I love a road trip to Baltimore. But I've done most of the predictable stuff: Lexington Market. The Walters. The Inner Harbor. Camden Yards. The Aquarium. Little Italy. Fells Point. I've even done plenty of Baltimore's lesser-known cool stuff, like the 14 Karat Cabaret, the Roots Cafe, Club Charles and the Brewer's Art.
But hark! There's a rumbling in the east. What's that sound from over yonder past Fells Point? Why, it's the sound of a neighborhood getting its groove on. It's Canton, a low-key, working-class, industrial neighborhood that has suddenly become the place for hipsters to find a rowhouse for cheap -- and if it's still covered with formstone, so much the better. It's a classic Baltimore neighborhood that has become, in the last few years, the site of many fine restaurants and bars. There's a hum to Canton, and I went to check it out.
The heart of Canton is O'Donnell Square, a two-block long park that runs east-west in the middle of O'Donnell Street like an extra-wide median strip. Its east end is Ellwood Street, its west end is Linwood. In the middle of the park is a statue of Captain John O'Donnell, and the only information given is "1749-1805." What it should say is "Canton's Founding Father," or something noble like that, because it was O'Donnell who spotted (though it took his son to exploit) the potential of this chunk of land alongside the Baltimore Harbor and the Patapsco River.
O'Donnell arrived in Baltimore in 1785 on the ship Pallas, which he'd sailed around the globe, loaded with tea, silk and porcelains that he had picked up in Canton, China. Selling off his haul made O'Donnell a wealthy man. He married a local woman and settled down, buying up 2,500 acres of land and calling his new estate Canton.
Columbus O'Donnell created the Canton Company in 1828 to develop his father's bucolic estate. He immediately attracted major industry to the area and Canton never looked back. The backbone of Canton is still industrial, though much of the current development is taking over old industrial buildings. While the industrial profile of Canton is changing, the neighborhoods that were developed around the turn of the century to accommodate the immigrant laborers the Canton Company actively recruited in Wales, Germany and Poland are essentially untouched.
Wander the streets and marvel at the marble stoops of the rowhouses. The German bakeries. The Polish butcher shops (look at those sausages!). Alongside these reminders of Canton's past sits the new Canton. A block from the Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library (built in 1886 and still open) at the east end of O'Donnell Square is the very sharp-looking Canton Gallery (2935 O'Donnell St.; 410/342-6176), open since 1995. On the other side of its huge picture windows are vast acrylic canvases of goldfish, formed from hundreds of tiny square paintings, the way Chuck Close might paint a goldfish. There's a real live lizard wandering in one window.
On the same block is M and L, Canton's Discount Liquors, a store that looks like it's been there forever, with its cheap blinking arrow pointing to the door. But right beside it sits Square Footage (2931 O'Donnell St.; 410/327-8808), a shop with funky $250 shoes and groovy clothes. You can buy the soundtrack to those clothes just up the street at Modern Music (2919 O'Donnell St.; 410/675-2172). That's where you'll find an astonishingly huge selection of up-to-the-second techno music, on CD and vinyl (for the DJs). Two people wearing yellow wraparound shades give me a funny look as I step inside. They have puffy sneakers on. They look like DJs. The only other folks in the store are the cashier and an actual DJ, working two turntables. The music coming from the speakers is a really loud recording of water dripping. The drips get faster, becoming a rhythm. The two in the shades start bopping their heads just before the drums kick in. Boom. The store is filled with crushing techno. That's cool, but I gotta go.
Nacho Mama's (2907 O'Donnell St.; 410/675-0898) is down the block and was one of the first more or less funky joints to take a chance on Canton. It opened on Elvis's birthday in 1994, and on the sidewalk out front you'll find a really, really bad statue of Elvis in a jumpsuit holding a guitar. Inside, it's a fun, small, dark, noisy joint, and is essentially a shrine to three things: Elvis, National Bohemian beer and Baltimore sports. There's a ton of Elvis memorabilia on the walls of the tiny back dining room, while in the front room with the bar, Natty Boh bottle caps and paraphernalia battle it out with pictures of former Colt and Oriole stars.
Nacho Mama's actually does have praiseworthy nachos (they'd better be good, given the bar's name), and the rest of its Tex-Mex menu is apparently not to be sneered at, given the various "Best of Baltimore" awards hanging by the front door. But all you really need to know is that the bottles of Natty Boh are cheap and cold, and they make nice rings on the terra cotta tiles that cover the top of the bar.
Right next door is Razorback's Raw Bar & Grill (2903 O'Donnell St.; 410/675-1880), a place with way too many television sets turned to way too many sporting events. It's too bad, because it's a nicely shaped restaurant with tall ceilings, and the kitchen seems to know what it's doing with things like grilled shrimp and crab balls. But, man, please turn down (or better yet, off) some of those televisions.
