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Eat Feature

Exit 23

Interstate 83 South, Baltimore

John Davis Jr.
Exit 23: Thairish

Eat Special Issue 2000

Drive Through Introduction

Exit 2 Route 10, Severna Park

Exit 3 Governor Ritchie Highway, Brooklyn / Glen Burnie

Exit 4 Interstate 97, Annapolis

Exit 6 Route 170, Linthicum

Exit 7 Baltimore - Washington Parkway, uh, Baltimore / Washington

Exit 8 Hammonds Ferry Road, Linthicum

Exit 11 Interstate 95, Downtown Baltimore

Exit 12 Wilkens Avenue, Baltimore / Arbutus

Exits 13/14 Frederick Road / Edmondson Avenue, Catonsville / Ellicott City

Exit 15 Baltimore National Pike, Catonsville / Ellicott City

Exit 16 Interstate 70, Columbia

Exit 17 Security Boulevard, Woodlawn

Exit 18 Liberty Road, Lochearn / Randallstown

Exit 19 Northwest Expressway, Reisterstown / Westminster

Exit 20 Reisterstown Road, Northwest Baltimore / Pikesville / Owings Mills

Exit 21 Park Heights Avenue, Northwest Baltimore

Exit 22 Greenspring Avenue, Pikesville

Exit 23 Interstate 83 South, Baltimore

Exit 24 Interstate 83 North, Timonium / Cockeysville

Exit 25 Charles Street, Towson / Lutherville

Exit 26 York Road, Downtown Towson

Exit 27 Dulaney Valley Road, Towson

Exit 28 Providence Road, Towson

Exit 29 Cromwell Bridge Road, Towson

Exit 30 Perring Parkway, Northeast Baltimore / Parkville

Exit 31 Harford Road, Northeast Baltimore / Parkville

Exit 32 Belair Road, Northeast Baltimore / Perry Hall

Exit 33 Interstate 95, White Marsh and Points North

Exits 34/35 Pulaski Highway / Philadelphia Road, Rosedale

Exit 36 Southeast Boulevard, Essex / Middle River

Exit 38 Route 150/Eastern Avenue, Essex / East Baltimore

Exits 39/40 North Point Boulevard / Merritt Boulevard, Dundalk

Exits 41/42 Cove Road / North Point Boulevard, Dundalk / Edgemere

Eat 2000

Posted 2/23/2000

The Silk Road was the great trade route linking Central Asia and Western Europe—used by the Romans, revived by Marco Polo—where silk, jewels, and, presumably, culinary traditions were transported for centuries. So evocative is the image of cultural exchange (OK, exploitation, but we're romanticizing here) that not one but two local restaurants named themselves after the ancient byway. Not to stretch an analogy too far, but one might call Interstate 83 Baltimore's Silk Road of cuisine, snaking down into the heart of the city, with easy off-ramp access to many of Mobtown's major dining districts: Mount Washington (via the Northern Parkway exit); Hampden (Cold Spring Lane and Falls Road); Charles Village (28th Street and North Avenue); Mount Vernon (Mount Royal Avenue and St. Paul Street); Little Italy and Fells Point (at the highway's southern terminus). Well, yes, we suppose we are stretching the analogy too far. But there's a lot of good restaurants along here, OK?

We'll leave the lacrosse players congregating near the bar at the Mt. Washington Tavern (5700 Newbury St., [410] 367-6903), thank you very much, and make our way back to what we like to call the "Rainforest Room"—lots of plants and trees, oh yes, and on balmy days a roof that unrolls to a clear blue sky or softly scudding clouds. Balmy Baltimore, and we've a drink in hand as we work our way through the huge bar menu or tackle something more substantial and imagine ourselves in the tropics.

The Desert Café (1605-1607 Sulgrave Ave., [410] 367-5808) is a tiny Mount Washington treasure we've loved since its inception. There's nothing finer after a day of schlepping through high-end boutiques than grabbing a table on the charming porch or in the eclectic dining room and refreshing ourselves with a feast of Middle Eastern noshables like hummus, baba ghanoush, and stuffed grape leaves and a cool glass of iced tea. The Desert's desserts are lovely as well.

