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Eat Feature

Who Let the Chefs Out: The Poll

Michelle Gienow
No. 1: Kali's Court
Michelle Gienow
No. 2: Polo Grill
Michelle Gienow
No. 3: The Prime Rib
Michelle Gienow
No. 4: Peter's Inn
Michelle Gienow
No. 5: Nacho Mama's
Michelle Gienow
No. 7: Ruth's Chris Steak House
Michelle Gienow
No. 8: Boccaccio
Michelle Gienow
No. 9: Samos

Eat Special Issue 2001

Who Let the Chefs Out? Where Baltimore's Restaurateurs Go When They Go Out to Eat

Who Let the Chefs Out: The Poll Notes on scoring: Restaurants were awarded points based on where they placed in respondents' surveys...

Who Let the Chefs Out: The Unabridged List "All the Employees"Tyson Place1) Nacho Mama's2) Rusty Scupper3) Hilltop Carryout4) Yung's5) Phillips...

My Favorite Things A Professional Eater Picks Her Restaurants of Renown | By Susan Fradkin

Old World Remembering the Glory Days of Deli on Corned Beef Row | By David Jackowe

American McHistory Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation Is About More Than Just Burgers and Fries | By Kathryn Eastburn

Eat 2001

Posted 2/28/2001

Notes on scoring: Restaurants were awarded points based on where they placed in respondents' surveys--five points for first, four for second, etc. In case of ties, order was determined first by number of first-place votes, then by total number of votes. Any restaurants still tied after that were left that way.

1. Kali's Court

1606 Thames St., (410) 276-4700,
Points: 21. Votes: 6. First-place votes: Mount Vernon Stable and Saloon, Werner's, Ze Mean Bean Café Less than two years old, this latest entry in Fells Point's Greek revival has already made an impression on industry peers, edging out two of Baltimore's most established restaurants for top honors. Whole fish prepared simply on the grill with olive oil, lemon juice, capers, and herbs is the big draw at this gorgeously renovated former warehouse. "Best seafood anywhere," enthuses Ze Mean Bean general manager Todd Burton; "Best grilled seafood in town," echoes Will Bauer, GM at DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace. We love the rockfish, but it's hard to imagine going wrong with any of the half-dozen or so fresh nightly selections, priced at a relatively reasonable $11.95 to $15.95 a pound. There are several more elaborate fish preparations; for nonpiscivores, Werner's president Ruth Kloetzli recommends the "great veal chop." All this assumes you can get past the drool-inducing appetizer menu, which ranges from tender grilled calamari and octopus to brick-oven-baked eggplant stuffed with tomatoes, onions, and cheese to (ulp) beluga caviar. When the weather warms up there are tables in the pretty brick courtyard out front, but the best seat in the house might be at the handsome bar or in the airy mezzanine overlooking it.

2. Polo Grill

4 W. University Parkway (Inn at the Colonnade), (410) 235-8200
Points: 21. Votes: 5. First-place votes: Hollywood Diner, Bill's Terrace Inn, Obrycki's The North Baltimore spot where the elite meet to eat has no peer when it comes to pampering clientele, wrapping patrons in an irresistible mantle of luxury. The satin-smooth service, warmly opulent atmosphere, and menu offerings such as the fried lobster (!) make for an unwaveringly sumptuous dining experience--"traditional fancy feel but with [a] cutting-edge menu," as Sascha's 527 co-owner Steve Suser describes the Grill's winning combo. Local celebs flock to the restaurant's tables to see and be seen while local foodies admire how the kitchen approaches impeccably fresh local ingredients with classic French-informed flair. Former Bagel Works owner John Marquette and Obrycki's co-owner Cheri Cernak both recommend the Sunday brunch, and with good reason: It's a fabulous way to while away an indulgent, Champagne-suffused afternoon.

3. The Prime Rib

1101 N. Calvert St. (Horizon House), (410) 539-1804,
Points: 20. Votes: 5. First-place votes: Hard Rock Café, Sascha's 527 With its gleaming black-lacquer-and-leopard-print décor, this place is Rat Pack swank on a stick, baby, with food to match. Nothing trendy about the melt-in-your-mouth beef here--they don't call it the Prime Rib for nothing--and the knock-your-socks off cosmopolitans are just how the Chairman liked 'em. "It's all about great beef and great ambiance," says Tony Foreman, co-owner of Charleston and a guy who knows a little bit about swank. The "great style and feel, impeccable service, [and] fine food" Sascha's co-owner Steve Suser praises has long made the Rib first in the hearts of Baltimoreans--nonvegetarian ones, anyway--out for a Big Night. Bring it on, bring it rare, and don't forget the horseradish.

4. Peter's Inn

504 S. Ann St., (410) 675-7313
Points: 18. Votes: 6. First-place votes: Holy Frijoles No reservations, no credit cards, a chalkboard menu, and a handful of tables at the end of a smoky bar . . . Peter's Inn is the anti-Prime Rib, a temple of gourmet dining disguised as a friendly, funky neighborhood bar. The secret is out among restaurateurs, six of whom placed this Fells Point cult favorite on their lists (tying it with Kali's Court for most mentions). Each week Bud and Karin Tiffany offer up a different quartet of ambitious, eclectic dishes along the lines of Moroccan vegetable stew, mushroom-ricotta crepes, and shrimp and scallops in saffron cream. Entrées run $10 to $17.50, which includes a large salad and a deeply satisfying slab of Peter's justly famous garlic bread. (You'll want another.) There's an outstanding selection of suds, couches in the corner, and lots of eye-catching kitsch on the walls. The total package moves Black Olive CEO Dimitris Spiliadis to poetry--"Great food, good price, nice beer, nice!"--while Holy Frijoles owner Geoff Danek asks the musical question, "Where else can you leave reeking of garlic and enjoy it so much?"

