A few hours’ drive from New York City (and just one hour from Washington DC), you’ll find Baltimore. Once viewed as a gritty seaport with a reputation for crime – a perspective reinforced by TV shows such as The Wire – this Maryland city is now home to scores of millennials, magnetised by a lower cost of living and a quirky vibe.
But as well as cheap rent and urban regeneration, a flourishing foodie scene has put Baltimore on the map. With an abundance of fresh seafood, local craft beer and a unique approach to dining, Baltimore now rivals its east coast sisters for gastronomic credentials. Here's everything you need to know.
The east coast is fond of its shellfish. What culinary delights does Baltimore have on offer?
Baltimore’s speciality is plucked directly from its shores – but you can forget lobster rolls and clam chowders. If you visit for one reason, make it for a traditional Chesapeake crab feast. The ultimate celebration of this city’s finest foodie offering – and a meal that can take several hours – piles of steamed blue crab are devoured at trestle tables lined with brown paper.
Local beer is essential to wash down the salty tang of Old Bay seasoning, a signature Chesapeake ingredient no feast is complete without. There’s something satisfyingly carnal about rolling up your sleeves and picking away with crude implements. Everyone in Maryland has their own method for achieving success – handily for rookies, bystanders certainly won’t mind telling you exactly how it’s done.
Sounds delicious – but what if mallets and flying shards of shell isn’t my thing?
Crab carnage aside, you can still get stuck into the city's seafood – and there’s no shortage of creativity when it comes to this Chesapeake treat. As an alternative brunch option, head to Miss Shirley’s (a timeless Baltimore institution) and order Crab Eggs Benedict or their Maryland twist on the classic Bloody Mary (spoiler alert: it comes lavishly garnished with a helping of crabmeat).
However, crab cakes are what the city undeniably does best and every food joint claims to make the best in town. Phillips Seafood, situated in the heart of the Inner Harbour, makes these small patties to perfection. Book a table on their alfresco Crab Deck for a quintessential “Bawlmer” dining experience.
A new generation of restaurants have also polished the city’s down-to-earth swagger, demonstrating an unpretentious appreciation for fine dining. And it is home-grown talent and the US love of comfort food that shines through.
Catalonian restaurant La Cuchara is an excellent example of local chefs exploring global cuisine (in this case the Basque country) and bringing it home to fuse worldly technique and flavours with local produce. Think sophisticated, adventurous food without any stuffiness.
Nice. And what if I fancy something less gourmand?
Need a quick bite, or somewhere to pitch up for the afternoon? Head to R House, a food market in an old auto bike garage, restored to industrial-chic perfection. Showcasing local chefs in rotating kitchens that serve trendy, budget-friendly food, there’s plenty of choice for those experiencing crab fatigue.
Poki bowls and homemade kombucha are highlights, but it’s the Bmore BRD sandwich (a hot mess of brioche bun, crispy fried chicken and Old Bay spice) that draws crowds. Power sockets are in plenty for laptops, squishy sofas create a relaxed "stay-a-while" atmosphere, and punters are kept pumping with freshly ground coffee and craft cocktails – the house speciality is a Kumquat Collins.
Baltimore has had an invasion of millennials. What’s that doing to the character and foodie legacy of the place?
The city has seen a transformation, yes – but what all its neighbourhoods share is a mingling of old and new. Across town, warehouses and civic buildings are being converted into cool urban spaces and re-appropriated as gig venues, bars, smart restaurants and brunch spots. There’s even a microbrewery located in an old fire station. This new generation are flocking to Baltimore with ingenious ways to preserve the city’s heritage.
So where do I go if I want to experience old-timer’s Baltimore?
Like much of Baltimore, the historic waterfront neighbourhood of Fells Point retains heaps of original charm. A picturesque setting for a wander and a lunchtime beer, it’s easy to imagine a bygone era as you soak up some of the city’s nautical history, whilst exploring cobblestoned streets.
By night the gas lamps twinkle and numerous watering holes such as The Wharf Rat and One-Eyed Mike’s get lively. Even newly opened (and super sleek) Sagamore Pendry Hotel doesn’t diminish the ambience – it instead restored the long-vacant Recreation Pier to its former glory.
And is there one neighbourhood a foodie shouldn't miss?
Baltimore’s most charming neighbourhood is Hampden. Chock-full of original boutiques and one-of-a-kind cafés, the high street exudes an air of nostalgia. Try chocolate tasting in a shoe shop at Ma Petite Shoe, savour giant scoops of "Campfire S’mores" flavoured ice cream from The Charmery parlour, and once you've had your fill browse comics in the legendary Atomic Books (where director John Waters picks up his fan mail).
Each June HonFest festival takes place, to honour the working-class women of "Bawlmer" who held down the fort during World War II. The streets become a riot of beehive hairdos and leopard print – and, of course, there are street-food vendors galore.