Hoang's Seafood Grill (1619 Sulgrave Ave., [410] 466-1000) has a little bit of everything pan-Asian. The downstairs sushi bar doubles as a busy social scene, and there are more tables upstairs. Vietnamese spring rolls are delicious, soups are complex and flavorful. The sushi's fresh, cut and rolled to satisfy a purist or mixed into the inevitable combos to satisfy the Occidentals. The pad Thai is fabulous comfort food with its surprise of peanuts in a wonderful sauce. And there are plenty of other choices to please both the novice and experienced Asian-food aficionado.

We're sure they do many things well in the kitchen at Crossroads (5100 Falls Road [Radisson Hotel at Cross Keys], [410] 532-6900), but we wouldn't know—we invariably order the crab cakes, crowned Baltimore's best by City Paper last year. These three lumpy beauties arrive in a pool of lemon beurre blanc, accompanied by crisp steamed vegetables and au gratin or garlic mashed potatoes. Sure, it's not cocktail sauce and slaw, but there's more than one way to cake a crab. Sooner or later, maybe we'll get around to sampling the tasty-sounding fish dishes on the menu. Maybe.

We'll acknowledge that some folks come to Café Zen (438 E. Belvedere Ave., [410] 532-0022) to have their yin and yang gastronomically adjusted. We don't really know from yin and yang. We do know from flavor, freshness, taste. We know we like Zen's light, delicious Chinese fare, even the healthy stuff. We figure that's what keeps the crowds coming. You wonder about the sound of one hand clapping; we'll wonder whether to start with pan-fried dumplings or Ants in a Tree.

Among the many clones that once went by the name Al Pacino Café, our favorite might just be Egyptian Pizza (542 E. Belvedere Ave., [410] 323-7060). Yes, like its cousins, Egyptian serves up designer pizzas (we can hardly think of a topping they don't offer) and filling, fair-priced Middle Eastern fare, but we especially love 1) the ample parking, 2) the good service from a laid-back staff, and 3) the easy stroll to the Senator Theatre after a plate of lamb schwarma or the dense and delicious Mediterranean sampler.

Old reliable: That's the way we think of Swallow at the Hollow (5921 York Road, [410] 532-7542). We work our way around to the tables past the far end of the bar, where a heart-of-gold server attends to us like a member of the family. The soups are reliably good, as are the sandwiches, and you've a lot of daily specials to choose from. We admit to an addiction to the fried-shrimp basket, lunchtime fuel for many an afternoon at work.

Since our last dining supplement, the management of Loco Hombre (413 W. Cold Spring Lane, [410] 889-2233) and Alonso's (415 W. Cold Spring Lane, [410] 235-3433) has remodeled the Roland Park eateries and created an entryway that joins them together. (Loco Hombre patrons must pass through Alonso's to be seated.) But what made both places worthwhile hasn't changed. The spiffed-up Alonso's still retains its identity as a sports-mad neighborhood joint offering the biggest, juiciest burgers in town. The roomier Loco Hombre, meanwhile, keeps doing its cheery Tex-Mex thing; the sweet salsa verde and spicy, inexpensive weekend brunches remain its most unique calling cards.

Time was, we disdained the northern branch of the Daily Grind (501 W. Cold Spring Lane, [410] 235-8118), favoring the beloved Fells Point original. The Thames Street coffee joint drew the pierced, the tattooed, the ragamuffin grunge crowd, not to mention the Homicide cast and crew. Well, Homicide's dead, so is grunge, and the original Grind relocated on Thames and in the process became respectable. Which elevated the neo-suburban version to Funky by Comparison. We still love to sit around with a cuppa joe, read the papers, and order up a nosh from the still young-and-restless wait staff.

Mamie's Café (911 W. 36th St., [410] 366-2996) and Golden West Café (842 W. 36th St., [410] 889-8891) are the sort of places newly gentrified Hampden can use more of. Mamie's just-like-Mom's interior—lots of charmingly mismatched old-fashioned furniture—gives you a sense of the just-like-Mom's menu: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, homemade red- velvet cake, etc. The kitchen can be wildly erratic, but when Mamie's gets it right, it really is, well, just like Mom's. Bonus points for the ultra-cheap specials, like selected menu items for a buck each on Tuesdays and Saturdays and a $7 lobster dinner on Wednesday nights. Golden West is a warm, friendly, charming spot to drop in, have a cup of something hot, a taste of something sweet, and a nice healthy bite to eat, all for very little cash. It's also a great place to have a cheap but fancy brunch with a Tex-Mex flair. It goes from cozy to downright cramped on Sunday mornings, but fortunately Golden West serves breakfast every day (except Tuesday, when it's closed all day).

