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Eat Feature

Exit 38

Route 150/Eastern Avenue, Essex / East Baltimore

Posted 2/23/2000

What can we say about this hunk of gleaming metal that hunkers right on the highway? Only that we love the Star Light Diner (15 Eastern Blvd., [410] 391-1999), monument to meals and tariffs long gone. Open 24 hours on weekends and serving all meals at all times (we favor the homemade soups, mile-high banana-cream pie, and old-fashioned milkshakes), the Star Light is one of those rare eateries where you'll feel at home with a crowd of friends or just the novel you're reading.

The stretch of Eastern Boulevard that cuts through the heart of Essex looks like Main Street U.S.A. circa 1940, and at Uncle Eddie's Restaurant (4241/2 Eastern Blvd., [410] 686-1321) you'll find good grub at prices to match the '40s vibe. The main menu features the usual offerings, but Eddie's calling cards are daily specials like sour beef and dumplings (Thursday) and Hungarian goulash (Saturday).

Mr. Bill oversees his popular eponymous Essex crab house with the stringent quality control born of pride and a genuine love of quality crustaceans—even during the recent dim years of small, underweight crab harvests, Bill's Terrace Inn (200 Eastern Ave., Essex, [410] 687-5994) has managed to serve huge, healthy, heavy specimens, all year round. Add to that the stellar quality of the rest of the menu (basketball-sized crab fluffs, mighty meaty crab cakes) and efficient, friendly servers who keep the pitcher full and the hardshells a-coming and you've got one of Baltimore's best crabhouses on the half shell.

Tiny in size, mighty in ambition, Karpathos (4712 Eastern Ave., [410] 522-4922 ) is that kind of easy, everyday joint where you can make a meal of the bread and soup, go for a homey platter of pork chops or stew, or latch onto a daily special, be it pan-fried porgies or braised short ribs. Salads and veggies are sized for sharing, the folks are nice, and the corner TV talks Greek.

New venues with trendier menus have come and gone, but Ikaros (4805 Eastern Ave., [410] 633-3750) remains Greektown's golden oldie. The prices have inched up slowly over the years, but the portions are still powerhouse, from bulging grape leaves to slabs of moussaka and pastitsio. We like the nouveau Greek places plenty, but give us a loaf of crusty bread, a glass of retsina, and a platter of fried squid anytime. Fueled like that, we too might be tempted to soar too close to the sun.

If you're old enough to recall Zorba the Greek, enough said. If you're not, go rent the video, then make a Friday- or Saturday-night reservation at Zorba's Bar and Grill (4710 Eastern Ave., [410] 276-4484) and demonstrate your zest for life by diving into a platter of roast lamb. We doubt if even Anthony Quinn himself could polish off the whole thing. Yes, that's lamb turning on the spit, and quail, and chicken. (Call ahead on weekends to make sure the spit's up and running.) Grab a table downstairs and watch through the window as the chefs do their thing. And if you've never tried octopus, let Zorba's smoky grilled mollusk morsels melt on your tongue.

A relative Greektown newcomer, Greek Islands (4617-19 Eastern Ave., [410] 342-1575) lives up to its evocative name with fresh fish grilled whole and served up with plenty of lemon and olive oil.We must insist you start with taramasalata, the caviar of Greece, but beware the urge to finish the whole thing. Move on to baby lamb chops or meaty moussaka or fangri, one of those fabulous fishes. Should you lap up the rest of those roasted potatoes and stewed green beans, or save space in the abdominal cavity for dessert? Tough decision.

A block off Eastern Avenue, Samos Restaurant (600 Oldham St., [410] 675-5292) redefines busy. Happy diners chow down on dirt-cheap souvlaki, kabobs, and other Greek and Italian specialties; expectant diners drool nearby, clutching their brown bags of BYOB. A steady stream of carryout patrons comes and goes. The folks at this small, homey neighborhood joint will make you feel like a regular as soon as you sit down.

Out Canton way, Geckos (2318 Fleet St., [410] 732-1961) proffers fine margaritas (with cobalt-blue salt on the rim of the glass), and carries a great selection of high-end tequilas if you prefer your agave straight up. Fortunately for whoever is driving back to the Beltway, this southeastern Southwestern joint tends to the kitchen as well as the bar, with an eclectic menu full of neat twists on old standards: unusually spicy homemade chips and salsa, soulful vegetarian black-bean soup, and innovative quesadillas, enchiladas, and wraps. And on Sundays there's an excellent Mexi-flavored brunch.

If you can't find something to catch your fancy at Helen's Garden Café (2908 O'Donnell St., [410] 276-2233), perhaps you should have your fancy checked. From wraps to exotic salads, from burgers to salmon dinners, there's nothing on this gracious restaurant's menu we haven't liked, and most of it can be had with minimal budget impact if you take advantage of the weekly specials. Ditto the vino—Helen's is home to Baltimore's Best Cheap Wine List, per CP last year, and you can pick up a bottle to take home on your way out.

