For the past five years, my visits to Baltimore have stirred up a kind of geographic jealousy.
I'm in love with Washington, with its provincial sightlines and burgeoning restaurant scene. But I'm always reminded that Charm City's transformation hasn't been as beige as our own.
As lofts are carved out of old warehouses, and picklers, cheesemakers and craft bartenders set up shop, Baltimore has managed to remain a town of little subcultures, of ethnic neighborhoods and quirky artists -- a microcosm some like to call "Smalltimore." For an outsider visiting from the District, there's plenty to envy: An indie music scene rich enough to propel acts onto the national stage; a grass-roots arts community thriving in part because of the city's industrial past; gorgeous cocktail bars without reservation policies; the way a tab at the end of the night never seems to climb above $30.
"Baltimore had existed in a kind of state of unrealized potential," particularly when it came to dining, says chef Spike Gjerde, who owns a budding empire of Baltimore eateries, including the acclaimed Woodberry Kitchen. But in the past two years, Gjerde says, the city has changed in ways he's never experienced in his two decades there. "If I could distill it down to one thing that's cool," he says, "it's that people are taking little tiny niches that turn out to have incredibly rich opportunity and making it into something."
On Dec. 7, MARC's Penn Line will begin making the hourlong trip between Union Station and downtown Baltimore a handful of times on weekends and holidays, opening the floodgates for day-trippers to marvel over the antiquities at the Walters Art Museum, nosh at the izakaya Pabu or take the kids to the National Aquarium. Look at it as your chance, too, to venture farther afield. (If you decide to hit the bars or catch a concert, hop on the slightly pricier Amtrak home. It runs later.)
Cocktail culture is shaking up Charm City, from Wit & Wisdom at the Harbor to W.C. Harlan in Remington to the ever-moving Forgotten Cocktail Club. (Don't worry, we're talking Baltimore; it's still possible to get a dirt-cheap Natty Boh.) Here's where you should drink now:
400 West 23rd St. Open daily from 4 p.m. to close. No phone or Web site.
This winsome cocktail bar, opened this year on a desolate corner in the still gritty Remington neighborhood, doesn't bother with reservations, suspendered bartenders or any other pretensions that can make a speakeasy insufferable. Instead, Harlan, the brainchild of musician Matt Pierce and writer Lane Harlan, is dim and inviting, vintage but not quite precious, welcoming of everyone from tattooed art students to the 50-plus set. And the best part? The cocktail du jour (anything from floral gin and raspberry cooler to a steaming bourbon and mulled cider concoction scented with a thicket of rosemary) runs a more-than-reasonable $8.
The Other Corner Charcuterie Bar
850-B W. 36th St. (entrance on Elm Street). Open daily from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. No phone or Web site.
A modern wind is blowing through Hampden, the working-class neighborhood whose stuck-in-time quirkiness is the stuff of John Waters films. At the center of the change is Hampden's Main Street -- 36th Street. The deceptively named Corner BYOB, a swanky restaurant where entrees hover at $30, opened in 2011. This fall, its owner and executive chef, Bernard Dehaene, added a hipster sibling next door -- a moody, windowless joint called the Other Corner Charcuterie Bar. The blistering sounds of Jimi Hendrix blasting from the speakers, the graffiti splashed on the back wall, charcuterie chef Andrew Cole torching soft cheeses in a flashy tableside show -- it all serves as a reminder that you're not at Cafe Hon. The cocktails (a wallet-sparing $7 to $9) are classic, such as sazeracs and corpse revivers. The hearty snacks, including garlicky escargot and blood sausage, are a steal at less than $10. "We are satisfied from people enjoying the experience," Cole says. "We don't need to upcharge for that."
Baltimore's faded industries - which range from textile production and canning to shipbuilding - have left behind thousands of vacant buildings that, along with the Maryland Institute College of Art, form the heart of the city's creative boom. Street artists have transformed the old brick walls into canvases: In Station North, Graffiti Alley and the Open Walls Project have provided some color into a developing neighborhood. Other artists have moved in and made homes and studios, music venues and salon spaces in warehouses with such names as H&H Building and Copy Cat. For a peek at Baltimore's arts scene, look here:
Station North Arts District
North Avenue and N. Howard Street to Greenmount Street. For a map of murals, visit www.openwallsbaltimore.com.
Baltimore street artist Gaia enlisted more than 20 international and local artists to splash paint and big ideas across the brick facades of the blighted Station North neighborhood in 2012, flagging its up-and-coming status. Now the nearly two dozen roof-to-sidewalk murals serve as an Instagram-ready art tour that's a must for Baltimore day-trippers. "In a neighborhood that doesn't generally get the kind of resources that other more affluent areas of the city do, it can potentially be something colorful and bright and promising. It can feel like some attention is being given back," says Gaia, who plans to revive the project, with new murals and artists, in the spring.
Current Space gallery
421 N. Howard St. Open Saturday and Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. www.currentspace.com.
Current Space is one of the oldest artist-run white-box galleries in Baltimore. It's also where you can snag a well-priced piece of the local art market and, on occasion, catch live music. Head to the Current Space Art Market on Dec. 14 and 15 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. to pick up wares from local artists.
