Baltimore Puts Charm in City Living

By Elise Hartman Ford
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 18, 2009; Page C02

I'm sitting at the bar in Baltimore's James Joyce Irish Pub & Restaurant at midday on a Friday in February, chatting with Seamus, the bartender. The place is jammed. And because the Harbor East neighborhood is decidedly braw, and even though Baltimore is forever being hailed for its small-town feeling and "real people" culture, I'm surprised by the mix of diners filling the tavern, everyone from hardhatted construction workers to nattily suited office workers who wave hello to Seamus as they thread their way to their seats.

"When I first came from Ireland, 4 1/2 years ago, the neighborhood wasn't as good as now. It was mostly parking lots," Seamus tells me as he serves up a draft of Smithwick's. It's a point made everywhere I go in this 70-acre waterfront enclave that lies just south of Little Italy, between the Inner Harbor to the west and Fells Point to the east. In fact, says Bin 604 wine shop clerk Danny O'Neill, "people tell me that when this store opened seven years ago, you could see across the parking lots and wharves straight to Federal Hill." Harbor East now is a pedestrian-friendly mix of wide, tree-lined brick walkways and architecturally distinctive buildings, many of which incorporate window-front stores at street level. Sea air and light that reflects off the water filter through the landscape. Eventually, a waterfront park and pedestrian promenade will line the perimeter.

Christopher H. Janian is assistant development manager for H&S Properties Development Corp., which purchased the tract in 1986. "First and foremost, Harbor East was intended to be a self-sufficient neighborhood for native Baltimoreans, a multiuse development modeled after New York City-style streetscapes," Janian says.

That mention of New York is why I'm here, actually. A Big Apple vibe in Charm City? Had to check it out.

I set off for a ramble through the neighborhood. Right away, I see what Janian means about the livability of the place. All the necessities are here: a 24-hour CVS, Whole Foods with an entrance into the adjoining Bin 604, a health club, spa, Starbucks, attractive condominiums and a seven-screen Landmark's movie theater with its own bar. Yeah, I could live here.

Meanwhile, Harbor East makes for a great escape. Within its 11 blocks are four hotels, including the Waterfront Marriott, whose 2001 opening ginned up interest in Harbor East. Steps from the Marriott is a pier for boarding water taxis, which, spring through fall, transport passengers to and from the Inner Harbor, Fells Point, Canton and Fort McHenry, as many times a day as desired, for a flat $9 a person.

I tour Aliceanna Street boutiques, some of them Washington area outposts: Urban Chic, Sassanova, South Moon Under. In Baltimore's own Handbags in the City, I find Longchamp, Jill Stuart and Gwen Stefani creations. A couple of doors down is Kashmir Imports, whose jackets, pashminas, evening bags and scarves are the elegant handiwork of Himalayan regional artisans.

An express vitality, that New Yorkish element, is most apparent at nighttime. Residents, hotel guests and restaurant-goers send a steady stream of foot traffic throughout the quarter. Harbor East is home to as many as 15 excellent restaurants, among them the much-celebrated Charleston, too-cool Pazo and reliable brands Oceanaire and Lebanese Taverna. I've made dinner reservations at Charleston's neighbor and sibling, Cinghiale.

But first, my husband and I check out Bin 604, where we listen to 20- and 30-somethings display an alarming knowledge of wines. Next, we grab seats at the tiny bar in the unfancy Teavolve Cafe and Lounge, two blocks away, which features specialty cocktails made with tea. (We take a pass.) Finally, we meet friends at Cinghiale's lively osteria for dishes of cinghiale (roasted wild boar), gnocchi, sausage-stuffed pasta and branzino.

At dinner's end, we consider our late-night choices (the DJ and lounge at Pazo, live music at the James Joyce pub) but decide instead to head home.

In search of a little historical context for Harbor East before my trip, I had consulted Anne Garside, director of communications for the Maryland Historical Society. Upon hearing me define Harbor East's parameters (Fleet to Lancaster streets, the harbor to Caroline Street), Garside rejected the Harbor East label, exclaiming, "That is most certainly Fells Point, the most historic, oldest part of our city," and with that she launched into tales of pirates, clipper ships and freed slaves.

But that was then, and Harbor East is very much about now: a walkable, waterfront, up, up and coming chic locale with a sophisticated buzz and best-in-the-city restaurants and shops.

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