If you’re like me, when you travel to other cities you want to experience the city like the locals do. Sure, there are always those places you need to see where all the tourists go, but when it comes to dining and drinking, it’s just more fun to hang out with the locals. Besides, how can you get a taste, or real feel of a city without visiting the establishments where you’ll get to hobnob with the real people who live there?
In Baltimore, we take our drinks and eats seriously. It’s telling to begin with that we’re known for the sometimes pricey crabs just as much as we are for being the original home of the very low cost Natty Boh (National Bohemian beer, now brewed well outside of Charm City in another state altogether). Whether we are dining and drinking in high style or at low cost, during Orioles baseball or Ravens football, we are choosy about our favorite places to get the best of what we’re looking for. Let me take you on a tour of some of the very best places where the locals love to go in Baltimore.
The Horse You Came In On
Known to locals as just “The Horse,” this bar is situated on Thames Street in the historic waterfront district of Fell’s Point. Known as the original port town in Baltimore, Fell’s Point houses at least 122 bars and restaurants and attracts an eclectic crowd, making it a great destination for a rowdy barhopping night, or a cozy evening, depending on where you choose to go.
The Horse You Came In On touts itself as “America’s Oldest Saloon,” rightfully proud that it was open before, during and after the Prohibition. With live music and a focus on wings, beer, and Jack Daniels, this type of bar is one that many might lovingly describe a “dive” while they swill some local brews and chat up their bartenders or seat mates.
If you’re from out of town, why would you go here? To meet the locals of course! You’ll have a blast chatting with the friendly regulars in a quaint part of town paved with belgian block (which some might call cobblestone). But really, the other reason? Is because you’ll be the coolest traveler ever when you return from Baltimore and say you threw back some drinks at the last bar Edgar Allan Poe visited on the night of his untimely demise. A little macabre? Yes. A lot awesome? Absolutely.
Kislings is located right in between the popular Fell’s Point and Canton districts on Fleet Street. This place is an institution. Not like a crazy house institution, although things do get a little crazy sometimes, but like a place that is known by Baltimore folk as THE place to hang out for good casual food with friendly bartenders slinging any drink you may want. These guys don’t flinch an eye when a local orders a Baltimore Martini, a pint of Natty Boh with a rim of Old Bay on the glass, and they have a crusher to make those fresh fruit crushes like Orange and Grapefruit, in nanoseconds.
Now, they have a pretty substantial menu, and some really amazing specials. Their steamed shrimp are out of this world, plump and covered in Old Bay seasoning, and they run a Tuesday crabcake special that is an incredible deal. Their menu has a ton to offer in terms of good, and sometimes really pretty phenomenal, fare. However, Kislings is known for their wings and if you go and don’t try them you are missing out. Their sauce is so good they sell it to go, just because you may want to make your own chicken at home (or just dunk your whole face into the delicious spicy, tangy goodness!). These wings might leave you speechless. And if you’re not a wing fan? Try their chicken sandwiches or chicken salads with the wing sauce. You may just plan to go there to watch a game on their televisions behind the bar and become so enamored with this gem that you wind up closing it down at 2 a.m.. I doubt it’s just me….
Mama’s On The Half Shell
Okay, so you came to Baltimore and you want your Baltimore crab cake fix. Where do you go? I’m not going to pretend that I don’t get this question all of the time, being a Baltimore native. I do. And I’ll be perfectly honest: you will be hard pressed to find a “bad” crab cake in Baltimore. Go out of Maryland? And you will find a bazillion bad crab cakes.
But! One of my absolute favorite places to nosh on seafood, particularly some of the very best crab cakes (and soft shell crabs in season) is Mama’s On The Half Shell. This beautiful gem is situated on a corner in Canton Square on O’Donnell Street. With beautiful dark hardwood throughout, appropriately dim lighting, and cozy seating, this is the place to settle in and, really enjoy some of the best seafood you will find in Baltimore. Their menu reaches beyond seafood, for sure, but if you are looking for some tasty oysters (or oyster shooters!), fish, shrimp, or, of course, crab cakes, this is the place. And frankly? The cod cakes (or as we call them “coddies”) are truly to die for, with some mustard and saltines.
Catch them in the warm season, and you might be able to snag a seat outside to get in some seriously good people watching of the other carousers in the area enjoying the food and drinks around the Canton Square. If you’re visiting on a weekend, and don’t dig waiting for a table or sitting at the bar, definitely make a reservation. It’s a locals joint. But there are a lot of locals who love this joint!
P.S.: Don’t miss out on their mac and cheese, if you’re a fan like I am. It’s pretty much to die for.
Fork And Wrench
This list of restaurants has fairly well made its way to some of the most casual to some of the higher end establishments, concluding with this, the Fork and Wrench. Now, don’t get me wrong – jeans are welcome nearly everywhere here. When I talk about casual versus high end, I merely allude to ambiance.
And ambiance, Fork and Wrench has in spades. Fork and Wrench is intended to be very industrial in its interior decoration, hailing to the time that Baltimore’s population was largely working class steel workers and those with similar hard, industrial jobs. You might think that might mean a cold feeling, considering the industrial nature. And yet, Fork and Wrench is one of the most comfortable yet higher end establishments in Baltimore.
With a chef (locally very well regarded Chef Cyrus Keefer!) that’s headed this year to cook for Charm City’s day at the Chesapeake Bounty Dinner for the James Beard Foundation in February, Fork and Wrench has much to boast. Their menu is innovative, their ambiance is unmatchable, and their staff is beyond incredible.
With a rotating menu, Fork and Wrench routinely employs the concept of local and sustainable food usage while delivering creative dishes to diners.
However, just as amazing as the chef and kitchen staff are, the bar staff is incredible. With constant new infusions, an incredible cocktail list, and a level of creativity beyond what I have experienced at probably any bar in Baltimore, this staff deserves an award just for the bar alone. Even with tons of listed drinks on the menu, every bartender is routinely ready and excited to craft a new beverage based on your tastes and preferences.
The bottom line is? There are a million places to try in Baltimore, and I encourage you to seek out and enjoy each and every one that looks appealing to you! This is a short list of those restaurants in which you might get a good feel for what Baltimore’s people, food, and drinks are all about! Welcome to Charm City!
A native to Charm City, Jennifer Waldera is a local writer and editor, culinary tour guide and educator. When she’s not exploring her passion for food and travel, or all things literary, she can often be found enjoying a glass of wine and the company of her equally energetic and curious American Bulldog. Read more on her own blog Jenventures in Baltimore.
Thanks for checking out our post about the best locals bars and restaurants in Baltimore. While you are here, be sure to check out our Ramblin’ Baltimore Travel Guide and Trip Planner.