Tucked away in a Victorian house in a mostly residential section of Hampden, Café Pangea (4007 Falls Road, [410] 662-0500) deserves to shout its presence. It's no longer an Internet café, but Pangea's still serving up good coffee and sweets; a Mediterranean lunch menu that may even trump McDonna's (try the prosciutto-and-mozzarella panino); tasty (if a bit pricey) dinner offerings; and a Sunday brunch certified as Baltimore's best by CP last year and best enjoyed on the café's sun-dappled side porch. Not in February, however.

Hampden's McCabe's (3845 Falls Road, [410] 467-1000) makes a fine burger, and those of large appetite will want to land the Swimmer, a huge fried-haddock sandwich that defies completion. Hearty soups, big salads, and lots of daily specials keep the customers coming.

Café Hon (1002 W. 36th St., [410] 243-1230) walks a tightrope between old and new Hampden, combining a blue-collar menu (BLTs, meat loaf, chili, homemade fruit pies) with white-collar prices. Despite the march of "progress" over the course of recent years, the Hon has maintained its reasonably fast, friendly service, and we still think the café's burgers are among the best and juiciest inside the Beltway.

If the prevalence of good old American fare in Hampden occasionally wears you out, try Suzie's Soba (1002 W. 36th St., [410] 243-0051), a relatively recent and welcome addition to The Avenue (aka West 36th Street). Suzie's offers tasty, reasonably priced Korean dishes that emphasize the humble, versatile noodle, served in a cozy atmosphere. And unlike the original Suzie's at the Belvedere, it's open for dinner.

Another block down The Avenue sits one of Baltimore's finest Mexican restaurants, Holy Frijoles ( 908 W. 36th St., [410] 235-2326), home of the best chimichanga in town—crisp, gigantic, brimming with beef and other ingredients. We salivate for the chiles rellenos, lightly fried, oozing cheese at the touch of your fork. And talk about ambiance—we love the display of Mexican fruit sodas and clocks made from all manner of things, like silverware. Bear in mind that the ambiance comes in a small package, and you might have to wait for your turn in Frijoles' wholly tiny dining room.

John Shields is the guy who wrote the book on Chesapeake Bay cooking, so you'd expect the food at Gertrude's (10 Art Museum Drive [Baltimore Museum of Art], [410] 889-3399) to reflect that bias. And it does, in an upscale, nouveau way. Try something old in a new way, like grilled rockfish with gorgonzola mashed potatoes. The BMA's restaurant space remains open, airy, and large, and in clement months you can dine outside and contemplate the sculpture gardens.

Join the Johns Hopkins University crowd—slightly scruffy, often intense, frequently wearing black—at Silk Road Café (3215 N. Charles St., [410] 889-1319) for filling food at college-student (i.e. startlingly low) prices. Eavesdrop on the heady, intellectual conversation in one of two dining areas, or head home with your big servings of noodles, or curry, or vegetable dumplings, or hummus piled high on a sandwich or platter. For some odd but happy reason, this bargain eatery also offers a selection of expensive, trendy gourmet ice creams in pints to go, in flavors that sound more like perfumes and magic elixirs.

Waverly's fortunes wax and wane, but Thai Restaurant (3316 Greenmount Ave., [410] 889-7303) stands like a bulwark of strength and stability, bringing folks into the North Baltimore neighborhood year in and year out for rich curries, delicate pan-fries, and sublime spicy/sour dishes like yum woon sen, a piquant mixture of meat, vegetables, and bean-thread noodles—always served with friendly, unobtrusive grace. When the plates are cleared, linger over sweet Thai iced coffee and drink in the Asian art and icons that line the deep-red walls.