5. Nacho Mama's

2907 O'Donnell St., (410) 675-0898,
Points: 17. Votes: 4. First-place votes: Tyson Place Chalk one up for the populists as this perpetually bursting-at-the-seams Canton beanery scores a top-five finish for its mix of enormous plates of Tex-Mex grub and colorful, unpretentious style, replete with Elvises, Barbies, Balto-centric memorabilia, hubcaps full o' chips, and Mr. Boh in a sombrero. Mama's fans come as much for the fun as the food, with Baltimore Brewing Co. chef Scott Donnelly praising the "great local atmosphere." "Always good for a cheap night out," says Tim Whisted, owner of Little Havana, who also voices the major complaint about the place: "The wait for a table sucks." But the staff at Mount Vernon cocktail lounge Tyson Place cuts right to the chase: "Big, big margaritas." We can relate.

6. The Helmand

806 N. Charles St., (410) 752-0311
Points: 16. Votes: 5. First-place votes: Brass Elephant "There is a reason they are always listed on top," says Dougherty's Pub honcho William Dougherty. You said it, Bill. A perennial in City Paper's Best of Baltimore issue and other regional rankings, Mount Vernon's celebrated outpost of things Afghani is also a hit with its peers. Werner's Ruth Kloetzli touches all the bases: "Casual, affordable, unique cultural menu that is all pleasant to the palate." You said it, Ruth. Our own palates can't get enough of the Helmand's sublime, sensual food, from the magnificent appetizers (pan-fried pumpkin, spicy seasoned eggplant, crisp potato- and leek-filled bowlani) to the tender kabobs to the area's finest vegetarian fare to the fruit-topped custard that accompanies our Turkish coffee. We also relish the quiet, mood-lit atmosphere, exotic native décor, and low-key but attentive staff. "Mary Ellen, the ever-present server, is ever-present," enthuses Brass Elephant owner Jack Elsby. You, um, said it, Jack.

7. Ruth's Chris Steak House

600 Water St., (410) 783-0033; 177 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville, (410) 837-0033;
Points: 16. Votes: 5 Werner's president Ruth Kloetzli raves about the "best lobster and wine list" around, but come on, you know why you're here. Ruth's Chris isn't just about steak, it's about extreme steak, the kind of steak we can see WWF stars tearing into (if Ruth's Chris replaced the impeccable white-glove service with, say, jiggly cheerleaders). The likes of the Rock probably doesn't ever need a knife to cut his beef, but this is where we go for steak that defines fork-tender, beautifully marbled and aged to boot. We also like the way Ruth's Chris sears our giant hunk o' meat in an 1,800-degree broiler to seal in every delicious drop, then serves it on a 500-degree plate to keep it warm through dinner. Try not to burn your fingers, and try to save room the decadent bread pudding--or maybe just get an order to take home for Monday Nitro.

8. Boccaccio

925 Eastern Ave., (410) 234-1322
Points: 15. Votes: 4 Amid the clamoring throng of spaghetti houses lining Lil' Italy's narrow, tourist-thronged streets, Boccaccio whispers. "Da Mimmo might get the press from tourists, but people in the know go to Boccaccio," says Will Bauer, general manager of Dipasquale's Italian Marketplace. This warmly elegant restaurant is where savvy locals go for Northern Italian cuisine, intelligently prepared. The kitchen has a deft yet delicate touch with the refined ingredients this type of fare demands--Boccaccio treats veal better than any other restaurant in Baltimore, and the white-wine-scented cream sauces always enhance, never overwhelm. The courtly old-school waiters don't hover yet presciently fulfill every need. They know precisely when to offer advice on which wine to pair with, say, the seasonal, sensational sautéed soft crabs as well as when to fade into the background. It all adds up to what Donna's co-owner Alan Hirsch calls "a classic restaurant experience."

9. (tie) Samos

600 S. Oldham St., (410) 675-5292
Points: 13. Votes: 3. First-place votes: G&M Restaurant Hidden around the corner from Greektown's Eastern Avenue restaurant row, Samos looks from the outside like just another Aegean neighborhood joint, but "Greektown's best-kept secret" (per Daily Grind manager Steve Rowell) does everything the flashier pita palaces do, and some of it much, much better. Try Samos' version of that Hellenic appetizer staple taramosalata; the melt-in-your-mouth concoction's pale orange hue indicates a perfect salty yet subtle marriage of roe and potato. Fried calamari here is tender, greaseless perfection, and even basic dishes, such as roasted lamb with potatoes, are touched with flavorful hints of garlic and herbs. Best of all, Samos serves such terrific food for cheap, cheap, cheap; no wonder Lista's co-owner Kathy Evangelista calls it "a friendly place." We all need friends like this.

9. (tie) Sascha's 527

527 N. Charles St., (410) 539-8880
Points: 13. Votes: 3. First-place votes: One World Café A year ago, Sascha's was a zesty catering outfit that held down a cute, dinky storefront lunch counter on Hamilton Street. Now it's gone uptown--a couple of blocks uptown anyway, into a sweeping stunner of a space at the foot of Mount Vernon Place. The high ceilings, colorful interior, plush couches, hanging artwork, cocktail bar, and burnished copper counter could lead you to think you're in for a wallet workout. But underneath Sascha's new look, it's still the same old budget-conscious, unpretentious place it always was. By day, there are the jambalayas and stir-fries, paninis and quiches, fluffy cupcakes and sinful strudel. By night, Sascha's offers a tempting array of creative entrées, gaining chic credentials for what Ze Mean Bean Café general manager Todd Burton calls "great, 'artsy' casual dining." Sascha's is always dressed up, even if its prices or patrons aren't.

