Now that we’re done exploring the Inner Harbor area, we can venture slightly further south to an adjacent neighborhood: Federal Hill. Largely residential, Federal Hill is also home to many fine restaurants and drinking establishments, as well as the giant grassy promontory that is the neighborhood’s namesake.
Federal Hill is currently used as a community park, but it has a rich history. It is said that Captain John Smith, when sailing up the Patapsco River on a tour of the Chesapeake Bay, declared the site a “great bank of red clay flanking a natural harbor basin.” Not sure how he knew it was clay, as it was likely covered with grass at the time he floated past, but considering that much of the ground here in the Baltimore area is indeed red clay, he wasn’t wrong. Early settlers called the area “John Smith’s Hill” in his honor. The current name is said to date back to 1788. Legend goes that a 15-foot model of a sailing ship with 7 sails to commemorate Maryland’s position as the 7th state to ratify the US Constitution was paraded through town on its way to a perch upon John Smith’s Hill. Though this Constitution thing might not seem like a big deal to people today, this was the occasion for a real shindig of a party and townsfolk got pretty shitfaced on free grog. Things got out of control when a few sailors decided to take the Federalist out onto the harbor and sail it down the Potomac. Dude! The name of the hill was changed to Federal Hill in tribute to the madness. This may also have been the start of the weekends of drunken revelry that routinely occur in the neighborhood. As mentioned above, Federal Hill is largely residential. Please, if you’re going to imbibe in one or more of the neighborhood’s watering holes, please be responsible about it. It’s not nice to wake up to find vomit in your potted plant or even worse on your front steps.
Later, during the War of 1812, the British land attack on Baltimore was thwarted by 10,000 Americans who blocked their path near Federal Hill. Still later, during the Civil War, the mound was dubbed Fort Federal Hill and sported a series of cannons aimed at downtown Baltimore–just in case the city wasn’t as loyal to the Union as it claimed to be. There are still replica cannons atop the hill, though the “fort” part of the name was dropped a long time ago. See, and you just thought it was a great bank of red clay!
Enough history. We’ll start our eating tour on Light Street a few blocks south of Key Highway. Berries by Quicha isn’t a restaurant, but if you’re a fan of chocolate covered strawberries, you’ll want to stop in and pick up a couple of fat red berries coated in toppings like milk chocolate and bacon or dark chocolate and marshmallow. And if you’re in the mood for a bagel, stroll across the street to Sam’s Bagels to grab one or a half dozen.
The next two blocks offer two Thai, one Mexican, one Lebanese, one Indian/Nepalese, and one Italian restaurant, also pizza and grilled cheese. And Regi’s. This landmark bistro has been around since 1978, but the menu is as hip as if it opened today. One can find avocado toast, a breakfast bowl, and tacos with scrambled eggs and carnitas at Saturday/Sunday brunch, and Korean tacos and poke on the dinner menu. There are also crisp, panko-coated, Buffalo oysters with a sprightly hot sauce and blue cheese slaw, and “THE” AJ’s tater tots. AJ is Orioles centerfielder Adam Jones, who apparently has a thing for crispy cylinders of potato. At Regi’s, they’re served with brie, applewood smoked bacon, and Parmesan. Regi’s also has a ton of sandwich offerings, like crab cakes and jumbo shrimp salad and Carolina pulled pork bbq, and a handful of larger meals like the Eastern Shore Pasta and a “big ass” pork chop. WIth such a varied menu, and a dog-friendly patio, it’s kinda hard to go wrong at Regi’s.
Unless of course you’re craving green papaya salad. In that case, go to Thai Arroy, where the som tum is delicious and not too incendiary. Thai Arroy has a pretty large menu of Thai favorites, all the various yummy curries from red to green to Mussaman-style, and various stir fry-type dishes. There’s another Thai restaurant across the street–Thai Yum–that also serves many favorite dishes, but also fancier stuff like a medium-rare duck breast with peanut sauce and pineapple rice, and a melange of seafood baked in a clay pot. I can’t recommend one over the other, as I’ve only been to Thai Arroy, but there are plenty of comments about both to be found on teh Innernets.
Also on the same side of the street as Thai Yum is Maria D’s, if you’re in the mood for subs, pizza, or it happens to be 1:30 AMand you’re sloshed and starving. If you’re sober and in the mood for lasagna, head 2 doors down to Brendali. Brendali offers traditional Italian pastas, chicken, and veal dishes, plus subs and pizza in a casual setting.
In the next block, Himalayan Bistro serves familiar Indian dishes like Tandoori chicken, curries, and vegetarian items, plus the plump Nepalese dumplings called momo. And, oddly, chow mein, waffle fries, chicken wings, and coconut shrimp. Best of all, they have a buffet of deliciousness at various times during the week.
Craving hummus, felafel, grape leaves, and tabbouleh? Look no further than across the street to Byblos Lebanese Cuisine, 2013 winner of Baltimore’s Best Middle Eastern Food from Baltimore Magazine (the same year Minxeats won best food blog). You can get all of the above, plus more, including the addictive Mouhamara, a spicy dip made from walnuts, red peppers, and bulghur wheat. The combination plates are the way to go, as they include pita, hummus, and salad along with your choice of shawarma, kibbeh, kababs, even salmon, for $15 or less. There are several vegan options available, and don’t miss the desserts.
Then there’s Blue Agave, a Mexican restaurant that serves more than just the usual street food tacos and burritos, fajitas and enchiladas, though they offer all of those as well. There’s a weekend brunch with tres leches pancakes, and a dish called huevos puebla that’s like an entire breakfast buffet on toast: refried beans, skirt steak, ham, eggs, and a cheese sauce, with potatoes on the side. Add bottomless blackberry sangria and Sunday afternoon is probably best spent in a lounge chair somewhere taking a nap.
You’ll never guess the specialty of the restaurant called Grilled Cheese & Co. That’s absolutely right – cream of tomato basil soup. It’s a perfect accompaniment to the selection of grilled cheese sandwiches they also sell. I like the Fresco, with fresh mozz and provolone, a hint of pesto and roasted red peppers, and a wee bit of balsamic glaze, to cut the richness. There are also versions with bbq chicken and pepper jack, blue cheese and roast beef with horseradish sauce, and even a smashed meatball with provolone and marinara. You can also get a salad, but only if you promise to order a big fattening sandwich, too.
Next time: there’s plenty of restaurants in Federal Hill, so this might take a few weeks to get through. Feel free to skip ahead if you want. You honestly can’t walk more than a few dozen feet without finding someplace else to eat.
Minxeats Baltimore food blogger and Co-author of the new book, Maryland’s Chesapeake: How the Bay and its Bounty Shaped a Cuisine, plus Food Lovers’ Guide to Baltimore, and Baltimore Chef’s Table.
Editors Note: One thing we like to do when launching in a city is to partner with local writers. This is a key part to the City Walker experience, we don’t only want our app (iOS and Android) to have a local prospective, we want our blog to have it too! This gives the authentic personal prospective that no one other than a local can offer. We are honored to have MINXEATS be a guest writer for City Walker in Baltimore.