The only regrettable thing about Pete's Grill (3130 Greenmount Ave., [410] 467-7698) is the lack of table seating. But if you don't mind grabbing a counter seat (and, most likely, waiting your turn), you'll have no regrets about the friendly service or the cheap but fabulous food at this Waverly mainstay. The blueberry pancakes are legendary, the home fries among the best in town. For heartier fare, try the roast turkey, or roast pork with sauerkraut. Of course, if you eat breakfast here, you probably won't need lunch.

Fans of Ukrainian cooking in general and pierogi in particular will find a home away from home at Lisa's Coffee House (2110 N. Charles St., [410] 727-7081), a charming little restaurant in lower Charles Village. Homemade Black Sea specialties abound, made from Ukrainian staple foods such as kasha, rye, beets, potatoes, and cabbage: hearty stroganoff, heavenly pumpernickel bread, plump pierogi filled with potato, cabbage, or prunes. There's no better borscht in Baltimore, and for dessert strudel is a must-have. Lisa herself runs the place, cooking and serving and charming all comers to this underappreciated gem of a café.

The city's burgeoning Korean-restaurant scene has now grown to the point where there's full-fledged intrigue going on: Last year, the chef and wait staff of the redoubtable Nam Kang (101 W. 22nd St., [410] 547-5635) jumped ship to open a new restaurant, U Jung (12-16 W. 20th St., [410] 230-0422/0423), a few blocks away. Both establishments, not surprisingly, have almost exactly the same menu and prices; U Jung's endless chain of dining rooms is marginally spiffier than the old pink basement at Nam Kang, and the newer restaurant adds grill tables to the mix, for customers to cook their own kalbigui or bulgoki. (The shining twin exhaust pipes over the door add to the sense that U Jung is something new and powerful.) In the race between them, we're putting our money where our mouth is—which is to say, mostly with the newcomer, where such old favorite stews as the jampong and the kim chi jigue come nose-meltingly hot and gut-bustingly plentiful. Then again, we haven't seen much slippage at Nam Kang, and a recent meal there of hoe dup bab—raw fish and vegetables over rice—was a revelation. We recommend everything on the menu at either place, with the lone exception of the bone-flavored gom tang soup, which is as bafflingly and relentlessly bland as everything else is flavorful.

Mount Vernon's The Helmand (806 N. Charles St., [410] 752-0311) provides Baltimore's primer on Afghan food, and we remain apt pupils. For one thing, it's one of the prettiest little restaurants in town, with its colorful display of native dress. The service is always whisper-soft and smooth. The prices are surprisingly low. Try the lamb, the fish, the earthy stews, or the most satisfying vegetarian fare around. We could make a meal of the appetizers, like the leek-filled ravioli, the pumpkin purée, and the eggplant seasoned with spices and tomatoes. Long live The Helmand.

Any time's a good time for the Ruby Lounge (802 N. Charles St., [410] 539-8051), but we especially love this joint from 5:30 to 7:30 P.M. on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, when most wines go for half price. We love the food too, with its Southern accent. Most of all, we love the fried oysters, hot little puffs of heaven that can be ordered as appetizers. At the Ruby, you can be quite continental or plain homespun; regardless, the surroundings will make you feel like one of the beautiful people. And if they don't, a couple of flavored martinis should do the trick.

Thairish (804 N Charles St., [410] 752-5857) may be tiny, but this Mount Vernon storefront dishes out big flavors—fiery, fragrant curries; blackened or pan-fried fresh fish; and a unique version of the Thai national dish that's friendly to American palates, pad Thai, rich with noodles, crunchy with bean sprouts and chopped peanuts.

Fond as we may be of Akbar Palace (Exit 18), we still prefer to take a cozy table at its progenitor, Akbar (823 N. Charles St., [410] 539-0944), hoist a mango lassi or a cold Kingfisher, and contemplate the menu while the world passes by. Go grand, with lobster malai khasa, or humble, with creamy, eggplanty bengun bharta. This is one of the few places where vegetarianism doesn't feel like a penance to us.

Another subcontinental eatery with suburban tendrils, Bombay Grill (2 E. Madison St., [410] 837-2973) wins kudos for its cozy, many- mirrored rooms and attentively smooth service. The home office is offering balti cuisine, named for an ancient cooking vessel (a kind of deep wok used in sautéing) and native to the Kashmir region of northern India. By any name, we like it.

