleet St., [410] 675-5999), where terrific Eastern European food can be found every day of the week along with live music almost every night. Fabulous pierogi, holupki, borscht and other regional staples form the backbone of Ze Mean Bean's menu, but there are also salads, sandwiches, and an extensive dessert selection that changes daily. The live music is as eclectic as the menu, with acts ranging from flamenco guitar to Slavic accordion to Sunday jazz brunch.

In the same neighborhood but a world away is Kelly's (2108 Eastern Ave., [410] 327-2312). Although the management needs little persuasion to fire up the karaoke machine--in our experience they'll do it any night anyone shows the slightest interest--Friday and Saturday nights bring Serious Karaoke. A regular crew of folks, some talented, some not, come from all over to warble faves from the 3,000-plus songbook selections into Kelly's impressive sound system, while chowing on outstanding bar food, including great weeknight specials.

On a more urbane note, you can dance the night away amid chic décor at the city's only true supper club, Fells Point's Latin Palace (509 S. Broadway, [410] 522-6700). The extensive tapas menu--classic Spanish tapas, not "re-invented" versions--features dishes such as chorizo sautéed with peppers, mussels in green sauce, and fried yucca and onions. Once dessert is done (don't miss the flan), you can work off dinner with a mambo or two on the dance floor; the dance music is frequently live, but some nights a DJ does disc duty.

Bayou Blues Café (The Avenue, 8125 Honeygo Blvd., White Marsh, [410] 931-2583), located in deep suburbia, recently opened a second location in Fells Point to serve us city dwellers (1636 Thames St., [410] 342-3220). There's rarely a cover charge for the blues (and occasional bluegrass) bands that play six nights a week (White Marsh) and Thursday through Sunday (Fells Point). However, money saved on the cover charge is going to go to your dinner bill; prices here are on the steep side. The menus lean, not surprisingly, to Cajun --crawfish étouffée, gumbo, blackened catfish--with some variation between the two locations.

In 1920, only 10,000 refrigerators were sold in the United States; by 1929, Frigidaire's annual sales alone neared 1 million. As electric refrigeration became common, the popularity of seafood soared. Suddenly, the catch of the day and oysters on the half shell could be enjoyed in Omaha as well as they could in Baltimore, where, of course, seafood had always been abundant and appreciated.

One of Baltimore's most thoroughly enjoyable seafood sources is Nick's Seafood Inc. (Cross Street Market, South Charles and Cross streets, [410] 685-2020). Nick's consists of seven stands within the Cross Street Market, among them the raw bar, the steamer bar, the sushi bar, and the fry-o-later bar. (Emphasis on "bar"--besides seafood, Nick's sells enormous 32-ounce drafts.) It's a simple system: The raw bar sells fresh-shucked oysters (regulars or primes) and clams; the steamer bar Old Bay-dusted shrimp, blue crabs, and king crab legs; and the wall-side fryer bar fries up heavenly fish sandwiches, chunky crab cakes, and even classic coddies. Try visiting Nick's when the South Baltimore locals do--that is, any time other than Friday and Saturday happy hours when the place turns into a swamp of stogie-smoking frat boys.

For impeccably fresh fish, call on Kali's Court (1606 Thames St., [410] 276-4700). The simply prepared whole fish--especially wild black sea bass, wood-grilled with olive oil, capers, lemon, and herbs--is superb. This Fells Point kitchen does equally well with more elaborate offerings such as bouillabaisse or the supremely delicious John Dory (a type of deep-sea fish) and scallops served with polenta, sautéed spinach, and mushroom ragout. For those who must have a crab cake, Kali's delicious and aptly named "colossal cakes" will more than satisfy. In warm weather, try for a table in the torch-lit brick courtyard.

OK, OK, so it's a chain restaurant, but McCormick & Schmick's (Pier 5 Hotel, 711 Eastern Ave., [410] 234-1300) is a great chain restaurant. The dining rooms have large windows to take full advantage of the Inner Harbor location--and who doesn't like eating seafood while looking at the water? M&S' menu gives a detailed provenance for each of the seafood items the restaurant has flown in each day, and swordfish with roasted garlic butter sauce tastes better when we know the fish came all the way from Montevideo, Uruguay, just to end up on our plate. The oyster sampler presents six different varieties on the half-shell, from Prince Edward Island Malpeq oysters (very salty, firm, cucumber finish) to Oregon Yaquina Bay oysters (low salt, firm, sweet finish).