A little west of the square but still on O'Donnell is Andy's, an "old school" Canton bar. Its glass-brick front and burgundy awning curl around the corner of O'Donnell and Streeper streets, its entrance right at the corner, inviting everyone in. The ground floor is a typical Baltimore neighborhood bar, the bar itself running the length of the room. The second floor is the Surfin' Bull restaurant, a steak-and-lobster type place that was closed when I moseyed by.
On the same block is the Surfin' Bull's antithesis, Rosina Gourmet (2819 O'Donnell St.; 410/675-9300). Begun by brothers who named it after their mother, they're cranking out very reasonably priced prepared foods, everything from smoked ham sandwiches to roast Cornish game hens to go. It's a great place if you want to put together a picnic and wander to the nearby waterfront.
Heading back to the north side of O'Donnell Square, you pass a lovely brick firehouse (from 1902) before finding yourself in front of the Speakeasy Saloon (2840 O'Donnell St.; 410/276-2977). Inside this nicely refurbished building sits a two-story restaurant and bar that serves surf 'n' turf with a Mediterranean edge. The desserts (especially the custardy bread pudding with pecans) are worth a trip, as is the list of wines by the glass, obviously chosen by someone who likes to drink wine.
Across from the Speakeasy is Looney's Pub (2900 O'Donnell St.; 410/675-9235). More televisions. Rowdy folks drinking beer. I didn't go in. But I did look at the menu hanging outside, and for a neighborhood bar it was impressive: fresh mozzarella and basil salad, fresh Maryland crab cakes, raw bar. No buffalo wings.
The best place on O'Donnell Square, though, is Helen's Garden (2908 O'Donnell St.; 410/276-2233). As I sat at the bar I wondered why it was so serene in there. It could have been the big glass of excellent wine in front of me. It could have been the friendly and efficient folks behind the bar. But here's what it was: no televisions. Of all the restaurants and bars I visited in Canton, only two -- Helen's Garden and the Good Love Bar (more on that later) -- did not have televisions blasting sporting events. Those two places were also the only ones that did not have a big display case full of T-shirts and ball caps for sale with the joint's name on them. On its menu, there's a quote from the Zagat restaurant guide saying that Helen's Garden is "an oasis of civility in Canton." I'll buy that.
From the bar you can watch the goings-on in the upstairs dining room (a cozy little space) through a big hole in the ceiling. Or if you're dining upstairs, you can watch the barflies below. The downstairs bar has a terra cotta surface like Nacho Mama's, but the similarity ends there. Helen's Garden is all about comfort, with warm little lamps all along the bar, blond wood shelves against chocolate-painted walls, shelves that hold dozens of interesting beers, ciders and wines.
If you absolutely have to have an Irish bar to hang out in (and I know there are lots of you folks who do), Canton delivers with the Claddagh Pub (2918 O'Donnell St.; 410/522-4220). It's in a lovingly restored brick building with beautiful blue trim. Inside there are televisions blaring and lots of T-shirts for sale, but besides that there's a fine pint of Guinness to be had, along with dinners like cornmeal crusted scallops and broiled red snapper.
Heading northeast from the square to search out more spots, I find Harry's Bakery at the corner of Montford Avenue and Fleet Street. It's got a giant red-and-white striped, metal awning, with a front window loaded with wedding cakes, showing your tiered options. Inside, it smells the way a real bakery should smell. The mailman is in there talking to the woman behind the counter. "How's your mom doin'? Is she feeling better?" After giving the update (mom's good, doin' real good), the woman behind the counter gives the mailman a cookie. He leaves with a big wave.
There is a display for a Barbie doll cake, the cake part being the doll's dress, the doll more or less floating above it from the waist up. The sign says "Bring in your own Barbie doll and we'll subtract $5 off the reg. price of $29.95." Wish I had a Barbie doll. I buy some Polish bow ties (sort of like cannoli shells with no filling) and head back out.
I head left when I reach Eastern Avenue and go toward Fells Point, and right at the invisible border of these two neighborhoods, I find what I'm looking for, Peter's Inn (504 S. Ann St.; 410/675-7313). It's a tiny, blood red storefront under a red metal awning. Inside there are a few tables, where maybe 36 people could sit down and eat. The room is dominated by a long bar, and it's so dang comfy I plop right down.
Bud Tiffany chats me up. He's the owner, along with his wife Karin, who presides over the kitchen, creating dishes like tuna steak BLTs, lobster corn chowder, blackened shrimp cocktail. The piles of CDs in the window show extraordinarily good taste (rock, punk, jazz, alt-country), and Bud admits that the band printed on the T-shirts for sale behind the bar, The Pourbillies, is his band.
He shows me the small back room, which has space for exactly one love seat and two chairs, and has shelves lined with weird books and cool board games. This is clearly one of the places to be in Baltimore. I like it.
Time to hit the water. You can get to the Canton waterfront either by internal combustion engine and four rubber tires, or you can take the water taxi from the Inner Harbor or any of its other stops. It'll let you off right where South Potomac Street runs into Boston Street. There's a little grassy park there where folks fish, looking out onto great hulks of ships getting loaded and unloaded across the harbor.