Unlike its Indian neighbors, Mughal Garden (918 N. Charles St., [410] 547-0001) can fairly be described as spacious, owing to its dance floor, a remembrance of things, and restaurants, past. At lunchtime, it puts on the neighborhood's best buffet, a serious spread of multiple appetizer and vegetable offerings along with the inevitable tandoori chicken. If you're tired of the clay-oven-cooked bird come dinnertime, try the tandoori fish, a nicely grilled hunk of salmon served with a sinfully rich curry sauce.

We adore the delicious dubbel-style Resurrection Ale at the The Brewer's Art (1106 N. Charles St., [410] 547-6925), but with its 7-percent alcohol content and can't-have-just-one drinkability, we feel pangs of conscience recommending it to people who are walking home, let alone driving back to the Beltway. Fortunately, the BA hath charms for the diner as well as the drinker, chief among them the spicy, heaping garlic-rosemary fries, the tangy "bathed" sandwich, and the sinful pumpkin ravioli. There are always amusingly clever specials on offer as well. And the twin bars—smoky, slinky basement and comfy, elegant upstairs—are fine spots for knocking back potables, potent or not.

We love a surprise as well as the next person, and that's what we get at Spike & Charlie's (1225 Cathedral St., [410] 752-8144). The cavalcade of surprises might even start with the freebies; we recall breadsticks so long they had to be angled onto the table. You could sample the appetizers at one of the wine tastings here, or go whole hog and order a jumbo veal chop, roasted duck breast, or seafood. One thing's for sure: Whatever you're expecting from the menu description, what appears on the plate will bear little resemblance to it. But you'll swoon with astonishment and delight nonetheless.

It might be one of Baltimore's best-kept secrets, but upstairs at the upscale Brass Elephant there's a nifty little space called Tusk Lounge (924 N. Charles St., [410] 547-8480). Perfect for pre- or post-theater, the Tusk offers a fine assortment of tapas, those tasty tidbits consumed with a glass of wine or sherry. We're talking gourmet tidbits here, like snails wrapped in phyllo and grilled quail. You don't get a big plate, so you don't pay a big price. But put two or three of these snacks together and you've got a great meal that will leave you refreshed instead of stupefied. If you require more than tidbit sustenance, you can order from the Elephant's more extensive menu.

The fortunes of Teutonic cuisine have been waning locally of late. No sooner does Haussner's hang up the hasenpfeffer than the Baltimore Brewing Company (104 Albemarle St., [410] 837-5000) decides to court a younger, later crowd by ditching the Wiener schnitzel in favor of "light fare" and salads. Of course, BBC still has good stuff—a flank-steak salad, a delectable salmon BLT—and anything tastes better washed down with the house-made DeGroen beers. If you still require the full German-beer-hall zeitgeist, there's still a bratwurst sandwich on the regular menu, and occasional sausage specials.

In Little Italy, several newer places are giving the warhorses a run for the money. One relative newcomer, 2-year-old Aldo's (306 S. High St., [410] 727-0700), is drawing crowds with regional Italian cooking with a southern Italian influence. Osso buco is a big seller here, along with tournedos Rossini, tender fillets napped with porcini mushrooms and foie gras. For the single-minded, crab cakes are available. It's a modest menu, with modest prices, and isn't that refreshing?

If you're looking for northern Italian, the search ends at Boccaccio (925 Eastern Ave., [410] 234-1322), where seasonal ingredients are brought together for happy marriages—say, wild mushrooms wedded to stuffed ravioli, or rigatoni topped with truffles. There's a big variety of what the chef calls "small plates" and some stellar seafood preparations. Look for the trout, or order a gargantuan veal chop, and top it off with a sublime zabaglione with fresh berries. But be prepared for a bill the size of that veal chop.

It's waiting for you like an old friend. Nothing fancy, just reliable. Quirky, but you love it all the more for that. We're talking about Amicci's (231 S. High St., [410] 528-1096), that crowded hole in the wall that conjures up a good time with the crowd. The scampi in a boule is infamous by now, but you'll enjoy other Italian staples and fresh salads at prices that don't reflect the tourist nature of the neighborhood. Come as you are, but wear loose clothing. You'll leave over-inflated.

