Moving to a new city presents the opportunity to explore a brand-new culinary landscape. Other than national trends, much of the identity of a city’s food culture is characteristic of its economic history, immigration patterns and community bonding through food. Though it can be daunting to find all the best places to take friends to show your local know-how, hopefully this guide gives you an updated look at what’s good and what’s special (all for a night out under $15).
If I were to host an impromptu weekend visit from family, the very first place I’d take them is Federal Hill, around the southern edge of the harbor. The neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city, with beautiful brick townhomes and a historic-yet-updated vibe. Along the area of Light and Cross Street you’ll find a packed block of diverse foods, including some personal favorites like Byblos Lebanese (a great middle-ground between Middle Eastern and Mediterranean) in a warm and inviting space with local artwork for sale. Though I’m personally more of a carnivore, I cannot pass up on the Maza Platter a (vegan!) tasting menu of hummus, baba ghanouj, tabbouleh and grape leaves.
A minute away, Kiku Sushi has some of the best sushi I’ve ever had. Unique platters and super fresh fish make for an elaborate and flavorful variety of rolls to explore. Get the L-1 Combo, which comes with miso soup and salad, a regular roll and big special rolls like the Dynamite or Hungry Andy rolls (you CANNOT be hungry after this meal). This place also offers other Japanese dishes that can be harder to find in the city, like okonomiyaki and poke.
Thai Arroy next door also makes for a great dinner, blending spicy and fresh with the sweetness of coconut milk or Thai tea. If you’re the type to hit the town, there’s also plenty of beer gardens and sports bars & grills a block over on South Charles to get drinks and have fun without compromising the quality of food.
Moving north/northeast along the harbor brings you to the busiest part of the city — the Inner Harbor — where you can find those familiar big chains that offer their own form of comfort. While Chick-fil-A, IHOP and Cheesecake Factory are a fun addition to plans downtown, I like to hit the Irish gastropub Tir na nÓg upstairs for some of the best artery-clogging-but-worth-it food anywhere. Short Rib Grilled Cheeses and Shepherd’s Pie make it well worth the trek even just for dinner (by the way, every place mentioned so far is directly accessible using the Purple Route of the Charm City Circulator that picks up in front of CVS for free).
Even further to the east, you’ll stroll through Little Italy for the inimitable Café Gia for a great celebration or date night out as well as Vaccaro’s Italian Pastry, THE place for tiramisu and cannoli (a great birthday gift?).
Of course, a tour-de-Baltimore wouldn’t be complete without Fells Point, a cobblestone Brooklyn-esque neighborhood with far too many places to count. Just walk down Broadway and you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. I recommend also checking out Pitango, a small place near the water with a number of handmade sorbets and creamy gelatos to try (Mojito is my favorite).
One last honorable mention even further east (likely beyond the reach of walking distance) is Pho Bac, a modern Vietnamese place with great fried spring rolls, bahn mi and pho. I love this as comfort food, but delivery can be hit or miss. I’d make the trip and walk the friendly area of Highlandtown, an artistic center of the city that features the Creative Alliance (a venue for artist exhibitions as well as music and dance performance).
Resetting a little closer to home, Charles Village has its own places for weeknights and easy walk-to’s. Pete’s Grille is the answer to all diner needs for breakfast (pancakes, bacon and eggs, you name it) or lunch sandwiches. Since it closes at 2 a.m., also check out Charles Village Pub on St. Paul for dinner. Not just for drinks, this place has great burgers and bar food available late every day (a classier alternative to UniMini), and if that’s not your thing, I think the Korean Ajumma is criminally underrated, with Spicy Chicken Bulgogi, warming Ramyun (similar to ramen) and Yukgae Jang, a spicy beef and rice soup. It’s right across from Chipotle (who sadly didn’t make this list).
If you’re looking to at least leave the immediate Hopkins area, it’s a quick walk to Hampden for well-known staples. Ekiben’s fried chicken (or tofu!) steamed buns are legendary, Grano Pasta Bar makes for a good Friday night and Avenue Kitchen has some of the best seasonal menus in the city. A touch south (but still accessible by Blue Jay Shuttle) lies Clavel, an amazing Mexican-inspired cocktail bar and restaurant with a beautiful exterior and an authentic menu, including savory meats, ceviches and shareable appetizers like Queso Fundido and Esquite (corn). Try the Cochinita Pibil and the Barbacoa de Borrego tacos for slow-cooked, deep-stewed flavors of pork and lamb.
Restaurants aren’t the only place in Baltimore worth the trek. I find it just as fun to explore an overlooked weekend activity: markets! Waverly Farmers Market (32nd Street, open Saturdays from 7 a.m. to noon) is only a few blocks from campus (just look for the hordes of people between 7-Eleven and Papa John’s — it’s hard to miss). Fresh vegetables and local food vendors serving anything from $4 empanadas to ginger cardamom lemonade or, for the sweet tooth, canelés and indulgent fresh-made waffles. Do bring cash if you can, but most places take card. If necessary, you’ll have to buy tokens in $5 increments.
Other options include Lexington Market downtown, the oldest market in the country. It has been operating since 1782 and offers a plethora of options for seafood, Asian, baked and fried goods and service stalls. This is a must-see at some point in your Hopkins life, along with Cross Street Market at the same aforementioned Light and Cross intersection in Federal Hill. Finally, Baltimore Farmers' Market & Bazaar (open Sundays) has wonderful vendors of homemade products and food from around the world (seriously, try the Jamaican). It’s a fun weekend plan to kickstart your morning and see the city come together in a way you won’t find anywhere else (especially since it’s directly underneath a highway overpass).