At the opposite end of the restaurant power structure is L.P. Steamers (1100 E. Fort Ave., [410] 576-9294), a prime representative of the tragically and inexplicably disappearing Baltimore seafood house--local (the L.P. stands for "Locust Point"), unpretentious, and excellent. The generous steamed-seafood appetizer is loaded with mussels, shrimp, oysters, clams, and tiny Caribbean lobsters, and the crab cakes are big and fat (but not filler-fluffy) . There's a singing lobster, 30 kinds of beer, and a strong smell of Old Bay that goes home with you on your clothes.

The hamburger had been around for a while by the third decade of the 20th century. Ground-beef patties were first fried and served on toast--hamburger buns having not been invented yet--at Louis Lunch in New Haven, Conn., around 1900. It wasn't until 1921, however, when White Castle, the very first hamburger chain, opened its first location in Wichita, Kan., selling square burgers for a nickel apiece, that the burger entered the fast-food pantheon.

Everyone has a favorite burger joint. One of ours is Dougherty's Irish Pub (223 W. Chase St., [410] 752-4059), where the patties are fat and fine--and not restricted to beef. Besides an exemplary beef burger, this Mount Vernon pub also sells turkey burgers, salmon burgers, and (in our humble opinion, which we get paid to share) the city's premier black bean/veggie burgers. No matter what your burger's made of, the straightforward but high-quality treatment of this American classic is strictly delicious. Just as important, the hand-cut french fries are outstanding.

At Empty Pockets Saloon (821 E. Fort Ave., [410] 576-1500), in South Baltimore, the service sometimes takes a while, since the bartender who pours your beer is often simultaneously the chef who grills your burger. But an Empty Pockets burger is worth the wait. Garnishes are standard--choice of cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomato--and no-nonsense; there's no bleu cheese-pineapple ridiculousness here, just hefty hand-formed beef patties cooked precisely to order and served in a basket with exemplary boardwalk-style fries (for a dollar extra) and a table full of condiments for you to apply as you see fit.

Every Monday is half-price-burger night at Porters (1032 Riverside Ave., [410] 539-1999), but any night is a good night to try one of its lean and lovely charred half-pound burgers, served with lettuce, tomato, and the condiments of your choice inside a sesame-seeded bun. It's always a promising sign when the server asks, as they religiously do at this South Baltimore pub, how you want your burger cooked; the kitchen here takes tender care of their freshly ground patties.

Beyond bringing standardized square hamburgers to the masses, the '20s also brought Welch's Grape Jelly (1923) and Peter Pan Peanut Butter (1928) to the market. History is silent as to who first brought them together in one sandwich, but the anonymous genius might just be credited with creating kid-friendly cuisine.

Not every night can be PBJ night, and sometimes Mommy and Daddy just want to have family dinner at a place where there are other big people, without having those big people glare at Mommy and Daddy for bringing children to a restaurant. At the top of many parents' short lists is Rocky Run Tap & Grill (3105 St. Paul St., Charles Village, [410] 235-2501; 6480 Dobbin Center Way, Columbia, [410] 730-6581; Marley Station Mall, 7900 Ritchie Highway, Glen Burnie, (410) 760-8850). This locally based chain's paper-covered tables come complete with crayons, and there's a "Rocky Runts" children's menu with mac 'n' cheese, spaghetti, and chicken fingers (the gustatory Trinity of the 6-and-under set). With the kids occupied, the adults can enjoy VooDoo pasta (jerk chicken in a sun-dried tomato-basil-cream sauce) and a niiice biiig Winterfest Dunkel ale, brewed at Rocky Run's Columbia microbrewery.

Remington's Paper Moon Diner (227 W. 29th St., [410] 889-4444) is another kid-pleaser. The colorful décor, loaded with Barbie dolls, lava lamps, Xmas lights, and mannequins hanging from the ceiling, is sure to keep the wee ones quietly fascinated for at least the first course. While there's no children's menu per se, the bill of fare is studded with kid-friendly items such as chicken tenders and French toast. There's grown-up chow too: salade Niçoise, "home-baked" turkey dinner with cranberry sauce, and terrific garlic mashed potatoes. Best of all, a family of four can easily dine for $30.

If most restaurants are designed for adult patrons, the Rainforest Café (Towson Town Center, 825 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson, [410] 321-0300) is all about, and for, kids. The national chain has spared no effort in building a realistic jungle atmosphere, packed with huge plants, animatronic gorillas and alligators, live tropical fish, and a waterfall--to name but a few attractions. In a theme-park atmosphere, the food is going to be beside the point: Everything on the comfort food-laden menu is basically edible but unspectacular. One highlight we've found is the coconut bread pudding. Despite all the attention to the little ones, though, the prices are all grown up--and then some.

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