11. Cosmopolitan Bar & Grill

2933 O'Donnell St., (410) 563-5000
Points: 12. Votes: 4. First-place votes: Matthew's Pizzaria This relative newcomer on Canton's square impressed panelists with its meld of pleasantly unstudied cocktail cool and a reasonably priced menu listing toward seafood and pasta. "The bar is always packed with the young, good-looking people of Canton (so I fit right in)," quips grizzled fan Charlie Gjerde of Spike & Charlie's fame. "The food is top quality and the service is always good." Cosmopolitan doesn't push the culinary envelope, but it does what it does well--meaty calamari fried light and crisp, crabmeat linguini packed with lumps, a refreshingly ungloppy portobello sandwich with sweet roasted pepper on a crusty roll--in an atmosphere of sophisticated whimsy (highball glasses woven into the staircase railings, salt and pepper shakers made out of Absolut miniatures). And the house rendition of the titular highball--one of 21 drinks of assorted color and character on the martini menu--justifies the name out front.

12. (tie) The Black Olive

814 S. Bond St., (410) 276-7141,
Points: 12. Votes: 3. First-place votes: Baldwin's Station The place that changed the way Baltimore thinks about Greek restaurants may have inspired other eateries with its focus on the freshest whole fish prepared with elegant simplicity, but this corner of quaint, cobblestoned Fells Point remains "something different," as Baldwin's Station manager Craig Back notes. Don't just take the locals' word for it; the Zagat survey lists The Black Olive as one of the country's best Greek and seafood restaurants. Drawing on a century of know-how (their ancestors ran an inn in Istanbul) and their considerable charm, the Spiliadis family keeps things down to earth while providing an otherworldly dining experience. We love it when the server escorts us to the refrigerator case by the open kitchen to show off that night's fresh-out-of-water selections--rockfish and snapper, sure, but also mysteries like St. Peter's fish and barbouni, a dozen-odd choices on any given night. We thrill when it's brought out, gorgeously grilled, and filleted tableside. We gasp a little at the check, but hey, this is a special occasion.

12. (tie) Sabatino's

901 Fawn St., (410) 727-9414,
Points: 12. Votes: 3. First-place votes: Lista's "Consistent, friendly, like being at home," says Lista's owner Kathy Evangelista. Maybe chez Kathy routinely hosts a parlor full of pols or a brace of celebs, but we figure she's probably talking about the join-the-family feel at this old-schooler, the place to go for a full-nelson Little Italy Experience. Starting, of course, with Sabatino's signature Bookmaker's Salad, a monstrous assemblage of lettuce, tomato, olives, pepperoncini, shrimp, salami, provolone, hard-boiled egg, and the house Parmesan dressing. Probably best to share it if you want to have room left for anything on what former Belvedere Bagel Works owner John Marquette calls a "great all-around menu" of Southern and Central Italian perennials, featuring a dizzying array of pasta toppings (anchovy sauce, red and white), and the occasional wild card, like the Tabasco-tinged Shrimp Juan and the fearsome Brasciloe, a marinara-topped beef roll stuffed with veal, prosciutto, egg, Parmesan, and provolone. Now that's old school.

12. (tie) Tio Pepe

10 E. Franklin St., (410) 539-4675
Points: 12. Votes: 3. First-place votes: Little Havana "Always incredible for special nights out," says Little Havana owner Tim Whisted, voicing a common local sentiment. For 32 years Baltimore has been celebrating special occasions with its Uncle Pepe, and it's not just because this is the only restaurant in town that serves roast suckling pig. The staff at Tio Pepe has a knack for making every customer, from local dignitaries to gawky prom-date couples, feel special and important. Is there anyone who does not adore the paella à la Valenciana or the sangria in those adorable painted pitchers? We only wish we could afford to soak in Tio's mellow ambiance and sherried cream sauce on a more regular basis.

15. (tie) Geckos

2318 Fleet St., (410) 732-1961,
Points: 10. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Baltimore Brewing Co., Dougherty's Pub We'd happily while away an evening at the bar of this Canton haunt sipping the perfectly mixed margaritas and downing the delicately crispy, generously spicy house-made tortilla chips (both named Baltimore's best by CP last year), but owner/chef Jim Smith's menu of nouveau Southwestern dishes always gets in the way. "Chef Smith is one of the best cooks around," sings William Dougherty, owner of the namesake Mount Vernon pub. Is he talking about Geckos' creative enchiladas, quesadillas, and wraps? The cornmeal-crusted catfish chipotle with addictive smoked jalapeño sauce? The good-enough-for-a-meal horseradish mashed potatoes? The terrific Sunday brunch? Or has he just been indulging at the 20-plus-label tequila bar? You've got plenty of time to find out for yourself, as Baltimore Brewing Co.'s Scott Donnelly notes--the kitchen is open until 1 a.m.

