IF YOU INSIST on driving up to Baltimore's Memorial Stadium at the same time as everyone else (i.e., about 15 minutes before the "Star Spangled Banner"), you're going to get caught in a crawling line of cars along 33rd or 39th streets. If the Orioles' starting pitchers are as bad as they were last year, you're going to miss a lot of action in that top half of the first inning.
A far better idea would be to take your jeans and Orioles cap to work, change in the restroom and head directly for Baltimore. If you arrive at the stadium area well ahead of the starting time for night games (7:35 most nights, 8:05 on Fridays), you'll have your pick of the plentiful on-the-street parking.
And with the money you save from not parking in the stadium lot (where you inevitably get trapped between the very last two cars to leave the game), you can buy yourself dinner and relax.
One option is to eat at the stadium itself and watch batting practice. Unlike the completely enclosed RFK Stadium, which seems cut off from the rest of the world, Memorial Stadium is open beyond the centerfield fence and affords a reassuring vista of white rowhouses, neat yards and green trees. It's a view that reaffirms baseball's roots in backyards and neighborhood kids.
Unfortunately, the stadium food would cost too much even if it tasted good. Fortunately, there are plenty of reasonably priced places to eat and drink within walking distance of the stadium, and a number of them will also pack a carry-out meal for you.
Moreover, if you'd rather just wander around before the game, the nearby neighborhoods are fascinating, complete with a major art museum, four good bookstores, a 24-hour newsstand and discount stores that sell Orioles' caps and pennants for much less than the concession stands inside the stadium.
Memorial Stadium is surrounded by a typically heterogeneous group of Baltimore neighborhoods. North of the stadium is Ednor Gardens, an integrated but staid residential neighborhood of neat, modest rowhouses. East of the stadium is Homestead-Montebello, a similar area. A little bit south of the stadium, however, the neighborhoods can get a bit poor and desperate.
Most of the stores and restaurants are west of the stadium, either in the Waverly area, centered around 33rd & Greenmount, or in Charles Village, centered around 32nd & St. Paul Street. Charles Village abuts John Hopkins University and is filled with students and yuppies; it's something like the Dupont Circle area.
Waverly presents a much more interesting mix of working-class blacks, aging socialists, artists, retirees and renovating couples -- much like Adams-Morgan. Between 30th and 35th streets along Greenmount Avenue is a strip jam-packed with every kind of store, bar and restaurant.
Far and away, the best formal meal along that strip can be had at Uncle Lee's Szechuan Restaurant. Attractively decorated with blond furniture and plenty of plants, Baltimore's best Chinese restaurant is just a seven-minute walk from the stadium.
Directly across the street is the Thai Restaurant, which is full of Buddhas and Thai folk paintings. Though not as dazzling as Uncle Lee's, the Thai's menu of curries and pra koong dishes is distinctive. Both places get quite full before big games, and reservations are suggested.
Also north of 33rd Street on Greenmount are two "sports bars," the Olympic Lounge and the Stadium Lounge. The Olympic not only has the better menu but also a pool table and a bigger TV screen. The Waverly Carry-Out offers a dozen freshly steamed crabs for under $10. A few doors down, the Run Inn offers incredibly cheap if uninspired diner food, and the Golden Star serves competent, familiar Cantonese dishes.
Just west of Greenmount on 33rd is Tugboat Annie's, an all-purpose carry-out with subs, pizzas and good baked desserts. South of 33rd is the Classique, the only area bar with regular live music. Even when local jazz and blues combos play in the corner on Friday and Saturday nights, there's no cover, and you can eat the solid bar food anytime. The friendliest neighborhood bar in the area is the Northside, where draft beer is still 50 cents and quart bottles are only a dollar.
Over in Charles Village, on St. Paul Street, the old mainstay is the Homewood Delicatessen, a well-stocked Jewish deli with great corned beef and lox. It has an on-premises French bakery, and during the baseball season offers box lunches for the stadium. Next door is the Charles Village Pub, which has a whole wall full of Baltimore sports photos. It serves good burgers and a popular chili and offers a free shuttle bus for patrons to all night games.
Around the corner on 33rd Street is Armand's Chicago Pizzeria, a branch of the familiar Washington chain. At certain times, it offers a dollar off any large pizza with a ticket stub from that day's game. Around the next corner on Charles Street is PJ's Pub, tucked away in the basement of an apartment building. It offers an informal collegiate atmosphere, a big menu and a free pitcher of beer or soda with each large pizza.
Back on St. Paul Street at 34th Street is Casey's, a very relaxed place to sit and eat. With big windows and attractive barn siding on the walls, Casey's offers good homemade soups and salads, daily specials and box lunches for games.
There are a few places worth noting away from these two centers of activity. The real asset of Colosseum Pizza, for example, is its location: Tucked away in Ednor Gardens, it's the only food available northeast of the stadium, where the best street parking is. This grim little carry-out does offer competent pizza and subs.
Much better is Venus Pizzeria, farther north on Greenmount at Chestnut Hill Avenue. Not only does this cramped little storefront offer the area's best pizza, but it serves a dynamite Greek salad and the moistest chocolate cake anywhere.
