Baltimore often gets lost in the long list of iconic Northeastern foodie destinations, like New York City, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Boston, but ask any local and you’ll see how closely the city’s culture is linked to food. As the home of the nation’s best crab cakes, several James Beard award-winning chefs, a Food Network famous cake shop, and original creations like Berger Cookies, Snowballs, and Natty Boh, Baltimore packs a lot of rich food history and diversity into a city of only 600,000 people.
No list about Baltimore restaurants would be complete without the one consistently voted best in the city by Baltimore Magazine and Zagat. Co-owned by an eight-time James Beard finalist for Best Mid-Atlantic Chef, Charleston features artistic, sophisticated American/French fusion small plates served as prix-fixe menus of three to six courses. The wine list with over 600 options is also impressive, but the true selling point is the service: it’s refreshingly welcoming and lacks the pretentiousness normally associated with fine dining. That said, save this spot for planned occasions, as reservations and more formal attire are recommended.
Despite not being as pizza-famous as New York or Chicago, Baltimore has a strong tradition around pizzerias and a reputation for square-shaped pies from Joe Squared. Most pizza places are laid back and accessible enough for family outings, but Hersh’s is particularly ideal for families. It has a menu that not only encourages sharing and features simple pizzas to appeal to fussy eaters, but also includes an array of homemade cheeses, clever topping combinations, and drink selections to satiate grown-up palates.
Whether for a boozy lunch or starting a night out, Clavel’s combination of tacos, ceviches, and agave-based cocktails provides the perfect backdrop to catching up with friends. Founded by the person behind treasured Baltimore speakeasy, W.C. Harlan, this family-owned taqueria and mezcaleria takes pride in its Sinaloan heritage, handmade tortillas, and bartenders trained in mezcal distilling. The space is bright and airy, but be prepared to wait on weekends since tables are limited and service stops at 7 p.m. If you plan ahead, you can tag on an hour-long mezcal tasting experience, too.
Although the city’s harbor location and access to the Chesapeake Bay make it a prime spot for fresh seafood, many of Baltimore’s restaurants are vegetarian-friendly. You wouldn’t necessarily expect an Afghan restaurant to be a top recommendation in that department, but Helmand’s menu is evenly balanced between roasted meats and vegetables, and the stand-out dishes are on the vegetarian side. Don’t miss the kaddo borwani (baked baby pumpkin with sugar and garlic sauce), the aushak (Afghan ravioli with leeks), and the fluffy naan.
Baltimore’s Little Italy has a plethora of choices for carbo-loading, but for home-style Sicilian cooking with generous portions and a touch of Baltimore influence, look no further than La Scala. Since he opened the restaurant in 1995, the chef/owner has been checking on diners to see if they like the Maryland twist to veal scaloppini (crab meat), need more cheese for their pasta, or want a bottle of imported olive oil. The hospitality extends beyond the table, too: you can make new friends over the indoor bocce ball court before hopping on the complimentary shuttle back to the harbor.
The Food Market
You know when you see menu items like soft pretzels with beer fondue, lobster fingers with truffle honey mustard, and crab cakes up to a pound in size that you’ve come to the right place if you’re tired, down, or hungry. The ethos is elevated comfort food, but the minimalist industrial design keeps the vibe casual despite flourishes of higher-end ingredients and pricier big plates. If you can only go for one meal: make it brunch. The lazy French toast ("all cut for you, so you can simply start eating") and a separate menu of brunch drinks are local weekend favorites.
To feel completely connected to the Maryland food scene and support local suppliers in the process, head to Woodberry Kitchen. Everything on the menu is sourced directly from local farmers and fishermen, and even drinks are mostly home-grown: all spirits are from the states, the majority of wines are local, and all beers are from Maryland breweries. The building itself also ties into Maryland culture; it’s a restored flour mill from the 18th century, and its high ceilings and leafy terrace offer stunning settings for leisurely indoor or al fresco dining.
Don’t let the residential location or the lack of prices on the menu fool you: this diner delivers everything you’d expect (large portions for affordable prices) plus a fun, bold, and quirky aesthetic. That design isn’t for everyone—some may not enjoying eating beside a bejeweled, green statue with G.I. Joe soldiers for hair—but it will suit you if you want a break in diner monotony and a mix of classic dishes and unique house specialties. You may need to wait at peak times, and always go in with room for a milkshake.
Ida B's Table
Baltimore has a strong civil rights heritage, and this soul-food restaurant named after Ida B. Wells—a famous African American journalist and civil rights activist—is an ideal place to pay homage to that ongoing history. The restaurant is a venture of Baltimore’s non-profit journalistic endeavor, The Real News Network, and regularly hosts events and talks in addition to serving up southern comfort food like fried catfish, blackened chicken, and Liberian collard greens.
Whether you’re escaping the rain or gearing up for a long night ahead, Akbar’s all you can eat lunch buffet of Indian food is available daily for as long as you can manage. The specific dishes are subject to change, but you can count on the usual tandoori and curry suspects. If you have a choice, opt for some of the house specialties, like Peshwari naan and chicken xacutti. Reservations aren’t usually needed for lunch and if you miss the buffet, Akbar also offers an a la carte menu.
As one of the city’s mascot foods, crabs hold a special place in Baltimorean hearts. Discussions get contentious over which restaurant does them justice, but for arguably the most authentic iteration, go for a family-owned crab shack like L.P. Steamers. Hot steamed crabs are the obvious choice for first-timers, but to get the full Maryland crab experience, grab a seat on the rooftop overlooking the water and round out your meal with the crab dip, Old Bay fries, and fried crab fluff.
Attaman's Authentic NY Delicatessen
One of the last remaining landmarks from Baltimore’s former center of Jewish life, Attman’s has been around since 1915 and has never wavered from having some of the best sandwiches in the city and indeed—according to several publications—the U.S. You can never fail with the hot corned beef or specialty Reuben but be warned that sizes are comparable to Katz in New York or Canter’s in Los Angeles, so even one sandwich may be more than you can chew.
Miss Shirley's Cafe
The winner of several awards for best brunch in Maryland and best pancakes in the country, Miss Shirley’s offers unbeatable sweet and savory breakfast options with a southern twist. While it has all the grease-heavy dishes you want in a breakfast menu, like chicken and waffles and coconut cream stuffed French toast, it’s also very allergy-friendly and features accommodating menus for kids, vegan, gluten-free, and visually-impaired guests.
It’s tempting to mention snowball shacks as Baltimore’s top dessert, but since these shaved ice stands are seasonal, satisfy your sweet tooth any day of the year with this Italian pastry and cookie shop that has served Greater Baltimore area since 1956. With cakes, tiramisu, cannolis, gelato, and over 30 varieties of Italian cookies, you can find something to match any craving. If you get hooked, don’t worry: you can buy large assortment tins or even ship cannolis to your hometown.