15. (tie) Louisiana

1708 Aliceanna St., (410) 327-2610
Points: 10. Votes: 2. First-place votes: House of Kabob, Sotto Sopra French-Creole cooking good enough to inspire the owner of a Middle Eastern restaurant and the manager of an Italian eatery is something to be reckoned with. Then again, this recent addition to the Fells Point restaurant scene has already attracted lots of enthusiastic admirers. Between the opulent fare (try the crab bisque) and the elaborate décor, dinner here is not unlike being invited to une grande fête in some wealthy deep-South plantation home just before the Civil War. Service is smoothly professional and the menu lengthy; listen carefully to the specials, as this is where the kitchen steps away from strictly classic Cajun with some truly interesting offerings.

15. (tie) La Scala

1012 Eastern Ave., (410) 783-9209,
Points: 10. Votes: 2. First-place votes: DiPasquale's, Faidley Seafood When the general manager of the storied Highlandtown deli DiPasquale's says an Italian restaurant is the best in town, we listen. "In over four years, never a bad meal or service," says Will Bauer of this modest-sized Little Italian, recently ensconced in new digs on Eastern Avenue. La Scala can get a bit dear if you like your steak and veal, but we stick to the generously portioned pastas so as to afford a starter course of the house-special grilled Caesar salad, artichoke hearts topped with jumbo lump crab, or Bauer's choice, "the fantastic grilled-polenta appetizer" with a sauce of cognac, pancetta, and porcini mushrooms. Bonus points: Most of the two dozen martinis mixed in the Padre's Lounge downstairs are named after Godfather characters. The Luca Brazzi comes with "gangland olives (stuffed with da fishes)."

18. Harryman House

340 Main St., Reisterstown Road, Reisterstown, (410) 833-8850,
Points: 10. Votes: 3. First-place votes: Alonso's/Loco Hombre Harryman House "feels like home" to Baldwin's Station manager Craig Back, and judging from the crowds he's got plenty of company. There's porch seating when the weather is warm, and a toasty fireplace greets you when it's chilly. The dining rooms are tasteful and refined, the perfect place to mark a special occasion. But the heart of the House is the bar--a spacious, high-ceilinged room where you can enjoy dishes from the dinner menu or more reasonably priced light fare. Kick back with the martini up (which arrives in the form of a tall glass, empty but for a couple of gourmet olives, and a large metal bowl filled with ice and your generously mixed pitcher of sin) and some lump-crab dip or oysters on the half-shell. Whatever you get, "from the simplest appetizer to the cutting-edge specialties," Alonso's/Loco Hombre manager Theresa Malloy says, "the food is fabulous."

19. (tie) Pazza Luna

1401 E. Clement St., (410) 727-1212
Points: 10. Votes: 3. Just like her hero, Frank Sinatra, Pazza Luna chef/owner Kim Acton threw out the rule book and did it her way, with enchanting results. Frolicking moons and stars decorate the airy dining room; high-quality house-made pastas and deftly seasoned sauces emerge from the kitchen. "It's like dining at your favorite Italian aunt's house--and I'm Irish!" exclaims Brass Elephant owner Jack Elsby. Indeed, there's a real homey quality to this ebullient Locust Point eatery, with its short, ever-evolving menu and Italian- language tapes playing in the rest rooms. The atmosphere is welcoming, the staff enthusiastic, and the food "incredible," to quote Thomas Cizauskas, general manager and brewmaster at Sisson's, who adds an alluring (to us, anyway) postscript: "And lots of garlic!"

19. (tie) Sotto Sopra

405 N. Charles St., (410) 625-0534
Points: 10. Votes: 3. "The closest thing to a New York restaurant in Baltimore," DiPasquale's Will Bauer says. Whether that's a compliment depends on your point of view, we suppose, but glamorous, sophisticated Sotto Sopra is a scene unto itself. With its black accouterments, jewel-toned murals, and dramatic lighting, the dining room is a perfect setting in which to See and Be Seen, and the artistically presented food shines as brightly as the sleek clientele. The carpaccio appetizer is perfection both to gaze upon and to eat, and the homemade pastas are invariably intriguing (try anything in the heavenly saffron-infused cream sauce). We like to make an evening of it, arranging ourselves decoratively at a table near the enormous front windows and enjoying a languorous meal, suffused with a lot of wine and plenty of hey-don't-I-know-you eye contact.

21. (tie) Andy Nelson's BBQ

11007 York Road, Cockeysville, (410) 527-1226
Points: 9. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Charleston You can pretty it up all you want, but there's no hiding the fact that Southern cuisine started out as a way for country folk to fuel themselves for hard labor. And if you like Southern chow, sooner or later you're going to feel like stuffing one of God's creatures into a big black smoker. That's just what they do at Andy Nelson's, a modest joint with a few tables and a brisk take-out business that serves up the kind of hearty food that makes you want to plow the back 40, even if you're probably just heading back to the office to play Minesweeper while you make phone calls. Nelson, an ex-Baltimore Colt, serves up "simply the best BBQ in town," says Tony Foreman, co-owner of the more upscale Dixie bistro Charleston. Nelson's pulls Memphis-style ribs, beef brisket, chicken, turkey, and, of course, pulled pork from its busy smoker and serves them up with authentic sauces, including a mustard-y, memorably pungent Carolina-style concoction.

21. (tie) Edo Sushi

53 Padonia Road, Timonium, (410) 667-9200
Points: 9. Votes: 2. First-place votes: The Bicycle It's hard to believe this little island of civility and taste can thrive in such close proximity to Padonia Station. But thrive it does, a precious jewel amid the chaff of a Timonium strip mall, transcending its surroundings with gracious service, inventive cooking, and the freshest fish. Start with dumplings or some salty, yummy edamame, but don't miss the pan-fried soft-crab appetizer, wherein a Maryland favorite gets a sublime Oriental workout. The exquisite sashimi will convince the wariest diner of the pleasures of raw fish. "Creative, delicious, a real find," raves Deborah Mazzoleni, co-owner of The Bicycle. There is one way in which Edo Sushi fits its environment--you can enjoy all this goodness on a strip-mall budget.