Hidden away in the basement of an apartment building at St. Paul Street and University Parkway is the area's best-kept secret: Sheila's Restaurant. This tidy little room, where Orioles broadcaster Rex Barney eats, has a long menu, but its specialties are tasty, cheap baked goods and big box lunches.
Of course, there's no law that says you can't hit most of these places after a game instead of before -- especially if you'd like to avoid the post-game traffic. But since you were clever enough to get good on-street parking before the game, you're already ready to dodge much of the congestion: Memorial Stadium offers dozens of different streets to get away. CHOW, BABY
Here's a rundown on the best bets near the stadium, including location, phone number, hours and sample dishes.
ARMAND'S CHICAGO PIZZERIA -- 3215 N. Charles St.; entrance on 33rd Street; 301/467-0802; Sundays-Thursdays: 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays: 11:30 a.m.-1 a.m. Spaghetti with sauce and salad bar ($4.99). Plain large pizza ($8.35).
CASEY'S -- 3327 St. Paul St.; 301/467-9226; Mondays-Thursdays: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays: 11 a.m.-midnight; Sundays: 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Soup and salad entree ($2.95). Stuffed flounder ($7.95). Seafood salad sampler ($4.70).
CHARLES VILLAGE PUB -- 3107 St. Paul St.; 301/243-1611; every day: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Flo's chili ($2). Baby back-rib platter ($6.25). Cheeseburger ($2.20). CLASSIQUE -- 3126 Greenmount Ave.; 301/243-9113; every day: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Six steamed shrimp ($4.50). Roast beef sandwich ($3.75).
COLOSSEUM PIZZA -- 3842 Crestlyn Rd.; 301/467-1730; Mondays-Thursdays: 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays: 11 a.m.-midnight. Plain large pizza ($5). Half cheese-steak club ($2). GOLDEN STAR CHINESE-AMERICAN RESATURANT -- 3326 Greenmount Ave.; 301/366-7932; Mondays-Saturdays: 11 a.m.-2:30 a.m.; Sundays: noon-2:30 a.m. Chicken chow mein ($3.35). Sweet and pungent spare ribs ($6.95).
GREEN'S CARRYOUT -- 3023 Greenmount Ave.; 301/243-4545; Mondays-Saturdays: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Cheese-steak sub ($1.90). BBQ ribs ($1.90).
HOMEWOOD DELICATESSEN -- 3105 St. Paul St.; 301/467-7882; Mondays-Saturdays: 7:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays: 7:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Reuben sandwich ($3.19). Chopped liver sandwich ($2.49). Bagel, cream chese and lox ($2.39).
NORTHSIDE BAR -- 3100 Greenmount Ave.; 301/243-9441; every day: 6 a.m.-2 a.m. Roast beef sandwich ($2.50).
OLYMPIC LOUNGE -- 3407 Greenmount Ave.; 301/235-6213; every day: 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Crab soup ($1.75). Italian hoagie ($3.45). Steak platter ($6.95).
PJ'S PUB -- 3333 N. Charles St.; 301/243-8844; every day: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Large plain pizza (with free pitcher of beer) ($7.95). Cheddar burger ($3.50).
RUN INN -- 3336 Greenmount Ave.; 301/467-7757; Mondays-Saturdays: 6 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sundays: 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Dinner specials ($2.75-$3.75). Cheeseburger ($1.55).
SHEILA'S RESTAURANT -- 3501 St. Paul St.; entrance on University Parkway; 235-0444; Mondays-Saturdays: 7 a.m.-7 p.m. Real turkey club ($3.75). Bran muffin (55 cents). Honey beef box lunch ($3.50).
STADIUM LOUNGE -- 3353 Greenmount Ave.; 301/243-9237; every day: 7 a.m.-2 a.m. Ham & chese sandwich ($2.75). Chili dog (75 cents).
THAI RESTAURANT -- 3316 Greenmount Ave.; 301/889-7303; every day: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-11 p.m. Red curry with duck ($6.95). Pork, baby corn and straw mushrooms ($5.75).
TUGBOAT ANNIE'S -- 345 E. 33rd St.; 301/467-1022; every day: 9 a.m.-2 a.m. Spaghetti with sauce ($2.75). Large plain pizza ($4.95). Baklava (95 cents). UNCLE LEE'S SZECHUAN RESTAURANT -- 3313 Greenmount Ave.; 301/366-3333; Mondays-Thursdays: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays: 11:30 a.m.-11:30 p.m.; Sundays: 3-9:30 p.m. Kung pao lamb ($7.95). Eggplant with spicy garlic sauce ($5.95). Phoenix birds nest ($8.95).
VENUS PIZZERIA -- 3713 Greenmount Ave.; 301/366-4884; Mondays-Thursdays: 10 a.m.-1 a.m.; Fridays-Saturdays: 10 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sundays: 1 p.m.-1 a.m.). Spanakopita (spinach pie) ($2.25). Lasagna with salad and garlic bread ($4.25). Fruit salad (95 cents).
WAVERLY SEAFOOD CARRY-OUT -- 3400 Greenmount Ave.; 301/243-1181; every day: 11 a.m.-10 p.m.. Dozen steamed crabs ($6-10). Crab cake platter ($5.50).