Whenever a development like Canton Crossing (3501 Boston St., theshopsatcantoncrossing.com), the massive outdoor shopping center that just opened in Southeast Baltimore, comes to the city, I'm always left wondering, Why?
Target, Old Navy, Michael's, and DSW anchor the sprawling complex, with more than a dozen other establishments, almost all national chains, filling out the floor plan. (Harris Teeter, among other tenants, will join them in 2014; still more outlets come in "Phase 2," in 2016.) The place is largely indistinguishable from the retail clusters that line suburban arteries like Reisterstown, York, and Bel Air roads. Conventional wisdom has generally held that among the premiere benefits of city living are its walkability and the prevalence of small, diverse, locally owned, customer-centric businesses, and yet many residents of Canton, Brewer's Hill, and other points nearby seem to have welcomed Canton Crossing-which is the opposite of all that-even hailed it as a great leap forward.
And for the big-box stores like Target, it's understandable. In an urban utopia, one could stop at a hardware store, a discount clothing store, a pharmacy, and a sporting-goods store in a single block. But Baltimore is no urban utopia. The ability to make one stop and stock up on everything from toilet paper to armoires kinda trumps the more traditional urban model when that model requires trips to several neighborhoods.
But it's harder to make peace with the cluster of corporate food outlets that make up a solid third of Canton Crossing's retail outlets. To be clear, this is not just an issue at the new complex, but in the city generally: Just across from Canton Crossing on Boston Street is a smaller shopping center populated by Panera Bread, Five Guys, and Chipotle. In a city with so many diverse people, flavors, and local businesses striving to succeed, why do so many of us rejoice at the chance to eat the exact same food that people all over the country eat?
To find out, we spent a couple days trying out some of the new outlets in Canton Crossing. Perhaps the biggest of the bunch is Mission BBQ (3701 Boston St.,  955-6807), the chain that claims to bring "the best BBQ places in America" to you. For one thing, it's clear, a week or two after opening, the staff of Mission are exceedingly on-message and on-point with their staff training: The level of service is extraordinary, bordering on annoying.
Within a stride or two of walking through the door, someone from the behind the counter had shouted over to us, "How ya doing?" The decor here, like at most casual restaurant chains these days-think TGI Friday's, Applebee's, Chili's, etc.-is faux-eclectic, filled with signs, pictures, and other ephemera mass-produced at a factory but designed to look as if they were picked up at a yard sale. We opted for a pulled pork sandwich ($9.79 with a side and drink) instead of brisket, sausage, "Bay-B-Back ribs," or other meat options, and a side of "Maggie's mac-n-cheese." We were impressed that: a) there was a beer selection, and b) that it included local options like Duckpin, Resurrection, and Baltimore Pale Ale.
When we went to pick up our food at the counter, a server asked if we'd been there before. We said "no," and he launched into a short explanation about how all the meat is smoked and prepared fresh on the premises and pointed to two giant smokers nearby that he said operated 24 hours a day. The whole approach seemed a bit defensive, as if anticipating the kind of attacks on corporate food that we might have been leveling a couple paragraphs ago. But the pride, ingrained by H.R. training or not, is undeniably endearing.
After stopping to grab a straw and fork at a condiment table fashioned out of a toolbox, we found a table, topped with six location-specific barbecue sauce options, including Texas Twang, KC Classic, and yes, Bay-B-Que, which integrates Old Bay. We opted for Memphis Belle, which offered a sweet tang to accompany the moist, smoky meat. Corporate or not, it was a solid sandwich. But Maggie might want to add a little more oomph to her mac 'n' cheese, which was fairly generic.
Another trip to Canton Crossing brought us to Red Robin (3821 Boston St.,  327-2080), the chain of burger restaurant-bars with outlets in Owings Mills, Towson, and White Marsh. If you've been to any one of those outlets, it's just like that: also filled with mass-produced kitsch, also exceedingly friendly. Like a lot of casual chains, the portions are enormous. The Red Robin cheeseburger ($8.99) is almost the size of a football and features "Red's pickle relish," a maroon paste of finely chopped pickles that added a pleasant briny flavor to the leaden burger, which came with nicely seasoned steak fries.
After being pleasantly surprised by the grub at the first two outlets, we tried Samos Greek Island Grill (3745 Boston St.,  276-0165), a spinoff of South Baltimore Greek standard-bearer Samos, a perennial City Paper Best of Baltimore winner and the only locally owned restaurant currently at Canton Crossing (although Atwater's and Waterfront Kitchen outlets are in the works). The original Samos is known for its large portions of authentic Greek classics, long lines, world-weary servers, sweeping murals, and the fact that they don't take credit cards. The new place is different in almost every way.
The sleek, generic decor is bathed in aqua-blue tones that match the cashiers' polo shirts. As we approached the counter, the teenager manning the new register-which most assuredly does take credit cards-asked perkily, "Will you be dining in with us today?" We nodded, but suddenly yearned for the original, where a server once rolled her eyes when our dining companion asked what saganaki was. We asked if the hummus and tzatziki were prepared on premises or brought over from the other location, and she said everything was made on premises, incorrectly assuming that was the answer we wanted to hear.
We went with the steak souvlaki platter ($13.25), thinking it would resemble the slightly pricier favorite at the original, which comes with two skewers and mountains of rice, vegetables, pita, and tzatziki. When we were asked, "What side do you want with that?," we knew we were in trouble. We received a tidy white plate with a single skewer of grilled meat, a Greek salad with dressing served on the side (not by request), three pita points, a condiment cup of tzatziki, and our side of "Greek fries," which sounded appealing but turned out to be regular fries with a few feta crumbles on top. It was all fine-the meat was nicely seasoned and grilled, the tzatziki tasted pretty much like the original's-but the overall experience paled in comparison to the old place. How could it not?
As I asked around in search of an answer to my initial question-why do places like Canton Crossing have an appeal to people who have chosen to live in a city?-it mostly came down to convenience. For the many folks who work nearby (plenty of whom commute from the suburbs), the influx of decent, cheap, walkable options is a boon. Also, the location is close to enough to Baltimore County to lure folks from Dundalk, Essex, and beyond. Perhaps most importantly, people who live in the neighborhood-and city dwellers generally-probably aren't going to abandon Sip & Bite, Matthew's, or the original Samos, but sometimes will want to grab a quick bite before going shoe-shopping. And maybe there's nothing wrong with that. But there's no question that places like this make city-living just a little bit more dull.
The Hours of Mission BBQ, Red Robin, and Samos Greek Island Grill Vary. See their respective websites for more information.