21. (tie) Il Giardino

8809 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City, (410) 461-1122
Points: 9. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Gunning's Seafood Restaurant This romantic roadside eatery in Ellicott City may seem "small" to Gunning's Seafood Restaurant honcho Edward Gunning Jr., but it's the soft lighting, the grape-arbor décor, and (mostly) the staff's effort to make you feel like family that shrinks these three dining rooms to one cozy whole. Gunning is right on the money, though, about the "friendly service" and "outstanding Italian food." No culinary tricks here, just big portions of flawlessly rendered pastas, steaks, veal, chicken, and seafood dishes like gamberi Riviera, shrimp scampi transformed by the addition of lemon and dry vermouth. For the first-time daters who seem to crowd the place, we recommend getting the evening off to a sensual start with crespelle alla besciamella, crêpes bursting with fresh spinach, ricotta, sweet sausage, and Parmesan and blanketed with a dreamy béchamel sauce.

21. (tie) Hampton's

550 Light St. (Harbor Court Hotel), (410) 347-9744,
Points: 9. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Rudy's 2900 Hampton's stands for over-the-top elegance, from the crystal bowl of flowers on each table to the marvelous menu featuring regional ingredients given the royal treatment. This is the place to satisfy that upscale urge, to savor caviar or squab (the kitchen handles game with true panache), perhaps while seated in one of the cushiony armchairs that surround the tables, which are widely spaced for utmost privacy. Peter's Inn co-owners Bud and Karin Tiffany shout-out the whole Hampton's experience: "the view, food, service--excellent." Indeed, the discreet, gracious service will leave you feeling like a true member of the upper crust while you gaze out on the Inner Harbor, savoring both the scene and the moment.

21. (tie) The Peppermill

1301 York Road, Lutherville, (410) 583-1107
Points: 9. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Angelina's The Peppermill is the kind of place your grandparents love--friendly, solicitous servers, neutral décor, and a wide-ranging roster of classic American dishes at reasonable prices. The menu is solidly old school: clams casino, chicken cordon bleu, two kinds of crab soup. Sure, they're hip to the times--chicken quesadilla, even a vegetable stir-fry--but the point of The Peppermill is the garden salad, prime rib with baked potato, and sherbet for dessert. Wise diners will stick with the traditional offerings, like crab cakes or chicken Baltimore (chicken breast sauteed with crab lumps, mozzarella cheese, and mushrooms in a light cream sauce), and walk away happy and none too much the poorer. "Great food, light fare, prices, parking, and nice people," ticks off Carol Reilly, manager of Angelina's, and what more could you want, hon?

26. Midtown Yacht Club

15 E. Centre St., (410) 837-1300
Points: 8. Votes: 3. First-place votes: Mick O'Shea's That's Mr. Beverage's Midtown Yacht Club to you, pal, since Trish and Nathan Beveridge bought the land-lubbing bar a few years back. They've lived up to their homonym, stocking the larder with 14 beers on tap, 20-odd tequilas, and 50 single-malts. But they've really put MYC on the map by bringing in a former Holy Frijoles chef to flesh out the pub-grub menu with a full line of Mexican staples. All well and good, but Charleston co-owner Tony Foreman comes here for the "awesome turkey burgers and Harp on tap." Another draw is the super-spicy steamed shrimp, which get extra kick from the coriander and cloves thrown into the Old Bay mix. Course, some folks just come for the bottomless bowl of peanuts and full-contact karaoke.

27. (tie) Holy Frijoles

908 36th St., (410) 235-2326
Points: 8. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Daily Grind Good things come in small packages. This colorful hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint in Hampden (which also has an even smaller hole-in-the-wall offshoot for lunch traffic, along busy North Charles Street downtown) offers up big plates of chow at itty-bitty prices. "Good, straightforward, affordable Mexican food," The Bicycle's Deborah Mazzoleni says. Daily Grind manager Steve Rowell echoes the chorus, singing the praises of Holy Frijoles' "excellent Tex-Mex" and "inexpensive" prices. We love the cheesy enchiladas and mushy refried beans washed down with BYO Mexican beer, but while we're waiting in Holy Frijoles' miniscule lobby (also known as "the doorway") we love to look at the walls crowded with art, including a festive Day of the Dead mask.

27. (tie) Ruby Lounge

802 N. Charles St., (410) 539-8051
Points: 8. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Donna's "Yes, I helped start" Mount Vernon's Ruby Lounge, Donna's co-owner Alan Hirsch says, getting the disclaimer out of the way first, "but [I] haven't owned it for a year. On their own now, chef Mary Soto and general manager David Smith have made it better." The Ruby's ambiance remains that of an urbane martini lounge, offering not only the traditionally retro cosmopolitans and gimlets but such exotica as the ruby slipper (vodka and chambord), the Cajun martini (vodka and a habañero-stuffed olive), and the Patsy Cline (Stoli vanilla vodka and champagne). But it's also a surprisingly inexpensive place to get a fancy dinner (or not so fancy--"The meat loaf is superb," Hirsch notes), with most entrées on the neo-Southern-tilting menu coming in well under $20.

