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Feature Story

A La Curb

A Guide to Dining Outdoors in Baltimore

Photographs by Christopher Myers
Cypriana
Tapas Teatro
Ambassador Dining Room
Sofi's Crepes

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By Richard Gorelick | Posted 5/26/2004

We all know relationships that have survived opposing attitudes about politics, religion, child rearing, or family finances. People learn tolerance and make accommodations, and love conquers all. But, has love ever flourished when one partner likes to eat outside and the other doesn't?

"Inside or out?" the hostess asks, and the separate responses--usually, he, inside; she, out--portend a more conclusive divide.

She thinks: What kind of person wouldn't want to be outside on this beautiful night? He thinks: What kind of person would want to eat in this heat, with those flies? Both think: And I'm supposed to spend a week at the beach with this person?

One attitude is as valid as the other, but observing impartially, people who enjoy eating outside tend to be sociable, adventurous, life-affirming, and intelligent. People who don't are self-righteous, misanthropic, and have ugly souls. A couple we know who have studied the phenomenon explain it differently: Chicks like to eat outside.

Understood either way, this much bears saying: Baltimore isn't exactly Paris. Local anti-frescans can argue, convincingly, that sidewalk dining here is afflicted with earsplitting sirens, choking exhaust, and pestering passersby. Even off the sidewalk, tucked into a cozy courtyard, or settled on a waterside patio, they can point to that omnipresent haze of humidity hanging over the city. It's all very persuasive, but it's not convincing.

When we stay outside to eat, we embrace the season. And as we begin, companionably, to absorb the sights and sounds around us, all of our senses arouse, including our taste, and we linger more over sensation. Just in time for summer, we've gathered up for those of you who know how to live, a treasury of outdoor dining options in the Land of Pleasant Living. And there will be categories.

Sidewalk dining is what makes a city look like a city. Outdoor tables liven up the street, the city suddenly feels more grown-up and cosmopolitan--and logically, with more eyes on the street, other people tend to break into other people's cars less frequently. What Baltimore lacks to this day are those city blocks saturated with a critical mass of attractively streetscaped outdoor cafés (think Washington's 17th Street). The spit-narrow sidewalks of Mount Vernon, Federal Hill, and Fells Point don't help matters; instead of a café proper, streetside dining in Baltimore almost invariably takes the form a single, tenuous row of tables. Perhaps only the 1700 block of Charles Street, where theatergoers gather at Tapas Teatro (1711 N. Charles St., [410] 332-0110), Zodiac (1724-26 N. Charles St., [410] 727-8815), and now Sofi's Crepes (1732 N. Charles St., [410] 727-7732), does the local streetscape achieve the kind of verve that feels like city living.

Downtown, Cypriana (120 E. Baltimore St., [410] 837-7482) represents the rare exception. In even semi-decent weather, the corner of Baltimore and Saint Paul streets is prime gathering space for lunching office workers. The sturdy two dozen tables in the boomerang-shaped dining space provide prime people-watching perches, and the restaurant's excellent gyros, falafel, and Greek salads can be ordered from an outside station.

Especially on quiet weekday mornings, Fells Point's Bonaparte Breads (903 Ann St., [410] 342-4000) is a favorite hangout and workstation. Just off Thames Street, where Ann juts down along the water's edge, this sweet, wide sidewalk feels miles away from the nearby commercial bustle. On summer weekends, it's a haughty pleasure to watch the water taxis disgorge their sun-dazed freight. The city's best pastries are sold here, as are rich, eggy quiches and superbly crafted French sandwiches.

There are only a few, colorful tables and chairs available outside of Regi's American Bistro (1002 Light St., [410] 539-7344) in Federal Hill, but something feels and looks just right about the setup. It's our favorite nook in the neighborhood, and the crab cakes and Asian chicken salad are always worth revisiting. Up in beautiful Bolton Hill, the lucky outdoor diners at the consistently performing b (1501 Bolton St,. [410] 383-8600) are gifted with the street's serene shadiness and frequent sightings of their child-strolling and dog-walking friends and neighbors.

The city's best sidewalk dining spot, though, we think remains the Mount Vernon Donna's (800 N. Charles St., [410] 385-0180). The view takes in one of the most enduringly impressive urban squares in the country: the Washington Monument, Mount Vernon Place Methodist United Church, the parks themselves. It's lovely. It's the live action, though--the cars frantically re-merging on Charles Street, the wandering madmen, the daylong arrivals and departures of residents, students, and tourists--that makes the experience.

Set behind certain restaurants, away from it all, are oases of calm, tucked-away gardens that make first-time arrivals declare, "I didn't know this was back here." These spaces are treasured by those in the know, and competition for their outdoor tables can be intense. The Ambassador Dining Room (3811 Canterbury Road, [410] 366-1484) is such a spot. Operating on the first floor of a dowager-aged Canterbury-Tuscany apartment building, the Indian restaurant here scores high marks for its spicy, fresh cuisine, but it's the fragrant and handsomely tended formal garden patio that sends diners into orbit. White tablecloths elevate the mood.

Down considerably on the pretty scale but no less clamored about is the pocket patio at John Steven Ltd. (1800 Thames St., [410] 327-5561) in Fells Point, where regulars bring their country cousins for an atmospheric taste of real Baltimore. It's a beery, happy scene notable for steamed shellfish, inventive pizzas, and sushi.