Another fringe-of-Little-Italy mainstay that keeps the quality up and the prices down, Antney's Bar and Grill (1018 Eastern Ave., [410] 685-8649) offers a downstairs bar and an intimate upstairs dining nook. You'll find hearty pizzas and sandwiches, and a couple of daily specials that speak of higher ambition, fitting for a joint frequently favored by local-boys-made-good like Orioles owner/legal-fees bloodhound Peter Angelos.

When you're ready to throw financial caution to the wind, drive down to Inner Harbor East and settle into one of the lovely dining rooms at Charleston (1000 Lancaster St., [410] 332-7373), where a Southern-inspired menu and sleek service will cushion the financial blow. You'll find cornbread and biscuits, and a real lack of concern about what butter can do to your arteries. Whether it's wild game, seafood, or something as simple as fried chicken, chef Cindy Wolf will give it a new spin.

Time goes by and most things change. But not everything, thank goodness. Fells Point's Pierpoint (1822 Aliceanna St., [410] 675-2080) remains a charming little hideaway, far enough off the beaten path to seem mysterious (but not so far off that you should go without reservations). This little rowhouse restaurant goes on serving international delights and Nancy Longo's Eastern Shore favorites. We recall with pleasure the smoked corn chowder, the oyster po' boy, the smoked crab cakes. You may spring for the Moroccan-spiced lamb chops or a fresh fish preparation. Treat someone whose life could use a little romance.

Every restaurant wants you to believe it offers something you can't get anywhere else. Braznell's Caribbean Kitchen (1623 E. Baltimore St., [410] 327-2445) is one of the few that can make the claim honestly, with a blend of tantalizing Trinidadian food and a definition-of-funky atmosphere that make for a genuinely unique dining-out experience. We usually start off sharing one of cook Esmé Braznell's delicious rhotis, followed by an eggplant canoe (a fried-aubergine boat stuffed with conch, shrimp, and veggies) or curried chicken (the best we've ever tasted), washed down with waiter/bartender Alfred Braznell's signature Calypso Punch. For all the times we've eaten here, Braznell's still never feels like the same old thing.

Jimmy's Restaurant (801 S. Broadway, [410] 327-3273) is the first place we ever saw people drinking beer with breakfast. A dubious distinction, perhaps, but understandable—the A.M. imbibers were workers on the Hopkins ER night shift, stopping in for a "nightcap" before heading home to bed—and very much in keeping with Jimmy's reputation as gathering place and home away from home for all manner of Fells Pointers. Breakfast is still our favorite Jimmy's meal, but we love the bustle any time of day, the jim-dandy burger, the daily specials posted by the door. Oh, and we love the prices too.

Café Madrid (505 S. Broadway, [410] 276-7700), is the east-side outpost for tapas. Settle into some sangria and plates of sautéed mushrooms, shrimp in garlic sauce, fried squid, stuffed mussels, and the cold potato-and-onion omelet considered comfort food in Spain. A full menu awaits, of course, if you have the room.

You can have the samba and the merengue on the dance floor downstairs. Lead us upstairs at Latin Palace (509 S. Broadway, [410] 522-6700)—to the dining room, where we'll feast on mountains of mussels in green sauce, followed by a delicate veal or chicken dish or one of a half-dozen kinds of paella, the meal in a pan. The desserts are beautiful, if you're not already stuffed. On second thought, maybe we ought to head downstairs, to work off a few of those just-acquired pounds with salsa lessons.

Restaurant? Market? La Guadalupana (500 S. Wolfe St., [410] 276-2700) is both. You can shop for flan mix, Mexican sausage and cheeses, votive candles, or a big cowboy hat while waiting for your enchiladas or chicken mole. Catch today's episode of the Puerto Rican soaps, dodge the children running through the place, suck down a bottle or two tropical-fruit-flavored pop, and savor your cross-cultural experience.

We love Opa! (1911 Aliceanna St., [410] 522-4466), and not just because it made room for us one rainy Saturday night when no other restaurant in the neighborhood could fit us in. But even without the exceedingly friendly service, we'd keep coming for the taramasalata and saganaki (fish-roe dip and flaming kasseri cheese, respectively), of which we could happily make a meal, if the entrées weren't so exceptional. Nothing gets short shrift here, so you can choose from lamb dishes, chicken dishes, beef, and a wide variety of seafood, served up in huge portions.

