|Clockwise from top right: Dixon at The Charmery; gorgeous steak tartare and radishes at La Cuchara; racy vintage ads in the Waverly Brewing ladies' room; behind the bar at Waverly.|
This time of year, Baltimore - and Hampden in particular - finds itself on tons of "best of" lists promoting the country's brightest, most festive displays of holiday cheer. Those accolades are well-deserved, of course. Christmas on 34th Street is special.
But the neighborhood's charms extend beyond the block. We spend a lot of time in Hampden - it's the best food neighborhood in the city - and this past month has been no exception.
La CucharaIn mid-November, we had a fabulous dinner at La Cuchara for Mike's birthday. Cooper and I went to the restaurant back in June, for our anniversary, and liked it a lot. This time was even better. The space, first of all, is breathtaking - rustic, but grand. We were in the main room, where the bar - and much of the action - is, but tucked in a corner, so it we had some privacy, too. It was a good spot.
I started with a False Idol cocktail, which deserves all the love it gets in the local press. With our meal, we put away a few bottles of Gorrondona Txakolina, a Basque wine that I won't even pretend to know how to pronounce, but we loved it.
Our small group - the two of us, Alicia, Mike and Bill - was struggling to figure out what to eat, so the waiter offered to make some small plates selections for us. With a group, that is absolutely the way to go. We were surprised by how much we loved simple dishes, like mushrooms and broccoli, and were similarly impressed with pretty much everything else, from lamb to steak to a vegetarian spaghetti squash dish.
The menu changes daily, so it's tough to recommend one dish or another. But overall, it was a special meal and we walked away thrilled. (We walked away...and into an Uber that delivered us to Ryan's Daughter, but that's another story.)
The Food Market and The CharmeryWhen people from out of town ask me where to go for a solidly Baltimore experience, I usually send them to Fells Point and Thames Street Oyster House. But if they're interested in getting away from the harbor, I tell them to go to Hampden, and to The Food Market.
Almost five years after its opening, Food Market still gets it done, and done right, every single time. Dixon and Cooper and I dropped in a couple weeks ago, on a random Thursday night, and sat at the communal table. From the fried Buffalo pickles, which I think we've ordered every time we've been, to my scallops to Dixon's lobster mac, everything was cooked just right. (It's Dixon's new favorite mac and cheese...unsurprisingly. I mean, of course it is.)
I'm consistently impressed with the service, too. We've never had so much as a hiccup there, and we've been a lot. To get it right, every time - that's serious.
After dinner, we took a quick roll through 34th Street and, on a whim, stopped at The Charmery. It surprises me, sometimes, just how much joy that ice cream shop adds to my life. I'm an adult! But between the flavors and the art and the generally cheery atmosphere, I just love it there. Even in the winter. (Actually, maybe more in the winter, when the lines aren't out the door.)
Waverly BrewingEarlier this week, we had plans to go to the Smoking Swine pop-up event at Sugarvale. I was pumped, as I have heard nothing but incredible things about the food truck's pork and I am disappointed in myself for never having eaten any. Also, Sugarvale is awesome.
Unfortunately, we arrived at 7:05, which was exactly the wrong time to get there. Sugarvale, in addition to being awesome, is also tiny - and it was packed. (Not a surprise.) We couldn't find seats, so we left - missing out on what I hear was a really great meal with a lot of fun people.
Instead, we dropped into Waverly Brewing, which opened in early November, on the Clipper Mill side of Hampden (right around the corner from La Cuchara). They don't have a kitchen, but bring in different food trucks and catering companies to serve food from their cute outdoor patio - the night we were there, Clementine was serving a bunch of stick-to-your-ribs-y foods that go great with beer - stuff like shepherds pie and saucy chicken-topped tater tots.
So the food, of course, was great. We loved the beer, too, including a couple Turnbuckles for Cooper and the Hi, Hon Red and No Kings Pale Ale for me. (Also nice: the beer list includes a couple options that aren't, like, 8% ABV, so you can actually sit down and have a few drinks without falling off your stool.)
So - good food, good beers. But the best part of Waverly might be the atmosphere. We walked in and were immediately like, "Yes. This place. It's good."
Outside, there's cornhole and heavy wood picnic tables. Inside, it's spacious enough for a crowd, but not cavernous. There's a big bar with tons of stools in the main room and a second room with smaller seating areas built around sofas. The walls are hung with old photos and taxidermy and flags and other cool stuff - there's a lot to check out. It just looks cool.
And the people are great. Friendly and prompt and all those things good bartenders need to be. (It doesn't hurt that Charlie, baseball writer extraordinaire - read about his book here and buy it here - and one of everybody's favorites from the old Grand Cru days, is there behind the bar. Cooper and I were both so happy to see him.)
I'm gushing, I know. But it's really nice to walk into a place and feel immediately comfortable. That's how I felt at Waverly.
Really, that's what I love about all of Hampden. Everywhere you go, people are always happy to see you. It's an amazing food and shopping neighborhood - and the people who live and work there love that about it.
It's filled with joy. On 34th Street at Christmas...and on every street, all year round.