27. (tie) Vespa

1117 S. Charles St., 410-385-0355
Points: 8. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Spike & Charlie's Likes its Italian-scooter namesake, Vespa is small but zesty and a whole lot of fun. Since the day it opened, this Federal Hill wine bar has literally been packed with singles in search of each other and everybody else in search of light but interesting Mediterranean fare. Make a meal of diverting small plates, or try one of the innovative pastas or pizzas. Charlie Gjerde, co-owner of the Spike & Charlie's Restaurant Group, says the compactly cool Vespa is "hip and happening, serving great Italian food with great wine choices." Craig Back, manager of Baldwin's Station, likes Vespa for "good cuisine without paying an arm and leg." It's possible to eat, drink, and be merry in high style here, without being taken for a ride.

30. Thairish

804 N. Charles St., (410) 752-5857
Points: 8. Votes: 4. "The hardest-working man in Baltimore never disappoints," as Holy Frijoles' Geoff Danek (a former Thairish counterman) puts it. That would be Kerrigan Kitikul, the white-haired, white-smocked, ever-present wizard behind the counter at this miniscule Mount Vernon storefront. Thairish offers "the best value of any restaurant in Baltimore," says Donna's co-owner Alan Hirsch. "Zero atmosphere but excellent, simple Thai food." We don't know, Alan--we kind of like the tiny, tidy dining room (four tables and a few stools), the daily papers for browsing while you wait for your carry-out order, the sizzling sounds from Kitikul's kitchen as he prepares his colorful curries (make ours veggie masaman) and pungent pad Thais. But we're with you on the "value" part--nothing here costs more than $6.95. "Makes you feel good after you eat their food," proffers someone else who knows her way around a value, Woman's Industrial Exchange operations manager Mary Brown. "Like a million bucks."

31. (tie) Minato

800 N. Charles St., (410) 332-0332
Points: 8. Votes: 3 The "great sushi" (per Alan Hirsch, who's no doubt had his share--his flagship Donna's is right upstairs) pays the bills at this basement Japanese in the heart of Mount Vernon. And fine sushi it is--especially the rolls, and especially in the form of super-sized but value-priced lunch specials. Personally, though, we're partial to Minato's noodle soups: nabeyaki udon, tempura soba, ramen, swimming with goodies like tempura shrimp, sweet fish cakes, and crackly fried tofu, served in bowls you could bob for apples in. A few years back they made room on the menu for a selection of Vietnamese dishes, offering another welcome tangent from the usual sushi/teriyaki continuum.

31. (tie) Rusty Scupper

402 Key Highway, (410) 727-3678
Points: 8. Votes: 3. Despite the throngs of tourists who fill this venerable Inner Harbor restaurant nightly, Baltimoreans retain a fond place in their little local hearts for the Rusty Scupper. The incomparable views of downtown give you the chance to appreciate the city all over again as the sky over the harbor fades from scarlet to indigo. The menu, also tourist-friendly, is straight-up classic seafood. The crab cakes are commendable, and you can get all manner of sea creatures fried, baked, broiled, or sautéed in butter. This is what the Rusty Scupper has been doing for decades, and they have it down pat.

33. (tie) The Bicycle

1444 Light St., (410) 234-1900
Points: 8. Votes: 2. Where has The Bicycle been all our lives? Picture upscale, globally inspired comfort food, reasonably priced, matched with an affordable wine list. Oh, it's not all herb-roasted chicken with preserved lemons and the best frigging mashed potatoes we've ever eaten. No, there's also adventure to be had--yucca-encrusted Chilean sea bass in roasted sweet-corn cream sauce or different (and fiery) Thai-inspired dishes. Reservations are essential, as this tiny eatery is constantly filled to the gills; in warm weather, ask for a table on the charming back patio. Sascha's 527 owner Steve Suser, who knows from charming little bistros, calls The Bicycle "hip, cool, warm, and tasty." Find out for yourself, and don't skip dessert.

33. (tie) Zorba's

4710 Eastern Ave., (410) 276-4484
Points: 8. Votes: 2. Zorba's is the kind of neighborhood joint that feels like an instant discovery, even when half the city knows that this is where you go for a great Greek dinner. Ask for a table by the wood-burning grill and wait for the delectable, wonderfully inexpensive dishes to come rolling across your table. Cosmos owner Manuel Komninos hails the "best octopus and lamb chops"; our best-bet Zorba's dinner is the appetizer combo platter of octopus, eggplant, and taramosalata followed by any of the aromatic, wood-grilled entrées. Whatever you get for dinner, always, always save room for an order of kataifi afterward (if it's available, that is).

35. (tie) Cacao Lane

8066 Main St., Ellicott City, (410) 461-1378
Points: 7. Votes: 2. First-place votes: The Backfin When you're sick of going to restaurants to look at the beautiful people, go to a restaurant where the beautiful people will look at you. Plunk yourself down at the window table of this quaint bistro in old Ellicott City and survey the passing scene. But don't blame passersby for drooling over your exquisite black-bean soup or crab-dip appetizer. Relax in the bar, with its exposed stone wall, or in the jewel-box dining room and sup on one of the imaginative specials, such as nut-encrusted Chilean sea bass with double berry and orange salsa. And this is one joint that does credit to the elegant veal Oscar, tender medallions topped with lump crab and fresh asparagus--just the sort of over-the-top meal this charming niche entreats you to enjoy.

