A legendary film icon reveals his favorite Baltimore establishments.
If anyone has a corner on Baltimore’s quirky—even weird—persona, it’s John Waters, the cult-icon film director, writer, actor, and artist born there in 1946. “We got edge, oh yeah, we got edge,” Waters says of the city. If you’ve seen his films—Pink Flamingos (1972), Hairspray (1988), Serial Mom (1994), all of which take place in Baltimore—you’d agree. He totally embraces the city as his lifelong home, and he’s often out and about, enjoying its restaurants, bookstores, theaters, and bars—no doubt gleaning ideas for his next creative venture. Though sometimes he’s simply in the mood to enjoy a local crab cake with friends or listen to a new musician in a dive bar. We sat down with Waters to learn his favorite Baltimore places, many of which aren’t as outside-the-box as his movies might have you expecting.
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Waters receives his fan mail at this indie bookstore in the Hampden neighborhood. “It’s my home away from home,” he says. The small shop focuses on small press, graphic novels, and underground magazines—including all of Water’s works, which are autographed. “All bookstores are communities, and this is my type of community,” Waters declares. “It’s bohemians, it’s punks, it’s radicals, it’s feminists, and it’s got a bar! How many bookshops have a bar these days? For me, it’s like a clubhouse.”
This five-block trendy strip along 36th Avenue in the Hampden neighborhood is the epitome of Waters’ Baltimore. Many scenes from Pecker and Hairspray were filmed in the area, and Waters spends a lot of time here. “The Avenue can just go to show how things can change,” he says. “When I was growing up, The Avenue was scary and racist. Now it’s all hipsters all the time, and I’m all for it. The only thing that’s sad is all the scary monster bars that I wrote about in Role Models are almost completely gone. But it’s still the coolest neighborhood, definitely.”
The Divine Mural
Waters met Baltimore native Harris Glenn Milstead (aka Divine) in the ‘60s and dubbed him the “most beautiful woman in the world, almost.” An actor, singer, and outrageous drag queen persona, Divine went on to star in many Waters films, including Pink Flamingos, Polyester, and Hairspray. He passed away in 1988, but you can see him in full form in the Midtown-Belvedere neighborhood, where a three-story mural by acclaimed international street artist Gaia bedecks a row house at 106 E. Preston Street. “Jesse and Tom, who own it, had to fight because the neighbors sued and stuff, but it was an easy victory,” Waters says. “It’s Divine looking over the neighborhood. What’s so surprising about that?” It’s also close to where the most notorious scene (you know the one) in Pink Flamingos takes place.
This rowhouse restaurant in Fell’s Point serves up inspiring farm-to-market fare. “It’s my favorite restaurant in Baltimore,” Waters proclaims. “I celebrated my 40th birthday here.” Though, back then, it was a biker bar named Motorcycle Pete’s, owned by Waters’ friend, Peter Allen Denzer, who appeared in Desperate Living. Waters says the establishment has retained the biker aesthetic as part of a tribute to its history. “It’s small, it’s unpretentious, and it has really good food. I’d say it’s number one for me.”
Faidley’s Seafood at Lexington Market
Located inside historic Lexington Market in downtown Baltimore, Faidley’s, a family-owned institution since 1886, is famous for its jumbo crab cakes—though Waters has a different take. “They have the best raw bar there,” he says. “And the largest oysters, Chesapeake oysters, that even horrify those who eat other kinds of oysters because they’re so big. If you have a fear of oysters, this would make you have a heart attack.” He adds that presidential politicians used to go to the market, to shake hands. “These days, I’m not sure they would go there. It’s really local color, never been more colorful.”
American Visionary Art Museum
At this outsider art museum (where Waters is on the National Advisory Board) near the Inner Harbor, you won’t find the big glossy names of the art world. Founded in 1989 by Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, who was blown away by the artwork being created at Sinai Hospital’s psychiatry department (where she worked), the museum showcases the works of self-taught visionary artists, such as prison inmates, farmers, and patients who were receiving help for mental illness. “We’re the only city in America that has an outsider art museum,” Waters says. “It has amazing shows—especially if you like artists that some people think are crazy, even though we all know most all artists are crazy.”
For Divine fans, there’s a giant statue of the icon. Plus, according to Waters, “it has the best museum gift shop you’ve ever been to in your life.”
Roland Park is an upscale neighborhood full of old money, and Johnny’s, with its brick-and-stone walls, olive-green banquettes, and whiskey bar totally fits the part. “It was the place debutantes would go for ice creams in the ‘50s and ‘60s,” Waters says. “Today, it’s large, the drinks are good, and you see politicians there, but at the same time, it’s very comfortable.”
Rolling Stone declared Baltimore’s music scene No. 1 in the country in 2008, and with its plethora of raw talent and don’t-care attitude, the city continues to be a fertile ground of musical creativity. And the place to take it all in, according to Waters, is The Crown, a small lounge in the Station North neighborhood. Baltimore is home to Dan Deacon, Beach House, and Future Islands and they’ve all played here. Says Waters: “If you want new, young music in Baltimore, go there. It definitely has edge, but at the same time, it’s very welcoming. It’s the coolest music.”
The Parkway and Senator Theatres
Occupying an old movie palace in the Station North Arts and Entertainment District, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Parkway, aka The Parkway, is the city’s most independent movie theater and host to the Maryland Film Festival. “It even has a balcony you can make out in,” Waters says. And then there’s the Senator. Anyone familiar with Waters’ film Cecil B. Demented (2000) will recognize this art deco theater from 1939, near Belvedere Square Market. This is also where the director holds most of his film premieres—including the original Hairspray in 1988. “The Senator is our Radio City Music Hall,” Waters points out. “It’s a revived movie palace that also shows independent and commercial movies.”
“The Club Charles is still my favorite bar,” Waters declares of the 70-year-old landmark. Steeped in art deco style, the dark, red-hued bar in the Station North neighborhood is beloved for its jukebox, cheap drinks, and movies playing in the background. “It’s been there forever,” he says. “You want to meet the coolest people in town, just go there. It never disappoints. There’s always the next generation there. It’s like my home.”