Dining Around the Inner Harbor – Baltimore Maryland

Back when I was a little girl, there wasn’t much to see at the Inner Harbor except boats. This includes the Civil War-era sailing warship U.S.S. Constellation, docked at Pier 1 since 1963, and a submarine, the U.S.S. Torsk–the last ship to sink an enemy vessel in WWII–here since 1972. And lots of working tugboats, which somehow thrilled this little girl far more than the two historic vessels did. Seasonings giant McCormick was headquartered on Light Street at that time, perfuming the air around the Inner Harbor with the aroma of peppercorns, cinnamon, and whatever other spices were being bottled at the time. Yay if it was nutmeg, boo if it was onion powder.
interior Baltimore Inner Harbor
Baltimore’s World Trade Center opened in 1977. It’s built so close to the water, it appears from some angles to be rising from it. It’s only 405 feet high, but our World Trade Center is the tallest regular pentagonal building in the world. When it was built, it was also the third-tallest structure in Baltimore after the 20s-era Baltimore Trust Building, now known as 10 Light Street, and the USF&G Building, now the Transamerica Tower, also located in the Inner Harbor area. (Here’s some trivia for you: the 40-story Transamerica Tower stands at 529 feet, and is not only the tallest building in Maryland, but also the tallest building between Philadelphia and Raleigh.) The Maryland Science Center opened on the southern end of the Inner Harbor in 1976, a year that also brought the Tall Ships to Baltimore for the Bicentennial celebration. Soon afterward the Baltimore Convention Center, National Aquarium, and the dual pavilions of Harborplace–essentially a shopping mall with an oversized food court–sprung up, enticing visitors from all over the globe to visit the area.
Eventually the boom went bust. While the Aquarium and Science Center have both expanded over the years, Harborplace is a sad shadow of its former self. Gone are the locally-run restaurants like Taverna Athena, Bamboo House, and Phillips; they’ve been replaced by national chains like the Cheesecake Factory and Hooters. That’s pretty much true of the entire Inner Harbor area–there are plenty of chain restaurants and not a whole lot of hometown favorites. There are exceptions, of course, and we’re going to touch on them here.
President Street is the easternmost boundary of the Inner Harbor, so technically restaurants like Roy’s, Fleming’s, Wit & Wisdom, and Apropoe’s–all west of President Street–belong as much in this post as in one on Harbor East. Popularly, however, they are part of Harbor East so we’ll just move on to the geographically closest locally-owned restaurant and go from there.
Miss Shirley’s Cafe, at the corner of Pratt and W. Falls Avenue is Baltimore’s favorite spot for brunch–all week long. From 7:00 am to 3:00 pm Monday through Friday and a half hour later on the weekends, visitors can enjoy breakfast foods like buttermilk pancakes and 3-egg omelets, more lunch-y items like a lemon dill shrimp salad sandwich, or pulled pork and coleslaw with fried pickles on a kaiser roll, and a whole slew of items that fit squarely in the category of breakfast for lunch. Or lunch for breakfast. Brunch. Take the shrimp “gritters” for example, panko-crusted grit fritters filled with blackened shrimp, pimento cheese, and diced bacon, dusted with Cajun spice, and served with a spicy mayo flavored with locally produced Huckle’s Late Harvest Jalapeno hot sauce. Try a side of scrapple, applewood-smoked bacon, or heck, a quinoa salad, and wash it all down with cocktails or coffee or both, or maybe a glass of orange juice. If you’re gluten sensitive, Miss Shirley’s offers gluten free bread and pancakes. They can also accommodate the vision-impaired with a braille version of the menu.
Past Miss Shirley’s, most of the restaurants on the north side of Pratt Street are chains. Take, for example, the restaurants in the building at Pratt and Market Place: Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse; P.F. Chang’s; Blaze Pizza; Panera Bread. The adjacent building at 500 E. Pratt boasts a Corner Bakery Cafe but also a Capital Grille, which despite being part of a chain, manages to make various “Best of Baltimore” lists due to the superb quality of its steaks. I hear cocktails are pretty good there, too. There are more chains across the street on Pier 4, including a Chipotle and a Potbelly Sandwich Shop, but also a Hard Rock Cafe and a Dick’s Last Resort. If you make it past these places to the end of the pier, you’ll be rewarded with the National Aquarium’s Marine Mammal Pavilion, connected by pedestrian bridge to the rest of the Aquarium on Pier 3.
Pier 4 is also home to the new, grander, location of the famous Phillips Seafood. In 2011, it was the last of Harborplace’s original restaurant tenants. The company’s three eateries, which included an Express and a Seafood Buffet in addition to the main restaurant, once occupied about 20,000 sf in the Light Street Pavilion. At the height of its popularity, Phillips was serving thousands of people per day. Eventually, Harborplace became less of a spot for destination dining and shopping, and the businesses that were instrumental to its success closed or moved out. After 30 years, Phillips called it quits, too, moving out of the once popular glass pavilions to new digs in the massive former power plant a few blocks away. The Power Plant has had its tenant woes over the years as well; after surviving the devastating Baltimore Fire of 1904, it provided power to the Baltimore streetcar system, then served as a steam plant for the local gas and electric company until its retirement in 1973. For a short while in the 80s it was home to an unsuccessful indoor Six Flags Amusement Park before becoming a unsuccessful night club (that I happened to like). Now it houses the restaurants mentioned in the previous paragraph as well as a huge Barnes & Noble bookstore. The original ESPN Zone was also a tenant at one time, but that space now belongs to Phillips, which claims it loud and proud with its bright red 17’ sign.
Seafood Platter Baltimore Inner Harbor
The restaurant still sells tons of its famous crab cakes and crab imperial, seafood platters, and oysters on the half shell, but they’ve kept up with the times and added items like truffled deviled eggs, shaved brussels sprouts with pancetta and bleu cheese, ahi tuna tartare, and ceviche to the menu. They also sell Maryland blue catfish, an invasive species that has infested our waterways in recent years. These predators can grow to over 100 pounds and live for 20 years, all the while eating sea life we’re busy trying to protect, like American shad and white herring. They are even known to eat mature blue crabs, a creature near and dear to just about every Marylander’s heart. So thanks to Phillips for joining in the battle against blue catfish by serving them up blackened with shrimp and a seafood cream sauce!
This new Phillips location also has an al fresco Crab Deck where folks can enjoy messier foods like steamed blue crabs and buckets of clams, shrimp, lobster, and crab legs.. There are entrees and sandwiches, too, but a much smaller selection than in the main restaurant.
Finally, if you’re in the mood for something sweet, The Best of Luck is a sweet shop next door to Phillips. They carry bulk candy by the pound, and also local sweet treats like Popsations popcorn (try the Crabby Caramel), Mouth Party Caramels, and Taharka Brothers ice cream (Honey Graham is my fave).
There’s more of the Inner Harbor to cover, with several more restaurants (yes, still mostly chains), but we’ll get to them next time around.

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.

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