If you haven’t been to Baltimore lately, you might think the city’s dining options are only meant for crab lovers. But Charm City’s culinary renaissance has resulted in diverse restaurant scene that embraces flavors from around the globe, from Venezuelan arepas and Basque pinxtos to Asian fusion. You’ll find tony venues helmed by James Beard Award-winning chefs alongside equally-well-loved small BYOB joints. Some restaurants on our list are newer spots that sport the latest design and cocktail trends while others are decades-old favorites that bring in the crowds with winning dishes that have stood the test of time. And, of course, there is a crab house. No matter what you're craving, add visiting these top restaurants to your list of can't-miss things to do in Baltimore.
The best restaurants in Baltimore
What is it? New York James Beard Award-winning chef Andrew Carmellini debuted his stunning second Baltimore restaurant last fall, specializing in Chesapeake Bay seafood and comfort foods like fried chicken. There’s also a raw bar with East Coast oysters, ceviche, shrimp and tuna poke.
Why go? Rye Street Tavern’s floor-to-ceiling windows and outdoor seating let you gaze into the water. But the striking interior by local designer Patrick Sutton offer plenty of eye candy indoors with rich leather, wood and steel finishes. A 25-foot copper column that spans the restaurant’s two floors gives a nod to its neighbor on the property, Sagamore Spirit Distillery. Standout dishes include the wood-grilled Maryland rockfish with shrimp and grits and the wood-fired seafood bake, a harmonious blend of clams, mussels, crab and prawns baked and served in a cast-iron skillet. Don’t skip the made-in house desserts by the talented pastry chef.
What is it? The unassuming restaurant in a quiet, mostly-residential block serves Neapolitan, wood-burned pizza, homemade pastas and creative salads and antipasti. A thoughtfully curated wine and cocktail list match the food.
Why go? If you’re looking for a cozy spot to catch up with friends over good food and drinks, Hersh’s is the place. Pizzas come with a charred but chewy crust and unique ingredients, such as kale and pistachio, and clams and lemon. House-made ricotta adds a creamy texture to several standout dishes, including the crostini, ravioli and the Il Carciofo pizza, with artichokes, spring onions and lemon.
What is it? Diners cram into the Fells Point Asian fusion casual eatery’s tight quarters to eat their steamed bun sandwiches piping hot.
Why go? Broccoli and tofu may seem like unlikely stars among passionate foodies, but Ekiben’s take on veggies and bean curds is unlike any other, combining Indian, Ethiopian, Thai and Ethiopian flavors. The broccoli is topped with fresh herbs, chopped onions and rice vinegar and the tofu bites are smothered in a spicy peanut sauce.
What is it? The decade-old James Beard Award-winning farm-to-table pioneer Spike Gjerde serves flavors of the Chesapeake Bay.
Why go? Exposed brick, natural wood and light make for a casual, rustic setting in this repurposed former mill. Rockfish and Tilghman Island crab cakes are among the best seafood dishes while the rotating crispy flatbreads topped with roasted zucchini, smoked ham and other ingredients are a favorite among brunchers. The commitment to local sourcing extends to its stellar cocktail and mocktail list. The C.M.P. with hot fudge, marshmallow, peanuts and ice cream is among Baltimore’s most loved desserts.
What is it? La Cuchara whisks diners to the Basque region of Spain with bite-sized pinxtos, vermouth by the glass and jamon y quesos.
Why go? Located in a former manufacturing building, the restaurant’s exposed brick and white-washed dining room walls complete the trans-continental journey. Get here after work or late night for one of the best happy hour deals in town, with half-priced pinxtos and appetizers in the bar, which offers a view of the open-kitchen and asador.
What is it? Mexican food, margaritas and mezcal make up this bright and bustling taqueria.
Why go? Grab a seat in the six-seat bar or at the long communal table in cozy dining area. With lights strung across the ceiling and white walls interrupted with plants, the joint is inspired by the taquerias in Sinaloa. Natural light fills the space, though it’s 1 a.m. closing time might inspire you to pay a visit long after sunset. Also stop by owner Lane Harlan’s intimate candlelit speakeasy W.C. Harlan down the street.
What is it? A homage to low-country cooking from seven-time James Beard Award nominee Cindy Wolf, Charleston has been wowing diners for 20 years.