Right along the waterfront just up from the water taxi stop are Cafe Neon (2775 Boston St.; 410/534-1199) and Bay Cafe (2809 Boston St.; 410/522-3377). Both have excellent views over the Canton Marina and across the harbor. They're both great for sunsets. If you have a boat you can just dock it right in front and step up on the pier for a cocktail. Powerboats on view when I stopped in had names like Pari Dice, Wintersux, Relax Inn and Never Enough. The soft shell crab sandwich at the Cafe Neon was mediocre and the eavesdropping was dull (daysailors slapping each other on the backs of their yellow slickers saying things like "nice work on the foredeck out there"), but the view of Baltimore's busy port was impressive.
A storm was blowing as I walked along the brick waterfront walk over to the Bay Cafe. The boulders lining the water's edge were strewn with litter and things seemed pretty desolate, but I have a feeling things get pretty hopping at the Bay Cafe on, say, a Friday night or Saturday afternoon. It's got one of those outdoor tiki bars, the kind you see in Ocean City a lot, with lots of imported sand and potted palm trees. The outdoor bar will close in a week or two depending on the weather, but until it does, choose the outside over the inside, as the Bay Cafe's interior is pretty absent of charm.
North of all that in the refurbished American Can Factory is the Austin Grill (2400 Boston St.; 410/534-0606), a branch of the Washington restaurant chain that opened last year.
Its arrival prompted a bit of soul searching among the Cantonites: Does this restaurant chain signal the end of Canton as we know it? Is Canton going to become an extension of the Inner Harbor, where corporate entities like Hard Rock, Planet Hollywood and ESPN Zone have taken some of the soul of the city?
Here's what I think: The gorgeous buildings that were once the American Can Factory sat empty for 20 years. They were infested with rats. The restoration job is superb. The factory buildings now house nice restaurants, a huge bookstore and miscellaneous shops. Nothing wrong with that. Plus the truth is, Austin Grill serves up consistently fine food. The outstanding chili verde soup held my nascent cold at bay the rest of the evening after my visit, and the specials that day looked impressive: grilled cactus tostada, roast chicken with mole sauce, shrimp agave.
"We didn't know what to expect when we opened up here," says Austin Grill manager Graham McCulloch. "The neighborhood around here is mostly Ukrainian and Polish, and at first, the locals didn't really come in. It was mostly folks from other parts of Baltimore. There was the perception that we were this big conglomerate trying to come in and change everything, which was odd for us, because in Washington we're thought of as kind of a little neighborhood place."
McCulloch moved up to Baltimore from Washington and now lives in Canton, and he loves it. "I tell my D.C. friends to move up here. The on-ramp to I-95 is a quarter-mile away. They can commute if they want, but really they should come and live here and work. This is a great place to live."
Traveling northwest along Boston Street, there's an unmarked little building at the corner of Wagner Street and Boston. It's got red trim and a mustard stucco exterior. If it's evening, you'll see candles in the window, and you'll know you're in the right place. This is possibly Baltimore's coolest (and hottest) little nightspot, the Good Love Bar (2322 Boston St.; 410/558-2347). Open since May 1998, it's three floors of millennial chic: dark corners with couches and amoeba-shaped tables, custom-designed chairs and gorgeous paper lanterns wrapped around twisted iron rods, and candles everywhere. Walking around the club with bartender TJ as he lights the candles takes nearly a half-hour. The downstairs bar is covered with pebbles, and very chic folks (black, white, Asian, Latin) rest their elbows on them.
Upstairs there's a DJ booth, a beautiful, custom-built table with two turntables (no microphone) where a rotating crew of five of Baltimore's hottest DJs spin regularly. Something cool happens on a regular basis when percussionists come to jam with the music the DJs are spinning. Sundays there's some very low-key improvised jazz; but because of licensing issues, that's the extent of the live music. In fact all through Canton, there is only very sporadic live music because the city is reluctant to issue the licenses required for live music, as it tries to strike a balance between pleasing the neighborhood residents and pleasing the new businesses. Nearly every bar and restaurant I walked into has license applications on file with the city, and everyone's waiting for Baltimore to open the door to more live music.
The Good Love Bar gets pretty packed late in the evenings as all of Baltimore's night crawlers descend upon it, so stop in early to see the striking decor, then head back later to dance.
When you're done with all of that, and you just need a snack at 3 a.m. to hold you over back down 95, there's only one place, and you must go there: the Sip & Bite (2200 Boston St.; 410/675-7077). It's the kind of place with booths and a counter and bright fluorescent lighting, where you can get pancakes and eggs 24 hours a day. Or the Swedish meatball platter. Or the baked meatloaf that comes with two vegetables (and, yes, applesauce is on their vegetable list, along with macaroni salad, pickled beets and much more). I had the hot pork sandwich with sauerkraut. De-licioso. It was a taste of old Canton, and all around me people seemed to be reveling in it, young and old, black and white, suits and overalls. This was the joint. Old Canton was sending me home with a nice hot meal in my belly, and I was grateful.