We see other visitors from Washington the next morning as well, at Woodberry Kitchen, the only Baltimore restaurant to make Tom Sietsema’s 2012 Fall Dining Guide. The wait staff looks as if they’ve walked out of a rural outpost of Calvin Klein, and the food transcends the city’s identity crisis. Tucked away in a converted millhouse near the Hampden neighborhood, the restaurant offers locally sourced fare with a down-home aesthetic, the intoxicating smell of a wood-burning oven and the kind of solid, no-gimmicks food you’d expect to find in, say, Berkeley, Brentwood or Bethesda.
The Clipper Mill redevelopment that houses the restaurant feels nothing like Hampden’s main drag, 36th Street, a collection of antiques, vintage clothing and furnishings shops that is very serious about not taking itself seriously. Hampden — which Forbes recently declared America’s 15th “hippest hipster neighborhood” (Washington’s H Street corridor came in sixth) — is famously home to Cafe Hon and Hon Town, kitschy showcases of Baltimore’s image as a place where the values, fashions and pop sensibilities of the 1950s and ’60s still reign. (Hon Town, a themed souvenir shop, styles its home town as “Bawlmer, Murlin.”)
Luckily, that beehive of kitsch doesn’t infect the entire neighborhood, which is dotted with places like Minas, where painter Minas Konsolas displays his art in a gallery above his enticing collection of vintage clothes (selling at about half the price they’d go for in Washington thrifts). Here, or at spots such as the Parisian Flea, a calming collection of jewelry and tchotchkes that will carry you back to almost any decade of the last century, the struggle between authenticity and self-consciousness fades away. On the sidewalk, locals in Ravens jerseys banter with visitors from the suburbs and beyond. In the shops, conversation comes easily, with far less of the formality that can make Washington seem stiff.
I end up caring a lot less about what’s real and what’s kitsch than I do about the comfort of a town that has managed to stay easy and open despite the evident urban tensions of class, race and development. Baltimore is changing, but so far it’s still affordable, distinctive and grounded.
I wouldn’t want to live there, but what a place to explore.