From time to time, chowhounds ask about dining in Baltimore's Inner Harbor and are, unaccountably, told to get in a cab and drive twenty minutes for decent food. There are literally dozens of restaurants within a few minute walk of any of the harbor's hotels. Contrary to popular belief, not all of them are tourist traps. Because almost any restaurant on the harbor will have nice views, you may prefer to choose based on food. If so, these irksome capsule reviews from a 20-year Baltimore resident who happens to live on the harbor may help. (Disclaimer: I include, in alphabetical order, only the ones that are truly in the Inner Harbor area and that I have visited in recent years. If you have to cross a street to get to it or walk more than ten minutes, it's not listed here.)
California Pizza Kitchen - I don't know. Call me crazy, but I expect a place with "pizza" as its middle name to have REALLY GOOD PIZZA. This place has pretty good pizza.
Cheesecake Factory - Same as every other location. As with most places, your experience will depend upon ordering sensibly. Choose pizza in a fine dining establishment, and you get what you deserve. Likewise, the pheasant under glass at Joe's Diner is not likely to live up to your fond childhood memories of Provence. Cheesecake Factory does some things very well, like the caesar salad (lunch-sized portion, available anytime, serves 3), bistro shrimp, pad thai (really), and madeira chicken. I would not attempt dinner here on any day of the week, unless you don't mind waiting two hours. Lines are typically short for lunch on weekdays.
Chipotle Mexican Grill - Same as every other location, except no liquor license as of this posting. Considering McDonald's owns a large stake, the burritos are quite good. And try the barbacoa -- you'll just have to trust me on this. Priced right if you call the place you live "my room". Take the kids. Please.
Edo Sushi - A sushi "volcano" here was quite good, but otherwise I found this one indistinguishable from every other sushi place in the country. In fairness, I don't know sushi like you know sushi.
Five Guys Famous Burgers and Fries - Good place to take the kids, as prices are reasonable, and you can choose your toppings. Unremarkable in every other way.
M&S Grill - Affiliated with McCormick and Schmick's, so let's not let our expectations get out of hand. Handsome decor, attentive service, mediocre food.
McCormick and Schmick's Seafood - Seafood is the name of the game here. The extensive menu, containing few other options, will delight the seafood lover. Unless, of course, you actually enjoy EATING seafood. Handsome decor; bland, careless food.
Paolo's Ristorante - By far the best choice in the harbor, and among the best in Baltimore. Ironically, Paolo's also happens to be overlooked even by most natives, judging from the ease of getting a table on a Saturday night. Nominally, this place could be considered a chain, with a handful of regional locations. But nothing chain-like about it. For one thing, the service is spotty. For another, the food is outstanding. Try the volcano of sea scallops, served with hearty mashed potatoes and crispy onions -- out of this world. There is also an excellent salmon, and the fillet mignon with (oddly) walnuts and gorgonzola is quite good. Entree prices average high teens.
Phillips Restaurant - For some reason, Phillips is the most popular restaurant among Baltimore's tourists. When I find out what that reason is, I will let you know.
Pizzeria Uno - Same as every other location. Mediocre food but kid-friendly. Best views for the money.
Purple Orchid - Once a very nice and innovative place combining Japanese ingredients with French preparations, the Orchid has become a mediocre Chinese restaurant. To add insult to injury: although the quality has declined, the prices have increased.
Vaccaro's Italian Pastry - You actually do have to walk fifteen minutes and cross a street to get to their main location, but they have a satellite at Harborplace, so I'll allow it. Also, the cannolis are the best I've had in Baltimore. Try the amaretti (cookies), too, and perhaps even the pistacchio gelato. Many of the restaurants in Little Italy get their desserts here.
A FINAL NOTE: Clearly this list is not exhaustive. I've heard good things about Oceanaire and Charleston but haven't been to either. Neither meets the requirements stated above, and, really, who gives a s**t what I've heard? I'll try the new Spanish tapas place La Tasca and let you know if it is as marvelous as reported in the Baltimore Sun or as appalling as reported in the City Paper. Honestly, it seems like those guys had EXACTLY THE SAME MEAL.
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