35. (tie) Charleston

1000 Lancaster St., (410) 332-7373,
Points: 7. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Moxley's Ice Cream Parlor We would like to take this opportunity to accuse Charleston chef and co-owner Cindy Wolf of starting a cult. Exhibit A: her grits. Not just any grits, but lusciously, decadently creamy grits studded with small explosions of flavor from bits of tasso ham and andouille sausage and (as if they weren't already sufficiently heavenly) topped whole large Gulf shrimp. We never thought anyone would ever set us to the recreational sucking of shrimp heads, but, hey, it's how you get every last bit of flavor. The menu changes daily, but at Charleston you can always count on finding extraordinary renditions of the South Carolina low country's incomparable cuisine. Combine exquisite food with the best service in Baltimore and you have the makings of an unforgettable evening. Just wear something dry-cleanable; those shrimp heads tend to spatter.

35. (tie) John Steven Ltd.

1800 Thames St., (410) 327-5561,
Points: 7. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Captain James Landing There are two kinds of Fells Point restaurants: the ones for the tourists and the ones for the rest of us. John Steven Ltd. is one for the rest of us. "When I want a crab cake and steamed shrimp, this is the place," Café Hon owner Denise Whiting says. "I love sitting at the four-seat bar, drinking Rolling Rock on draft." We love listening to locals at the bar talk about their seagoing adventures, or sitting at a table outside when it's warm so we can smell the breeze drift off the nearby waterfront. But wherever we sit, we can count on enjoying some Old Bay-encrusted crustaceans, surprisingly good sushi (for a place that doesn't focus exclusively on Asian cuisine), and some of Charm City's saltiest charm.

35. (tie) Niwana

3 E. 33rd St., (410) 366-4115
Points: 7. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Wharf Rat (Camden Yards) We're pretty sure PizzAppeal, the all-you-can-eat joint that used to occupy this Charles Village space, didn't have a koi fountain. But Niwana does carry on its predecessor's tradition of bang for the buck--specifically, in the words of Wharf Rat office manager Windy Brown, "great Korean and Japanese for not that much," which makes it a favorite of students at nearby Johns Hopkins University. A single order of Niwana nabe udon is a day's sustenance, a black earthenware pot full of fat noodles, seafood, tofu, vegetables, and egg in a pleasingly briny broth. You could make several meals foraging through the extensive list of $3 to $4 appetizers (or splurge on the $5.95 tempura soft-shell crab). The sushi/sashimi menu also ranges far and wide, including some deep-fried variations, if you roll that way.

35. (tie) El Salto

5513 Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn Park, (410) 789-1621
Points: 7. Votes: 2. First-place votes: Peter's Inn "One word--'lard,'" sigh Peter's Inn owners Bud and Karin Tiffany. "Yum." You get the real thing at this family-owned Mexican joint half-hidden in an erstwhile Hardee's just south of the (city) border, and plenty of it, to the tune of 30-odd combination platters. Volker Stewart, owner of the Brewer's Art, goes for the "best tacos de carne asada east of the Mississippi"; we go for the spicy, cheesy, oozy chiles relleno. Whatever you go for, it's all made fresh daily on the premises and it's guaranteed to fill you up. (North-siders can get the same experience--down to the former-fast-food digs--at El Salto II in Parkville; see "My Favorite Things," page 38.)

40. Phillips

301 Light St. (Harborplace), (410) 685-6600,
Points: 7. Votes: 3. The Tyson Place staff sums it up: "Seafood, seafood." The Phillips family serves it up in droves at the Inner Harbor outpost of its fruit de mer empire--your crab, your fish, your ersters and scallops and shrimp, oh my. You're not going to be surprised by much of anything here, but if you're stuck showing the out-of-town relatives the famous Baltimore waterfront, you could do worse. The staff is cheery, they treat little kids nice, and if you need to flatten out some of that tourist tension, they whip up a tall, tasty daiquiri (in a souvenir glass, natch). After you pack the folks off, come back in the evening to belt out a few at the city's most popular piano bar.

41. (tie) Corks

1026 S. Charles St., (410) 752-3810
Points: 6. Votes: 3. As the name implies, Corks is all about wine. Serious oenophiles can dive into the wine list (touted as "excellent" by The Black Olive's Dimitris Spiliadis--a sommelier, no less), bound like a book and replete with maps and a glossary. The rest of us take the educated advice of the wait staff--they've tried most of the vintages on the voluminous list, which makes us think they have the best job in the world. But don't stop there--the small but intriguing menu packs a great deal of flavor into its nightly selections, and the kitchen does as well with delicate seafood as with hefty cuts of beef and pork. Match each intelligently seasoned course with one of the suggested wines and enjoy a symphony of flavors--at pretty reasonable prices, considering the quality.

41. (tie) Helen's Garden Café

2908 O'Donnell St., (410) 276-2233
Points: 6. Votes: 3. When you enter Helen's Garden Café, you trundle past a narrow bar facing an entire wall stocked with wine. Little surprise, then, that "the wine list" comes to mind for Ze Mean Bean Café general manager Todd Burton when he includes Helen's on his list of favorites. (For us as well; Helen's won CP's designation for Best Wine List last year.) But this cozy Canton bistro is more than its four-page roster du vin. It serves up brunch Saturday (until 1 p.m.) as well as Sunday (to 2:30) and creative twists on American cuisine all week long--check out the zippy chicken-salad sandwich (with bleu cheese and walnuts) or the mashed potatoes fired up with horseradish and scallions. Naturally, the menu includes helpful wine (and beer) suggestions for each dish.

