Food stalls open 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Sunday. Restaurants open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 2 a.m. Sunday. Parking at Hyatt Regency garage.
They said it couldn't be done. And it couldn't. You just can't digest Harborplace in one day.
Baltimore's waterfront eating and shopping extravaganza begins its second warm-weather season with as much freshness and excitement as if it had opened yesterday, and the maturity to handle weekend crowds so efficiently that the floors and tables are as clean at the end of the day as they are at the beginning (though I found the tabletops just as sticky at the beginning as at the end of the day). It is now the Saturday afternoon outing for kids, the place to stop and eat on the way home from a weekend in New York, the location to meet for a drink after work. It is Baltimore's dinner and lunch and breakfast and late supper and all-day snack shop. No wonder; it serves the most interesting and extensive selection of food under one roof south of Boston's Quincy Market (which is, of course, the creation of the same developer).
It works. And one thing that makes it work is the mix.You can shop for an egg roll, your week's meat order or antique Chinese furniture. You can have a beer or a six-course dinner with Dom Perignon. You can relax indoors or outdoors, in a quiet corner or in the middle of a mob.
The two problems for snackers are where to start and where to stop.
Where to start is easier. At least on the weekends, get there in the morning, soon after 11, when the food stalls are all open but the lunchtime hordes are not in full force. While the restaurants are spread between the two cater-corner buildings, the snack stands are all in one building. Thus, you can snack for a while, then shop for clothes, crafts or kitchenware in the other building, and return to the food halls for more snacking and food to take home.
Upstairs in the food hall are most of the ethnic stalls; downstairs are most of the take-home stands -- the meats and cheeses and nuts and fish and baked goods -- with plenty of nibble along the way.
Seeing should not be believing at Harborplace. Just because Pete's Pizza has some of the longest lines, you shouldn't assume that it has some of the best food. In fact, it sells plain old everyday pasty and oversalted pizza, not worth a second glance. If you are willing to wait in line, do that at Thrasher's, where the best french fries west of Ocean City are being sold as fast as they can be made. Blistery-crisp but soft inside, thin-cut with the skins on and served with a dousing of vinegar. Thrasher's french fries are as vital as a Harborplace visit as the White House is to Washington tourists. They cost $1.09 to $2.50, and if you don't buy the large size you may need to wait in line twice.
The other long lines are at Phillips seafood stands. Phillips stands are not just on the first floor, they practically are the first floor. One sells fried seafood (try the crabcakes: plenty of crab and not much filler, for $2.50 to $3.25). Another sells fish to cook at home and steamed seafood -- crabs at $12 to $16 a dozen, available singly and very good, plus shrimp, clams, lobsters and oysters (which are rarely found steamed hereabouts). It also sells oysters and clams on the half-shell, but for them you must wait in line twice -- one for a ticket and once for the shucker -- so you may as well buy them upstairs at a stand called Shucker's, where they are considerably cheaper and just as good. Another Phillips stand sells carryout from its restaurant menu. What one learns eventually about Phillips is that simplest is best, broiled and streamed are better than fried, and stick to the local stuff. And at Harborplace you ought to try crab vegetable soup, and it ought to come from Phillips.
Those are the obvious Harborplace foods, the mainstays. And just the beginning. Upstairs some stalls have long counters filled with foods exotic even to Washingtonians. Caribbean Cuisine sells fricassess of pork and chicken and goat; its french fries are made from sweet potatoes; and its codfish fritters -- $1.25 -- are a sleeper. Big lacy pancakes not at all fishy, they are crunchy and slightly piquant with bits of hot pepper and a touch of vinegar. Anna's Fried Dough looks enough to fill you and leave no room for the rest of the array, but her lemonade is tart and fresh, the $1 glass large enough to last you through your wanderings. You can skip the Southern Style Barbecue and the soups at Shucker's -- though stop for oysters. The Italian Villa has a lengthy menu of tired foods, worth missing. But Wings 'n Things made me a convert to Buffalo chicken wings, an unlikely combination of fried wings in hot sauce to dip in blue cheese dressing. At $1.60 for six (small) pieces, you can become a convert too.
I tried a pina colada at New Life, the inevitable yogurt-and-sprouts stand. The pina colada was too sweet, but what could you expect: the salesgirl was eating Pete's pizza. Lillian & Kay's brownies and congo bars were also too sweet, and stale -- maybe that's why the saleswoman was so snappish. Move on to the Flying Fruit Fantasy, where big chunks of fresh fruit make a gorgeous fruit cup or a juicy shake. Haagen-Daza you can get in Washington; hot dogs you can get anywhere; roast beef sandwiches are there to wash down the Thrasher's fries. Next is a stand that is one big salad bar, then the Bagel Place, where anything that can put between two slices of bread is put between to halves of a bagel. Fried mushrooms are the hot new snack at Harborplace; everyone has them.
I began to falter. Skipped the Dutch waffles, the chili, the pretzels, the subs, the burgers, the egg rolls, the tacos, the chocolate chip cookies (did you ever think we could tire of chocolate chip cookies?). I was more interested in "check rice" and jolloff rice at the African Queen, which sold the first African macaroni and cheese I ever saw and a good, if soggy, sweet potato pie. It was the wrong day to find fried okra and palm butter, but this was the fullest African menu I have seen, even in a sitdown restaurant.
Downstairs, Ostrowski's Polish sausage is homemade, but deserves a better roll, and its pirogi need considerable spicing to make them more than just fillers. The Prime Potato globs everything from seafood newburg go barbecue on a baked potato, but it tastes like yesterday's potato and last week's sauce, and anybody who would muck up a baked potato with imitation bacon bits should be investigated by the Potato Institute. Bun Penny delicatessen stretches endlessly, but I wish they would concentrate on getting better bread; it just shows that Baltimore can come up with a mediocre deli, too.
Come time for dessert. Lee's Ice Cream Factory is the main come-on, with flavors like oriole and blue jay, even mom's applie pie. But the small 90-cent cones of just-middling quality will probably send you back upstairs to Haagen-Daz after all. You can go all-out with strudel -- or the two chocolate shops -- or restrain yourself with dried fruits and roasted nuts. But I would hang around to the bitter (or sweet) end at Ms. Desserts, with its chocolate-glazed honey walnut pastry, caramel apple cake, German chocolate cake with as much coconut as chocolate.
Of course, there are restaurants. Beautiful restaurants. But my one foray -- at the Black Pearl -- verified the frequent complaint that the restaurants tend to be inconsistent (or consistently disappointing), so it is no wonder that the insidewalk stands are the major attraction at Harborplace. I only wish that, like Baskin-Robbins, the stands had little spoons for sampling, or you could buy small tastes, thus turn Harborplace into one enormous peripatetic menu degustation.