Baltimore Is The Foodie Paradise That No One Is Talking About

When most folks think of Baltimore, they think of things like HBO's "The Wire," one of its bird-themed sports teams, or the city's outstanding aquarium. If food comes to mind at all, it's likely thanks to the many ways that Baltimore locals have interpreted crab — and to be fair, there are a lot of them. While crab cakes, crab soup, crab fluffs, and crab dips are common features on menus throughout the region, there's a lot more to the food of this city than the bounty of the Chesapeake Bay. At the time of this writing, Baltimore is a city that has a wide range of high-quality dining options that could stand up to any of the nation's best food cities. 

It's hard to say why Baltimore has never seemed to receive its more than worthy reputation as a foodie city beyond some classic seafood fare. Maybe it's because most public national stories identify it with crime and corrupt systems of governance and policing. Maybe it's because its most significant contributions come from the local bounty of ingredients. It might even just be the fact that it stands in the shadow of the other mid-Atlantic giants. But in reality, modern Baltimore is a food destination that should be on any foodie's list of future visits, even if it rarely garners national acclaim. 

Baltimore's classics

For our first course on this journey, let's give it up for some of Baltimore's classics: slow-roasted barbecue, fresh oysters, and an abundance of blue crab. As a state, Maryland is responsible for more than half of the amount of blue crab harvested in the United States each year, and for that reason, residents who call it home historically found several ways to make the most of it — especially in Baltimore. This includes Baltimore-style crab cakes made and sold by renowned institutions like Faidley's Seafood, or the traditional gatherings around newspaper-lined tables for the sole purpose of staining their hands with Old Bay seasoning for a Maryland crab boil. 

We could go on all day about Baltimore's seafood options, but it also offers its own lesser-known take on barbecue as well. Maryland-style pit beef – or pit turkey or pit ham, depending on the protein you choose — is roasted meat that is slow-cooked over sofa-sized charcoal barbecue pits. No summer carnival in Maryland is complete without the smell of these pit meats wafting in the air, sliced paper-thin and served on a roll with mayonnaise, horseradish, barbecue, or the local "tiger sauce." This typically isn't the stuff of sit-down dining establishments though. Outside of carnivals and other large events, the most reliable spots to find pit beef are roadside stands, whose smells inspire a rush to the exit lanes of major highways, guaranteed.

Baltimore's growing culinary scene has its stars

Beyond (or, one could argue, even despite) these classic staples, Baltimore has failed to earn recognition in the greater culinary world, and the reason for it remains a head-scratcher. The most convincing evidence? Chef Cindy Wolf. She and her Harbor East-based fine dining institution Charleston have been nominated for James Beard awards 23 times without ever receiving a win. When she received her sixth James Beard nomination, thanks to her blend of Southern and French cuisines, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema wrote this: "Just give it to her already." (As local outlet The Baltimore Banner noted in 2023, other culinary stars like Steve Chu and James Emendola have also failed to break the nominated-but-not-won streak.)

There has, however, been at least one chef to break the glass ceiling here: Spike Gjerde, who became the first Baltimore-based chef to win the award in 2015. In the intervening years, Gjerde's Woodberry Kitchen reopened as Woodberry Tavern — but is still serving up locally-focused fare, and in turn bringing the best out of what Baltimore ingredients have to offer, per The Washington Post.

Baltimore is also home to the restaurateur Lane Harlan, who Saveur once dubbed "the most interesting woman in the restaurant business." She operates and co-owns several ventures located in Baltimore's Charles Village neighborhood, and has been credited with making the neighborhood a foodie destination.  All serve up the same no-frills class, despite living in entirely different — but equally inspired — realms of culinary genius. One could surmise Harlan's enterprises are a perfect metaphor for foodie Baltimore itself.