The loveliest oasis we've found is also the newest--or at least half of it is. Last year's expansion at the Bicycle (1444 Light St., [410] 234-1900) in Federal Hill has opened up another backyard full of possibilities, and the focal point of the newly developed space is a large umbrella-shaded picnic table, perfect for eight best friends but used frequently by the restaurant for unrelated pairs or quartets of walk-in diners. The incense-infused surrounding garden exudes controlled overgrowth--vintage bicycles stand among the grass and ivy, and potted annuals add painterly color. Behind the restaurant's original rowhouse space remains a grouping of smaller tables. New and old, it's a space worthy of the restaurant's expressive gourmet cuisine.

Because they lack the elements of surprise or privacy, some outdoor setups we admire don't quite qualify as oases. These patios, porches, and decks are more controlled, consistent environments. Located down in Inner Harbor East, James Joyce Irish Pub (616 S. President St., [410] 727-5107) has opened up a gem of a patio, with sturdy iron furniture, a central fountain, and a wall-size mural of its eponymous author. A Guinness goes down nicely out here, and the service has, since the restaurant's opening, been among the most consistently charming anywhere. A breakfast trip to the cozy back porch at Mount Washington's Crepe du Jour (1609 Sulgrave Ave., [410] 542-9000) makes us feel like we're weekending in New England.

For more entertaining people-watching, though, the scene down at Power Plant Live! is unmatchable. The restaurants here--Lucille's (26 Market Place, [410] 539-5353), Mondo Bondo (20 Market Place, [410] 244-8080), Babalu Grill (34 Market Place, [410] 234-9898), McFadden's (10 Market Place, [410] 779-7101)--all spill out onto a central plaza peopled by a roaming crowd of inveterate drinkers and flirters. Margaritaville isn't someplace you'd want to visit every night, but when your group is possessed with a frivolous mood, it's here you should head.

Two museums offer superb outdoor options. The sculpture-garden setting of Gertrude's (10 Art Museum Drive, [410] 889-3399) at the Baltimore Museum of Art has become the favorite for watching fellow citizens on their best behavior and for savoring John Shields' praiseworthy Maryland seafood. Terrace diners at the Joy America Café (800 Key Highway, [410] 244-2900), perched on the third floor of the American Visionary Art Museum, gaze upon splendid views of the surrounding harbor while enjoying the restaurant's South American- and Latin-inspired cuisine.

And then there's the water. Whether it's around the Inner Harbor or overlooking one of the area's myriad rivers and inlets, by the water is where outdoor diners want to be. The development of the city over the past two decades can be traced along the harbor's edge, as outdoor dining has cropped up along the waters of Harborplace, the expansion into Harbor East, the rehabilitation of Fells Point, and the gentrification of Canton.

Chain restaurants have claimed the most prized real estate around the Inner Harbor but a few homegrown restaurants have managed to carve out a waterside perch. Down in Harbor East, and reportedly in some danger of losing its advantageous location, is Victor's Café (801 Lancaster St, [410] 244-1722), widely considered to have the decks with best harbor views, although perhaps not the most adventurous cuisine.

The patio overlooking the harbor's western shore at Little Havana (1325A Key Highway, [410] 837-9903) is where a good-natured, mojito-drinking crowd heads to unwind. The patio manages to accommodate both seated Cuban-cuisine diners and congregating drinkers, and no one seems to mind, notice, or even remember the grassy strip of rock that separates the patio from the water. Along the water in Canton, Bay Café (2809 Boston St., [410] 522-3377) has evolved into the ultimate singles drinking spot, and the floating dock at neighboring Bo Brooks (2701 Boston St., [410] 558-0202) has until recently cornered the market for genteel waterside Canton crab-cracking.

There's a place we keep picturing in our mind, though, that we've never found--a shack by the water that's both humble and expansive. Where the food consists of something more than steamed crabs, with a series of expansive decks. Maybe boats bob in view, and a nearby bridge glints in the sunset like an Impressionist painting.

It's here. Nick's Fish House (2600 Insulator Drive, [410] 547-2549) has opened alongside the Middle Branch in South Baltimore. The industrial park neighborhood could hardly be less promising; the results are spectacular. The owners, from the storied Nick's Seafood at Cross Street Market, know a thing or two about seafood. It's already a madhouse on weekends.

What's missing? People come to Baltimore looking for a modest crab shack, a simple, open-air spot to pry open hard-shells, butter up some corn-on-the-cob, and guzzle pitchers of beer. When asked, locals shrug, for such places are rare, at least in Baltimore proper. Dining at the aforementioned Bo Brooks can feel self-conscious, as if you're experiencing your meal inside quotation marks. Out of the city, Jimmy Cantler's and Mike's in Annapolis have their fans, as do any number of spots on the Eastern Shore and in Southern Maryland. We know that Locust Point's L.P. Steamers operates a rooftop patio with views of nearby Little League fields--this is the summer we'll finally check it out.

We pause now to lament the demise of our beloved Gabler's. Located up on Aberdeen's Bush River, Gabler's wasn't really even an outdoor operation--diners ate at picnic tables inside an authentic screened-in barn-sized crab shack--but nothing nearby has approached the perfection of its dreamy sunset setting. We would personally raze a million Odorite buildings if it would bring Gabler's back to life.

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