What Baltimore Has That Pittsburgh Wants
Anyone watching "The Wire" on television would think that Baltimore was the drug and murder capital of the universe, an image that makes proud Baltimoreans wince. I know how they feel – if I had a dollar for every out-of-state pal who told me they thought Pittsburgh was a depressed steel town, I'd be lunching in...Baltimore! Yep, Baltimore has moved past its post-industrial blight and become a destination in its own right thanks to youthful energy and artists who are combining creativity with good business sense. To those who say Baltimore is filled with pockets of weirdness, I say the city is clever like a fox and we can learn much from what they've done.
The Kimpton Hotel Group, at the vanguard of luxury boutique hotels, recently opened a Hotel Monaco near downtown Baltimore and the property is an amalgam of color, style and function. The expansive lobby "living room" pairs bold florals with paisley velours and the many discrete seating areas surround a see-through fireplace. Can you say puttin' on the Ritz? Milk and cookies are served daily at four followed by a wine hour at five. When you finally retire to your room, a slate-gray padded headboard frames the Frette linens on your bed and a blood-red desk sports outlets galore and winks at the iPod docking station. Dash off a quick email to friends before melting into the Jacuzzi tub and then wrapping yourself up in a leopard-print robe. If you're not having fun yet, get dressed and head to the street-level B&O Brasserie, where hand-crafted cocktails and savory fare pack them in nightly.
More delicious pleasures can be had at Sotto Sopra, arguably one of the best Italian restaurants on the East Coast. In a jewel box of a room, it's puckish chef Bill Crouse who's turning out mouth-watering cuisine. Goat cheese polenta with mushrooms and toasted feta glisten alongside a pine nut relish, while a spinach salad with apple, bacon and brie is dappled in almond vinaigrette. It gets better: paper-thin pasta envelops spinach and ricotta and forms idyllic discs of ravioli topped with fresh tomato sauce while scallops are shiny orbs resting atop fingerling potatoes and bathed in toasted sesame butter. Chef Crouse, who attended culinary school in Pittsburgh, has fond memories of the old town. "I'd go back to Pittsburgh in a heartbeat," he tells me. "I loved my time there." Are burgh restaurateurs listening?
Baltimore's culinary reawakening isn't limited to Sotto Sopra. At Woodberry Kitchen, talented chef Spike Gjerde's farm-to-table sensibility shines in soul-warming dishes that pair beautifully with the rustic, romantic room. Petit Louis, in the upscale Roland Park neighborhood, is awash in nattily-dressed men and ladies who lunch who've come for the classic French cuisine. At Cinghiale, what feels like a mile-long wine bar is mere prelude for 500-plus bottles and a knowledgeable staff that makes perfect pairings while The Brewer's Art, dubbed the "Best Bar in America" by Esquire magazine, brews its own beer and serves it to eager patrons in the coziest of settings.
The crown jewel of Charm City could be the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM), where the work of self-taught artists is on display. "This is the work of people who don't call themselves artists but are compelled to make art from something within," says the museum's Pete Hilsee. One look at the accessible, whimsical yet thought-provoking collection makes you realize that art is more about passion than technique. "We recognize the validity of everyone's experience," continues Hilsee, a meme readily apparent in the whirligig made by a 76-year-old farmer who "had a bunch of junk lying around and needed to do something with it" and the Lusitania, a re-creation of the ill-fated ship via 193,000 toothpicks. A driftwood Statue of Liberty gives voice to a Louisiana swamp rat while the personal physician of the late Saddam Hussein pours out his grief over a series of canvasses. The lighter side of the collection is represented by the Bra Ball, a hookup of 18,000 bras that's brassier than any string ball could ever be. Since AVAM is the only institution of its kind in the U.S., there's plenty of room (and art) for a sister museum in Pittsburgh.
Baltimore's appreciation of all things quirky is alive and well in its neighborhoods but don't be fooled by the fun -- behind it are enterprising folks who epitomize a can-do aesthetic. In Hampden, "hons" rule the day and it's these only-in-Bawlmer, hi-honey gals sporting beehive hair (think John Waters' "Hairspray") that give the neighborhood its cheeky demeanor. Women-owned businesses define The Avenue, with Hometown Girl (kitsch), Red Tree (furniture) and In Watermelon Sugar (décor, accessories) leading the way and if Elvis walks into Cafe Hon, well, it's just another day.
Federal Hill is "more refined than Hampden without being snooty" according to Barry Werner, who owns and operates the Scarborough Fair B&B on lovely Charles Street and turns out the city's best breakfast for lucky guests. Georgian rowhouses populate the neighb and once again, it's high-quality, independently-owned retail (Whimsy/Reason for men's/women's clothing, The Bottom Drawer for lingerie) that adds appeal.
In Mt. Vernon, a stroll along the northern end of Charles Street could have you thinking Michigan Avenue in Chicago or Boston's Newbury Street thanks to the many grand buildings filled with shops, restaurants and cafes. Yet another example of a neighborhood secure in its identity, Mt. Vernon oozes class thanks to the Walters Art Museum and Peabody Library but it's the denizens of the district that keep its history and mystery alive.
Getting back to the fun, Baltimore is quick to leverage its neighborhoods with annual festivals like Hon Fest (yep, the best look wins...hair spray?), the Night of 100 Elvises (a 36-hour song fest) and the Kinetic Sculpture Race (self-made and -motorized vehicles including a giant pink poodle compete and he who comes in in the middle wins!) and I don't see why Pittsburgh can't up the ante with a Night of 100 Polish Grandmothers.
An entrepreneurial spirit coupled with mindfulness and a sense of place is what's driving the adaptive re-use of old buildings throughout Baltimore. The Can Company is a mixed-use development across several shuttered American Can Company buildings whereas Tide Point repurposed a Procter and Gamble soap factory for prime office space and the former Stieff Silver factory is now largely occupied by Johns Hopkins. The splashiest example of adaptive re-use, however, is Clipper Mill, where a series of industrial buildings were brought back to life after a devastating 1995 fire. The sprawling brick and stone structures now house condos and apartments that cozy up next to architectural firms, galleries and restaurants (the aforementioned Woodberry Kitchen is a tenant).
While my heart belongs to Pittsburgh, I'm happy to borrow from our neighbors to the east and promise never to steal Ray Lewis. Ravens fans, he's yours!
Elaine Labalme is a New Girl In Town who's keen on bringing bright ideas to Pittsburgh. Comments? ideas of your own? Email Bmore.
Photos by Arianne Teeple
1. The back deck at Little Havana in Federal Hill
2. The Hotel Monaco in downtown Baltimore
3. An entree at Woodberry Kitchen in Clipper Mill
4. Cinghiale modern Italian kitchen in Harbor East
5. The American Visionary Arts Museum in Federal Hill
6. Cafe Hon owner Denise Whiting with Elvis in Hampden
7. Clipper Mill apartments in Baltimore