Why go? With one of the best wine lists in the city and a prix-fixe menu that explores seafood, poultry and meat with equal panache, Charleston is a local favorite for celebratory meals. Also check out Foreman-Wolf’s other restaurants around town: Bar Vasquez, Cinghiale and Petit Louis Bistro.
What is it? The Afghani restaurant in the Mount Vernon has been treating diners to authentic food in a dining room bedecked with Afghan art and textiles.
Why go? Pillowy warm naan, tender lamb and beef meatballs and melt-in-your mouth ravioli filled with leeks have been winning repeat visits from guests for nearly 30 years. The star attraction, however, is kaddo borwani, a marriage of sweet and savory with baked baby pumpkin topped with garlic yogurt. It’s one of several noteworthy restaurants in the neighborhood, along with Italian favorite Sotto Sopra, the Elephant and the newcomer rooftop restaurant and bar Topside.
What is it? Located in a former warehouse, the 10-month-old restaurant sources local, organic ingredients to craft creative Southern soul food.
Why go? Named for the pioneering African-American journalist and activist, the popular downtown spot honors her legacy on the walls and on the menu, divided into leads (appetizers), op-eds (salads), features (entrées) and final edits (desserts). The restaurant draws city officials, reporters and execs from the nearby offices with its fried blue catfish, fried chicken with Liberian greens and gumbo.
What is it? Comfort eating in industrial surrounds.
Why go? With an open kitchen and bar seating (as well as more intimate tables), The Food Market provides an invitingly relaxed vibe. They've got a menu to match, too, with hearty dishes taking centre stage. Think beer-cheese fondue with plump pretzels, braised pork tacos, crab pot pie and roast beef short rib.
What is it? The newish swanky joint specializes in steak and contemporary takes on classic Italian dishes.
Why go? Since opening last summer, Tagliata has been attracting the crowds with its fresh-made pastas and its romantic environment, with plush chairs in its piano bar and lights strung on its patio. While the menu has its pricey items ($125 porterhouse anyone?), a diner can pick dishes under $20, like the eggplant parmesan. Save some room in your budget for the alluring speakeasy next door, the Elk Room. The restaurant sits on the edge of Little Italy, so be sure to check out other Italian fare in the area, including Café Gia, La Scala and dessert favorite Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry Shop.
Price: Blow out
What is it? Seasonal, locally sourced food in the American Visionary Art Museum.
Why go? With a nod to their creative location, Encantada claims to pinpoint the symbiotic relationship between art, food, dreams and reality. They place a huge importance on sustainability and supporting regional farms when putting together their menu. Get a selection of small plates to try a little of everything, which can include anything from crispy chickpeas and deviled turnips to strip steak with potato gratin and shrimp 'n' grits.
What is it? The Canton restaurant serves stuffed corn bread sandwiches stuffed with beans, chicken, seafood or pork.
Why go? The bright and airy space charms visitors with its exposed brick, and copious plants — some sprouting in giant tomato cans hanging on the wall. The Venezuelan fare entices as well, using vegetables and meats sourced from area farms. Pair it with one of the excellent cocktails, many of which make divine use of rum.
What is it? Comforting Greek grub like Yaya used to make.
Why go? This cash-only restaurant has been serving the hungry folk of Baltimore for a long time and their success doesn't look like it'll abate any time soon. The main reason behind their longevity? (Besides the BYOB policy.) The seriously tasty traditional Greek food. Its simple, but homely decor means that the dishes can really shine. Look out for the grilled octopus, avgolemono (egg and lemon broth) and souvlaki platter.
What is it? The 40-year-old landmark serves steamed crabs and seafood in a building shaped like a ship.
Why go? You might confuse this restaurant for a boat docked at the harbor in this waterfront neighborhood, but there’s no confusion inside, where you can enjoy all-you-can-eat crabs served with a cup of Maryland crab soup. Head across the street for the sister restaurant, a crab house, for outdoor seating with water views.
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Looking to explore more of the city's gems?
New boutique hotels, trendy restaurants and unique festivals earned it a spot on the New York Times top places to visit in 2018, while Travel & Leisure cemented its reputation as the coolest city on the East Coast. While it can take years to truly know this town, start with this list of 15 things to do in Baltimore.