41. (tie) Rothwell's Grille

106 W. Padonia Road, Timonium, (410) 252-0600
Points: 6. Votes: 3. The ambiance is clubby, but it's a club anyone can join at this casually hip off-Interstate-83 outpost favored by food mavens in search of fine contemporary American fare. You'll find the basics--meat loaf, pork chops, indispensable Maryland crab cakes--but consider cutting loose and letting the chef top your New York strip with goat-cheese-and-scallion stuffing, or your blackened salmon with a shrimp-and-corn salsa. And if the wild rockfish or soft crabs appear on the menu, reel them in without delay for a fresh, fanciful, flavorful preparation.

44. (tie) Hilltop Carryout

600 E. Fort Ave., (410) 752-1971
Points: 6. Votes: 2. What's so great about the Hilltop? Besides the fact that this South Baltimore joint stays open until well after the bars close to satisfy that drunken lust for greasy food? The fries. Crisp exteriors, greaseless interiors--everything a fry ought to be but so frequently, and tragically, is not. Everything here is good, and some things are even better: The rice pudding is a standout, as is the regular gyro and (for the nontraditionalist) the chicken gyro with honey-mustard sauce. Tim Whisted, owner of nearby Little Havana, clearly hears the Hilltop's siren song, praising the "great pizza, subs, and gyros." "You can always tell a carry-out is good when the cars are triple-parked and the cops don't give out tickets," Whisted adds. Amen, our brother in fries.

44. (tie) Milton Inn

14833 York Road, Sparks, (410) 771-4366
Points: 6. Votes: 2. The Milton Inn is a long, long way from the city, and we're not just talking about the drive to Sparks. It's an atmosphere thing; there's something about dining on venison by candlelight in the tastefully decorated rooms of an 18th-century mansion that wipes clean your urban memory banks. For many years, the Milton has been Baltimore's destination restaurant--making the drive into the deep country firmly announces that this is indeed a Special Night. And the effort is rewarded--with elegantly exquisite food and a staff that's warmer and more enthusiastic than you might expect from such a traditional haute-cuisine establishment. Less adventurous eaters will be comforted by excellent crab cakes, tenderloin, and the like. And palates great and small alike will swoon for the desserts, particularly the brilliant crème brûlée.

The following restaurants also received first-place votes: Akbar, Amicci's, Brass Elephant, The Brewer's Art, China Clipper, Corner Stable, Liquid Earth, Desert Café, Nam Kang, Red Lobster, Simon's Pub, Suzie's Soba, Tosca Grill, Valentino's.

Blurbs by Susan Fradkin, Paul Gallagher, Michelle Gienow, Heather Joslyn, and Andy Markowitz. Photographs by Michelle Gienow.

Kudos and thanks to the following local restaurant-industry stalwarts for being good sports and playing our little dining-guide game. See respondents' individual lists:.

Barbara Bahl, manager, Hollywood Diner
Will Bauer, general manager, DiPasquale's Italian Marketplace
Craig Back, manager, Baldwin's Station
Danilo Bosio, manager, Sotto Sopra
Craig Brocato, manager, Mick O'Shea's
Mary Brown, operations manager, Woman's Industrial Exchange
Windy Brown, office manager, Wharf Rat (Camden Yards)
Todd Burton, general manager, Ze Mean Bean Café
David Bush, manager, Attman's Delicatessen
Cheri Cernak, co-owner, Obrycki's
Thomas Cizauskas, general manager/brewmaster, Sisson's
Geoff Danek, owner, Holy Frijoles
Nancy Devine, president, Faidley Seafood
Scott Donnelly, chef, Baltimore Brewing Co.
William Dougherty, owner, Dougherty's Pub
Steve Eliades, owner, Bill's Terrace Inn
Jack Elsby, owner, the Brass Elephant
Kathy Evangelista, owner/operator, Lista's
Isabel Fabara, president, One World Café
Tony Foreman, co-owner/wine director, Charleston
Charlie Gjerde, co-owner, Spike & Charlie's Restaurant Group
Edward Gunning Jr., president, Gunning's Seafood Restaurant
Alan Hirsch, co-owner, Donna's
George Ieromonahos, president/treasurer, G&M Restaurant
Amber Kapela, administrative assistant, Captain James Landing
Kerrigan Kitikul, owner/manager, Thairish
Ruth Kloetzli, president, Werner's
Manuel Komninos, owner, Cosmos Restaurant
Theresa Malloy, executive assistant, Alonso's/Loco Hombre
Chris Maler, co-owner, Matthew's Pizzaria
Asghar Mahmoudian, owner, House of Kabob
John Marquette, former owner, Bagel Works (Belvedere)
Deborah Mazzoleni and Barry Rumsey, owners, The Bicycle
Kristina McPhee, sales and marketing manager, Hard Rock Café
Vlad Podzin, manager, Lisa's Coffee House
Carol Reilly, manager, Angelina's
Steve Rowell, manager, Daily Grind
Lotfi Shehata, manager, Al Pacino Café II
David Smith, owner, Ruby Lounge
Jim Smith, chef/owner, Geckos
Neil Smith, owner, The Crack Pot
Rudolph Speckamp, owner/chef, Rudy's 2900
Dimitris Spiliadis, CEO, The Black Olive
Staff, Tyson Place
Volker Stewert, owner, The Brewer's Art
Annie Sullivan, director of operations, Rainforest Café
Steve Suser, co-owner, Sascha's 527
Jai Sut, owner, Piccadeli's
Tony Thomas, owner, The Backfin
Bud and Karin Tiffany, owners/cooks/etc., Peter's Inn
Michael Ward, general manager, Mount Vernon Stable & Saloon
Tom Washburn, president, Moxley's Ice Cream Parlor
Tim Whisted, owner/manager, Little Havana
Denise Whiting, owner, Café Hon

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