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Baltimore Travel Guide

As a Parisian, My Favorite U.S. City Might Surprise You

Something exciting is happening in Charm City.

The last time I flew from Paris to Baltimore, I was having a casual conversation with two American women inside the boarding bridge when one of them asked where I was headed. I told her Patterson Park. “Yikes,” she responded.

It’s a reaction that is not entirely unusual. I’m used to some version of “Yikes” from anyone whose familiarity with Baltimore stems from HBO’s The Wire, or worse–the insights of those who long ago left the city for its suburbs. Although David Simon’s show about rampant corruption within law enforcement and the city’s struggles with drug-related crime went off the air more than 15 years ago, this perception of Baltimore is holding steady.

“I think a lot of it is people reacting to a stereotype,” says Josh Vecchiolla, founder of Fuzzies, a smash burger concept that has become a Baltimore success story since its launch in 2020. “They don’t really know what the city has to offer.”

Having spent a large portion of the past three years in Baltimore, I knew a strong adverse reaction was not feedback on the current state of a lush park in the center of town, continually filled with squirrels, dog walkers, and softball games that go long into the summer nights. It was also not a judgment on B’More Licks, the artisan ice cream shop with lines that reach around the block, thriving restaurants Marta, Little Donna’s, and La Barrita, or The Hall of Self, a new yoga studio set inside a repurposed church.

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But, admittedly, it also took me a minute to find the charm in Charm City.

Then, I was introduced to Clavel. Carlos Raba and Lane Harlan opened the mezcaleria and taqueria in Remington in 2015. At the time, the two shared four nieces, if not a ton of business experience. Today, their restaurant has received four James Beard nominations—three for outstanding bar and one for Raba as best mid-Atlantic chef.

 

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Harlan, who started her career as a restaurateur with nearby speakeasy W.C. Harlan, now owns three establishments on 23rd Street. A decade ago, during a somewhat grittier time in Baltimore’s history, she bought her first property from a loan shark and the building that is now Clavel through an ad on Craigslist. “This doesn’t happen anymore in this day and age,” admits Harlan. “It’s just a different climate. And, also, the neighborhood wasn’t what it is now. It was never inconceivable that it would become a hotspot, but now it’s more of a destination for people to go out at night to eat and drink.”

There isn’t a night of the week that Clavel isn’t packed to the brim. It is also where you will find the city’s new generation of entrepreneurs, especially ones in the hospitality industry.

As a fellow restaurateur, Vecchiolla considers Harlan an inspiration for her ability to create experiential spaces. “When you go to Clavel, you don’t feel like you’re in Baltimore. You feel like you just got transported somewhere else,” he says. With Fuzzies, Vecchiolla’s goal is similar.

“We want to create this fun, nostalgic experience where we’re putting on a show,” he says. “It’s an open kitchen concept where we want to be facing people, smashing burgers while playing music that reminds them of the eighties and nineties.”

To me, Fuzzies is not just a drippy, mouth-watering smash burger. Their whereabouts are the most efficient way to figure out what’s going on in the city, whether it’s a new beer launch, an Orioles home game, or a street festival. Currently, Fuzzies is semi-permanently stationed at Peabody Heights Brewery and in Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Their remaining truck, Stumpy, travels from one event to another, taking its cult following with it wherever it goes.

“At some of these festivals, our line will go from one end of the parking lot all the way to the other for six hours straight, and people will wait for 90 minutes,” says Vecchiolla. “It just blows my mind.”

It’s that communal enthusiasm that Jasmine Norton capitalized on when she first launched The Urban Oyster.

“We were mobile for two years,” says the founder of the first female, Black-owned oyster bar in the United States. “I already had a pulse on what festivals we should be a part of, what farmer’s markets we should be participating in because I was a consumer of those spaces and places. I could see how popular and how robust in patrons these different experiences were.”


While Norton now runs a brick-and-mortar restaurant on “The Avenue” in Hampden, you will still find The Urban Oyster each Sunday under the Jones Fall Expressway at the Baltimore Farmers Market, the largest farmers market in Maryland. Despite, or perhaps because of, its unusual location, this is the place where local Baltimoreans gather for food and friendly catchups.

“It is almost like a festival,” describes Norton. “You have prepared food and produce. You can literally get anything you need from the farmers market. And it is just an energy and experience. That is, to me, where we planted our roots and got our biggest following. I feel like if you want to be known in Baltimore, that is where you go.”

If one thing stands out about creative endeavors in Baltimore, it’s the opportunities available to talent wanting to try their own thing.

“Starting something new in a city that’s already widely established as a food hub like New York, Chicago, L.A., Miami, it is very easy to get lost,” says Vecchiolla. “There’s a lot of room to grow in Maryland.”

There is also an enthusiastic support system within a young, creative community that allows businesses to thrive.

“Because we’re always the underdog, people are excited to support each other and collaborate,” says Harlan. “There’s not a feeling of competition but more of collaboration. We want to hold each other up high because we’re very proud of our city.”

The mix of creativity and accessibility also extends to the arts. For the consumer, there is spectacular audio-visual art at reasonable price points, like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra with its Fusion concert series, often mixing hip-hop and classical music, or the works of emerging playwrights at Center Stage.

Center Stage is stunning right now, doing some of the most inventive and cutting-edge theatre,” says Kira Wisniewski, executive director of Art+Feminism in Baltimore. “There are so many progressive and exciting new plays that debut at Center Stage and then go to Broadway.”   


For the even lower price point of zero dollars, the city’s Waterfront Partnership organizes events throughout the year, like a free concert series in the harbor and exercise classes in the city’s green spaces.

“It’s our responsibility to make sure that this territory within the city is clean, green, and safe for the businesses and the communities in which we serve,” says events and business development manager Melody Thomas, whose finger on the pulse of the city benefits the entire community. “We’ve got tons of offerings, and we’re using a producer model to achieve this very authentic expression of our city, where, instead of Waterfront Partnership saying, ‘We’re going to curate these artists,’ we ask producers to bring us their understanding of the arts districts all over Baltimore down to the waterfront, where it’s accessible to locals and visitors.”

To Thomas, Baltimore remains a city of multitudes.

“I think we call it Charm City because we realize that if you’re so lucky, everything can line up, and it can really work out well,” she says. “But you can also be unlucky and get caught in a spot in Baltimore where there’s clear injustice. It’s trying to navigate all those aspects at once.”

Adds Wisniewski, “I don’t think that the challenges of Baltimore are unique to Baltimore. Any urban city is experiencing this, at some level.” But it’s clear to its community that Baltimore is experiencing a renaissance, years in the making. “Joyce J. Scott was a speaker for Creative Mornings recently, and she mentioned that we’ve been on the come-up for a while, but that doesn’t mean we’re stagnant,” says Wisniewski. “We’re almost there.” 

3 Comments
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sheldonking5544 July 1, 2024

The list of places I would go in the States before Baltimore is very long.

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richmadow5269 June 30, 2024

So great to see Baltimore getting some love! Despite the underserved reputation some of the press has given the city, B-more is truly a charm. The music, dining and arts scenes are quriky and first rate. So much history to explore, great ethnic neighborhoods, and friendly people everywhere. And of course going to Camden Yards for an Orioles game is the best experience in MLB.