Experience a Greek restaurant like no other. Black Olive (814 S. Bond St., [410] 276-7141) is the type of cozy taverna we imagine must exist in every seaside town in the land of Socrates. Let the server show you the catch of the day. You'll try to pay respectful attention, but your gaze will start to wander. Look at those lamb chops; see the size of that fillet. Don't blame us if it's hard to make a choice. Sharing just might be the answer to everyone's problem.

Done up in shades of '50s beatnik haunts heavily hung with Slavic influence, Ze Mean Bean Café (1739 Fleet St., [410] 675-5999) is a warm, welcoming destination on a cold night, full of small tables, mismatched wooden chairs, and Eastern European comfort food on the order of pierogi and Hungarian goulash. The Bean can also satisfy more ambitious palates, and live music on a miniscule raised stage tucked in the corner makes this one lively legume.

Named for a candy store and a political club that, in turn, formerly occupied the site, Funk's Democratic Coffee Spot (1818 Eastern Ave., [410] 276-3865) exudes a sort of lunatic charm while dispensing a wide assortment of coffees, teas, and other beverages guaranteed to please children of all ages. The menu is vegan- and vegetarian-friendly, and the place attracts a broad clientele. Grab one of the board games from the stack in front and see if that yuppie in the corner wants to play.

Our first recollection of Peter's Inn (504 S. Ann St., [410] 675-7313) is of the motorcycles invariably parked out front—a bit intimidating to our then-student selves. But we persevered, and discovered the small, funky, fabulous restaurant hidden therein. Peter's menu continually evolves (and changes nightly). There's always an appealing vegetarian selection, but we're more likely to lose our hearts (and stomachs) to such memorable specials as filet mignon with bourbon demi-glace, or shrimp with spicy black bean cakes and sweet corn relish. Who knew bikers possessed such refined palates?

Henninger's Tavern (1812 Bank St., [410] 342-2172) offers New American cooking in a cozy setting on the fringes of Fells Point. Sample something fresh and wonderful from the upscale side of the menu, like macadamia-nut-encrusted rockfish, or hunker down for bar food at its best: crab soup, chili, bacon-wrapped barbecue shrimp. And those pan-fried breaded oysters are a must.

One of our colleagues swears she fell in love with Blue Moon Café (1621 Aliceanna St., [410] 522-3940) not at first sight, but first sniff—she insists the cozy Fells Point eatery smells just like her grandmother's kitchen. The food tastes like it's made with grandma-style loving care, especially the fluffy biscuits and popular, big-as-your-head cinnamon buns. The Blue Moon serves a sumptuous, hearty breakfast at all times and also offers a lunch menu; it closes at 3 P.M. but reopens eight hours later to feed the Point's hungry nocturnal revelers.

The seafood specials are not to be missed at Duda's Tavern (1600 Thames St., [410] 276-9719), a waterfront dive with a bleak exterior, lively bar, and limited table seating. If there's a wait, though, wait it out. The crab cakes are solid and reliable, as is the fresh catch (listed daily on a blackboard), the chili, and the serious steak. We've even had a terrific whitefish salad here, bubela. The servers and your fellow diners are a friendly bunch, and the beer selection is admirable.

Long known for its mussels, prepared in a number of tempting ways, and its afternoon tea (think sweets and savories), Bertha's (734 S. Broadway, [410] 327-5795) bumper stickers are as Baltimore as the O's. We dig the nautical décor and the seafood-heavy menu (shrimp, scallops, clams, several kinds of fresh fish daily), although we've been known to branch out into the ambitious Spanish-style rice dishes like paella and arroz con pollo.

You'll also find bulging mussels at John Steven Ltd. (1800 Thames St., [410] 327-5561), not to mention a bulging crowd, crammed elbow-to-elbow-to-plate-of-steamed-seafood in the front bar or enjoying a drink in the alcove while awaiting a table in the pleasant garden-style dining room. You'll also find acclaimed sushi and all manner of seafood prepared all manner of ways, often with an Asian accent.

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