You can eat downstairs at the bar at the Speakeasy Saloon & Dining House (2840 O'Donnell St., [410] 276-2977), but we like to dine on the long, narrow second floor, beneath the wall-long mural of Prohibition-era guys and dolls. The menu is eclectic, from pork chops to fancy fish preparations, though, the crab cakes and Black Angus steaks are what keep the crowds coming back.

We've always loved to drop in for breakfast, lunch, or coffee at Needful Things Tavern (2921 O'Donnell St., [410] 675-0595 ), a delightful little Canton Square café with a bit of an old-timey tearoom air. And now we can do the same for dinner, at least Thursday through Saturday. Sometimes, though, we just like to slip into the light, airy space, sip herbal tea, and treasure the small moments.

Occupying the same side of the square but the other end of the culinary spectrum is Razorbacks (2903 O'Donnell St., [410] 675-1880), Canton's temple of spare ribs—lean, mean ribs in a sauce of your choosing. While pork is the primary language spoken here, don't overlook the higher-end seafood items, especially the sweet fried oysters and succulent wild rockfish.

To many locals—the insomniacs, say—nothing says "Baltimore" quite like the Sip 'n' Bite (2200 Boston St., [410] 675-7077). During those dark nights of the soul, it shines like a beacon. Whenever we've needed to depend on the kindness of strangers, we've found a hot cup of coffee and a friendly server. We've found more, of course, like home-cooked meals, Greek and Italian specialties, a decent crab cake, and a true variety of pies. We had a lovely slice of lemon meringue there one evening . . . but that's a story for another time.

For generations, East Baltimore has been taking its lessons in Pizza Done Right from the rigorous instructors at Matthew's Pizza (3131 Eastern Ave., [410] 276-8755). This is the real thing, not some designer Frisbee with smoked salmon or baba ghanoush—we're talking tomato, tomato with cheese, tomato with cheese and a few traditional toppings. (We did see a portobello- mushroom pie there once, but it was chalked up on the board as a special.) You also got your pasta, your red sauce, your meatballs. What else you want?

Plain and simple, American-style, rests a few blocks away at Crossroads Restaurant (3328 Foster Ave., [410] 327-4411). We defy anyone to find more satisfying dinner specials (at $4.75!) than the stuffed pork chop or tomato-sauced meat loaf. Don't neglect the seafood—a bit pricier, but still under 10 bucks. (On our last visit oysters on the half shell were selling six for a $1.99.) Specials are lettered on neon paper and plastered over the walls, sharing space with portraits of Jack and Bobby Kennedy.

The owner of Opa! (see page 23) has opened up a bright little Canton eatery that serves up soups, salads, sandwiches, and some of that fresh fish for which the Fells Point Greek restaurant is famed. Café Neon (2775 Lighthouse Point, [410] 534-1199) boasts one thing its progenitor can't claim, though: a fine view of the water, of yachts and humbler boats and the folks who love 'em, scrub 'em, and sail 'em. Try the steamed shrimp, the juicy burgers, or the pasta tossed with crab. In good weather, dine or drink outdoors on the deck and catch the harbor lights.

When the Wild Mushroom (641 S. Montford Ave., [410] 675-4225) opened up, a lot of folks scratched their heads. A restaurant dedicated to fungus? How appealing is that? Well, now that "portobello" is a household word, go ask the folks waiting for a table. They'll wax poetic about cream-of-mushroom soup and stuffed mushrooms and portobello. Even the fungiphobic will find plenty to love—we're thinking here of a pretty spectacular fried mozzarella—but if any place can turn a fungiphobe into a fungiphile, this is it.

What would Sundays in Baltimore be without crowds cramming the vestibule of our own "Vermont-style" cafe, Morning Edition (153 N. Patterson Park Ave, [410] 732-5133)? We're not sure what "Vermont-style" is, but if everyone in the state eats a breakfast like this, Vermonters must be downright euphoric. We'll gladly wait in line for fresh fruit pancakes and omelets that stretch the imagination along with the gastric capacity. Of course, Morning Edition does lunches and dinners as well, from plain to fancy. Still, there's something about that Sunday morning bustle that says home sweet home to us.

Butcher's Hill is home to one of Baltimore's homiest little eateries, Simon's Pub (2031 E. Fairmount Ave., [410] 522-4477), where you can drop in for a beer and a burger or sample some sophisticated offerings from an ambitious kitchen, like the inventive quesadillas and pastas.

The price of the dinner specials has climbed a bit (from $4.99 to $6), but the dinners are still a steal at Kelly's (2108 Eastern Ave., [410] 327-2312), a very neighborhood kind of joint just west of Patterson Park. Cream-of-crab soup lovers will find lots of crustacean in the cup (eat a bowl of it and we doubt you'll be able to eat anything else). Bar food here is reliably good, and last summer we found some of Mobtown's most economical crabs. And oh, those daily specials—lasagne with salad and garlic bread, half a pound of shrimp steamed or fried, a full rack of ribs (call for the schedule).

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