Ten years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find many places with outdoor seating in Baltimore. Now it seems like every new place has tables outside, and every old place will at least make a half-assed stab at providing some place to sit in the sun. Perhaps it's due to some regulatory change, since businesses have to pay an annual fee to the city in order to have outdoor seating. But the fee hasn't changed much, and strangely, it's the same (about $350) whether you have one table or 50 outside. Maybe then it's just the domino effect, spurred by a few early adopters (e.g. Regi's in Federal Hill, Donna's in Mount Vernon), with whom the rest of the city has finally caught up. In any case, it's certainly a welcome amenity and yet another sign that Baltimore is becoming all growed-up.
But one downside to this development is the dilution of the term "outdoor dining." The appeal of soaking in the sun and fresh air during a meal, dining "al fresco" as it were, is pretty universal in its appeal. But do a dirty plastic table, a couple of mismatched thrift-store chairs, and a view of a bus stop really make the cut? Especially on a narrow Baltimore sidewalk, where, with every other bite, someone's sticking their sweatpants-ed ass in your face scooching to get by? And when the aroma of one's meal has to compete with the significantly more pungent smells of the city, e.g. car exhaust, freshly deposited dogshit (which sometimes you might even see happen before your eyes, as you eat), and, of course, the faintly familiar smell of old vomit (especially noticeable on Sunday mornings in Federal Hill), well, that's really just eating some food on a city street. Not "dining."
That isn't to say that all on-street seating suffers from these problems, but certainly the risk is always present. For those of us who live in the city, at least, looking at traffic is not much of a bonus or novelty. Escaping briefly into a pocket of serenity that is not populated with cars, dog poop, and vomit residue, however, is. Hopefully you've all been to the lovely sculpture garden at Gertrude's or the grotto-like Arcos, but here are five more places that provide exactly that feeling of having been instantly transported out of the crush and filth of city life, letting you enjoy fresh air, sun, AND your meal.
1. Waterfront Kitchen (1417 Thames St.,  681-5310, waterfrontkitchen.com)
Hotels, marinas, private luxury residences, tourist traps, bars-all easy to find on Baltimore's headlining feature, the harbor waterfront. What's missing? An actual restaurant. Except for Waterfront Kitchen, that is. It's right on the water, so of course the view is ridiculous. But here the focus is on the food, with produce grown in partnership with the Living Classrooms Foundation's Baltimore Urban Gardening with Students (BUGS) program, and the atmosphere is just gravy. (Sure, I manage the place, but still. . . trust me).
2. Ambassador Dining Room
(3811 Canterbury Road,  366-1484, ambassadordining.com)
It's astounding how few people outside of the North Baltimore area know about this place. Excellent Indian cuisine, spot-on service, and a beautiful, tranquil outdoor seating area that can only be described as picturesque.
3. Tapas Teatro
(1711 N. Charles St.,  332-0110, tapasteatro.com)
Sidewalk dining on major thoroughfares like Charles St. is generally an exhaust-filled drag, but this block, with the Charles Theater dominating and the Single Carrot Theatre temporarily filling the old Everyman slot, has the feel of a European cultural hub. Linger over sangria before or after a show and soak in the vibe.
4. L.P. Steamers Crab House
(1100 E. Fort Ave.,  576-9294, lpsteamers.com)
This one probably qualifies as both escape and immersion, if that's even possible, since few things are more Baltimore than eating crabs in Locust Point on a rooftop deck. Well, maybe that last part isn't so traditional-yet-but that's what makes for an enhanced (notice we didn't use "elevated" or "heightened"-you're welcome) version of an otherwise-familiar dining experience. L.P. Steamers' deck has a great view on all sides, but can get crowded fast.
5. Ten Ten
(1010 Fleet St.,  244-6867, bagbys1010.com) and Fleet Street Kitchen (1012 Fleet St.,  244-5830, fleetstreetkitchen.com)
The outdoor dining area is basically the alleyway that separates the two restaurants but it is nonetheless semi-protected from the elements and has been rehabbed to feel more like a courtyard. It's set back enough from Fleet Street (right across from Whole Foods) to feel removed, but it's still right in the heart of Harbor East.
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