If you’re like me, you tend to get to the station more than a couple of hours before your train leaves. I don’t know why I do it; perhaps I have a latent fear of being left behind. I usually have at least one book with me, but sometimes I need to do something besides sit around and tap my foot. Luckily, this really only happens to me when I’m in New York, and there’s plenty to do in and around Penn Station, including a new food court concept in what used to be the Borders bookstore at street level. In Baltimore’s Pennsylvania Station, however, there’s not much more than a Dunkin Donuts and some seriously uncomfortable wooden benches. Rather than go stir-crazy, walk up Charles Street another block, past the parking lots, and you’ll find a few interesting eateries, bars, and even a movie theater in which to while away the hours.
The first place you’ll see is Pen & Quill, on the corner of Charles and E. Lanvale. Formerly the site of the historic Chesapeake Restaurant, Pen & Quill offers inventive New American cuisine and craft beers, cocktails, and wines to wash it all down. I was there very recently and had several really fine bites, including a smoked beet reuben sandwich that I couldn’t stop eating (but I had to, because I was sharing with someone else). More on this joint in an upcoming post.
A few steps up the street is the critically-acclaimed Colette, serving modern French food.The seasonal menu is short but sweet and changes regularly. One mainstay is the Gruyere beignets, which pretty much everyone in town lists as a favorite appetizer. The drink menu features carefully-crafted classic cocktails like the Pink Lady, which dates back to 1914, plus, of course, modern bevvies and wine. The weekend brings brunch, with an even shorter menu than dinner. But sometimes even six tempting choices can make decisions very difficult.
Next door to Colette is the popular Tapas Teatro, owned by the same folks that own Pen & Quill. Tapas Teatro opened in 2001 and they haven’t had a slow day since. They’re located in the same building as the Charles Theatre, which makes it a great place to stop in before or after taking in a film. Rather than the trendy steamed buns and shrimp and grits you’ll find a few doors down, Tapas Teatro specializes in fairly traditional tapas, those tasty small plates that originated in Spain as an accompaniment to wine. Try the tortilla Espanola, Spain’s answer to frittata, or a plate of lamb meatballs (albondigas) with tomato sauce.
Speaking of the Charles Theatre, I remember when it was a single large theatre with the traditional overhanging outdoor marquee. Now it boasts five screens, but the original 485-seat auditorium remains intact. The Romanesque Revival building that houses the theatre has been the very definition of multi-use facility in the years since it was built in 1892. It once served as a barn for cable cars, later streetcars and buses as transportation technology changed. It also held–not necessarily at the same time–a library for the blind, an automobile showroom, a bowling alley, and the Famous Ballroom. The Ballroom itself once hosted such luminaries as jazz musicians Charles Mingus, John Coltrane, Chet Baker, and Dizzy Gillespie before closing in the 90s, a few years before the theatre expansion.
If you’re in the area before 5pm, dining options are quite a bit more limited than they are after that time. On the north side of the Charles Theatre is Sofi’s Crepes, a small storefront offering both savory and sweet treats starting at 11:30am. My favorites are the BATS (bacon, avocado, tomato, sour cream) and the Kevin Bacon (turkey, bacon, cheese, tomatoes, 1000 Island), which is Kevin Bacon approved. An aside: the actor starred in Baltimore-made movies “Diner,” and “He Said, She Said.” When he was in town filming the latter, he and his wife Kyra Sedgwick purchased books at the store in which I worked at the time. Handling his credit card should put me firmly in the one degree category in the game called “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.”
Across the street on the northwest corner is the Lost City Diner. This small restaurant has a fun retro sci-fi/comic book vibe and diner-style food choices like meatloaf, chicken-fried steak, chicken parm, and hot roasted turkey sandwiches. They also very vegan-friendly, with menu options that include a fried or grilled “chicken” sandwich, vegan chili, and a breakfast special featuring egg-free buckwheat pancakes and meatless sausage patties.
Finally, between the parking garage and the Diner are the Club Charles and the Depot. The Club Charles is a cocktail lounge with a fab Art Deco feel. It’s perhaps best known as director John Waters’ hangout when he’s in Baltimore, but the bi-level bar is otherwise filled with artists, hipsters, and regular folk. Club Chuck is also rumored to be haunted by a ghost named “Frenchie,” a double agent during WWII who worked as a waiter and lived in an apartment upstairs. The Depot is a dance club/live music venue that has been around since I was young enough to go clubbing on a regular basis (ages ago!). Don’t miss the 80s dance party on Fridays, but also don’t get so into the nostalgia that you end up missing your train.
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.