Baltimore, Gaia says, is "the worst place to live if you don't have your finger on the pulse of the music scene or arts scene." But once you're enmeshed in it, it's impossible to pass a weekend without hitting a warehouse show or dance party. There's a good reason to seek them out: Among the bands that have emerged from Baltimore's neighborhoods are Animal Collective, Beach House, Future Islands and blip-and-bleep guru Dan Deacon. Here's where to hear Baltimore's sound:
2549 N. Howard St. Hours vary. 410-662-0069. www.theottobar.com.
This bastion of "sub-mainstream music" might be the capital of Smalltimore, where the insular community of artists and scenesters flock to hear the best touring bands, from rocker Kurt Vile to Dinosaur Jr. to such local acts as Ed Schrader's Music Beat. Like many of Baltimore's music venues, Ottobar wears a few hats, hosting dance parties and the occasional burlesque show.
1910 N. Charles St., Second Floor. Open daily from 5 p.m. to 2 a.m. 410-625-4848. www.thecrownbaltimore.tumblr.com.
On your way to the buzziest club in Station North, there are moments you'll be convinced you're in the wrong place: When you walk through a seedy, vacant retail building; when you notice the Asian-inspired dinner specials scrawled on a whiteboard; when your feet touch the carpeted dance floor. To say that the Crown is unassuming may be the greatest understatement, but that's how locals like it. It's where you might spy that member of Animal Collective or the local concert photographer and dance to that bounce-pause-bounce of the music known as Baltimore club one night and settle in for a "Star Trek" marathon the next.
12 W. North Ave. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 5 p.m. to close. 410-244-8855. www.thewindupspace.com.
The city's most eclectic gallery/music venue/bar, a mainstay of the Station North neighborhood, is at its loosest and most thrilling on the third Friday of the month, when crowds move in for 4 Hours of Funk. The dance night brings out Charm City's assorted crew of literal movers and shakers who stomp, sweat and vogue till the wee hours. (The next 4 Hours of Funk is Dec. 20.)
Across Baltimore, there are markers of the city's legacy as a bustling port and industrial hub. Recent development has focused on reviving those dilapidated spaces, particularly along the winding "mill corridor," an area teeming with old textile mills near the Hampden and Woodberry neighborhoods. A handful have been transformed into vital parts of the city's dining scene. Woodberry Kitchen, which opened in one of the old mills in 2007, was the first to shine a spotlight on these gorgeous bits of architecture as dining destinations. Here's where to eat:
1520 Clipper Rd. Open Monday-Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday from 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday from noon to 11 p.m.; Sunday from noon to 10 p.m. 443-708-1934. www.bmorebirroteca.com.
In the mill corridor is a sprawling, casual beer mecca that devotes its most prominent taps to beer from Maryland's Evolution Craft Brewing, based in Salisbury, with other offerings from Lagunitas and Brewer's Art. The food and decor are gastropubby in the best way. Snack on beet-and-butternut-squash-covered pizza and crunchy, fried Brussels sprouts or order one of the restaurant's favorites, duck confit pizza topped with a duck egg, for the table.
1500 Union Ave. Open Monday-Tuesday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday-Friday from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. 410-235-1881. www.artifactcoffee.com.
There may be no better place in Baltimore to sip a coffee and rest your weary feet than this sanctuary-like cafe launched by Woodberry executive chef Gjerde. It was conceived as a pop-up within Woodberry, but last year moved into its own stunning mill on the edge of Hampden. An ideal day? Stop at nearby boutique the Hunting Ground for books, woodsy soaps and vintage sweaters, then lunch here on a vegetarian version of the Vietnamese banh mi sandwich or a refined egg salad on spelt bread. Wash it down, naturally, with a very serious Spike-i-atto, a machiatto with an espresso on the side, made with Counter Culture Coffee beans.
Belvedere Square Market
529 E. Belvedere Ave. Open Monday-Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Thursday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. (Atwater's opens at 8 a.m.) www.belvederesquare.com.
Belvedere Square has been a North Baltimore gathering place since the 1940s. Efforts since 2011 have lured new vendors, and the market is now drawing food-loving neighbors like a homier version of the growing Union Market in Northeast Washington. Start at Greg's Bagels, and don't leave without that Baltimore staple - potato pancakes ($4). Then dip into by-way-of-New York Italian market Ceriello Fine Foods for mozzarella made in-house every few hours. On weekends, stop at Neopol's Smokery to score a smoked salmon crepe and omelets, which you can't get at Neopol's outpost at Union Market. Finally, be sure to stop at the counter at Atwater's, which turns out espresso drinks, crusty breads and tasty soups. New to the neighborhood is the kid-friendly Shoo-fly Diner, which serves crunchy, brined fried chicken, meatloaf, macaroni and cheese and chiffon pie in a high-end homage to old Baltimore, from Gjerde and wife Amy.