By KEITH GOULD
John Waters, the director of Pink Flamingos and Hairspray, was once asked why he lived and worked in Baltimore. 'I need to be around interesting people who aren't so goddamn witty all the time,' he replied.
Well he wasn't talking about Allan Charles, writer, art director, producer, director, unofficial mayor of the city and partner of, as he proudly puts it, the 73rd-largest agency in the country, Trahan, Burdin
& Charles. Robin Sherman, a producer friend, introduced him to me as the local expert. Allan showed me and my Steven Spielberg look-alike eating companion, Joel Goldstein, Bal-tee-more. That's how the locals pronounce it.
We began at Camden Yards, the best baseball stadium anywhere. Allan's box in the first row was so close to the infield it allowed me to play third base along with Cal Ripken.
Our food tour begins at Camden Yards. Where else but Baltimore could you get crab cakes at a baseball stadium? Don't forget Boog Powell's famous BBQ sandwich. And in the all-things-to-all-people category, there was even a Kosher stand. Of course, Baltimore's cuisine is more than just crab houses. Fine dining in this city used to mean, 'Give me a nice big end cut of prime rib and a baked potato. OK, Hon?' Now, you've got a couple of truly innovative chefs in town. The Joy America Cafe is on the top floor of the new Visionary Art Museum on the waterfront. This spectacularly designed restaurant facing the harbor serves serious food presented in a playful manner. It's in keeping with the mood of the artists displayed at the museum.
Chef Peter Zimmer was at the Inn of the Anasazi in Sante Fe, N.M., before he was lured to the Joy America Cafe. The multicultural menu included a flauta stuffed with Japanese grilled salmon and fresh fennel, Thai ancho chili, mint, ginger, fried plantains and pico digalo.
If you do visit Baltimore, consider a stay at The Admiral Fell Inn, a converted vinegar factory filled with antiques in historic Fell's Point. It's better known now as the setting for the hit TV show Homicide. From the hotel, take a water taxi to Camden Yards and Little Italy. Housed downstairs at the Fell Inn is Chef Cindy Wolf's restaurant, Savannah, which offers new Southern food. She offers crab soup with sherry, biscuits, gulf shrimp with andouille sausage served over creamy grits. There's also a superb wine list.
After this, it's vital you have a good breakfast. My theory of weight control is, you eat an enormous amount in the morning and late at night with a light meal in between. The diner made famous in the movie Diner and Tin Men has been moved downtown; now it's aptly called The Hollywood Diner. Cafe Hon in Hampden is like having breakfast with your neighbors in Alice's Restaurant; it's a friendly, kitschy throwback. Hon, I learned, is an important local word. As in hiya, Hon. There's no sensitivity to women's rights here.
But don't let that prevent you from trying a Hon bun, which is called a sticky bun anywhere else. Now for crabs. Everybody has them, but my favorites are Obrycki's on Pratt Street, Gunnings in Brooklyn and the choice of most locals, Bo Brooks in northeast Baltimore. All the restaurants carry their own secret variations of spices that we know as Old Bay seasoning.
For crab eating with atmosphere, take an hour's drive to the town of St. Michael's. We visited Fred Petermann, the director. Since Joel and I are advertising people, accustomed to being treated in a luxurious manner, we were transported in his boat directly to The Crab Claw. We docked next to our outdoor table and feasted on steamed crabs, crab cakes, peel-and-eat shrimp and unbelievable local oysters. Talk to you later, Hon.
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