Winter, Charm City: BlackBook Returns to Baltimore
Above image: Canopy by Hilton Baltimore Harbor Point
New Yorkers love to say things like, “New York is the most European city in America!” But let’s just be straight up here: no European city we know of would have willingly allowed itself to be ruled for two decades by the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg. Ultimately, what they really mean to say is that, okay, NYC is pretty much a Republican city in terms of its economic tendencies, but don’t forget to notice our impressive level of social tolerance, and yes, we have really amazing French and Italian restaurants.
But as we recently traversed the old cobblestones of Baltimore’s historic Fells Point neighborhood, some 190 miles south of Gotham, it wasn’t difficult to summon a bit of the same feeling we get when strolling the streets of Amsterdam or Antwerp – that sense of a dedication to history and a fierce independence that has actively held off the onslaught of chain store soullessness. The wind was whipping off the harbor on that brisk December morning, so we quickly sought lunchtime refuge somewhere that distinctly embodied that ideology.
Kooper’s Tavern, located on a bustling block of picturesque Thames Street, was handsomely done up in low-key Christmas cheer, the alt-rock soundtrack was good enough to warm our jaded hearts, and the cool, welcoming staff just cultivated a genuinely great vibe about the whole place – which was just what was needed after so many warnings that Omicron was threatening to shut down another holiday season. The chill in our bones demanded nothing less than a double-shot bloody mary and a well executed caesar salad – and even on those, they decisively delivered. We were truly happy to be back in Charm City.
We’d just checked into the newish and exceedingly well-designed Canopy by Hilton Baltimore Harbor Point, which despite its obvious corporate affiliation, very much felt like a hotel that was created by someone sensitive to exactly what sort of redevelopment was needed in this methodically growing area (there was a West Elm store nearby, but thankfully no sign of H&M, Starbucks…). To be sure, when entering the lobby there was an immediate sense of the Canopy encouraging chance encounters, with its circular arrangement of plush chairs, classy little billiards area, and a restaurant, the stylish Cindy Lou’s Fish House, which simply flowed from the check-in area, creating a very palpable social energy. It actually felt kind of…European.
We were in Baltimore partly for a good cultural fix – and admittedly the city doesn’t always get the necessary credit it deserves in that regard. But the Walters Museum, our first stop, has come to be a favorite of ours, with a collection covering more than seven millennia, and with the more than 30,000 objects in its possession including ancient busts, vases, etc. from Rome, Greece and Egypt. It also boasts 16th Century Islamic mausoleum doors, as well as T’ang Dynasty earthenware, a 6th Century Buddha, and works from Medieval, Renaissance and baroque Europe.
There was a current exhibition edifyingly titled Recent Acquisitions – and seriously, where else could you find an Inca Empire Koro Libation Cup circa 1600, an Ando Cloisonne Japanese Blossoming Plum Vase from 1900, and Robert Lugo’s provocative 2018 Frederick Douglass Food Stamp Jar, which was ironically designed in the style of a classical vase, all together in one room? It merely confirmed the Walters’ dedication to expanding the scope of its holdings, and its deftness in accomplishing just that.
It says something about the city’s passion for activist art, though, that on our visit the Baltimore Museum of Art was running an exhibition titled Women Behaving Badly (which, alas, closed as of December 19), as the local cultural ideology has regularly tended towards the rebellious. In a second floor hallway we also encountered a sculpture by Oletha Devane which belongs to her Traces of the Spirit series; it was adorned with actual shell casings, paying melancholy tribute to the memory of the victims of local gun violence. Opposite that was Mickalene Thomas‘ thought-provoking A Moment’s Pleasure, for which the boundary-pushing artist re-imagined a space of the museum’s lobby as a kind of surreal “living room” done up in her signature aesthetics.
But our interest in the more radical end of the 20th Century European avant-garde eventually drew us to a very-well curated exhibition titled Color and Illusion: The Still Lifes of Juan Gris. Another great Spanish Cubist whose influence continues to resonate throughout the contemporary art world (see: the recent Figure One series by Mandy El-Sayegh), his 1912 Still Life With Flowers defined a revolutionary new direction in painting, creating a kind of perception-altering energy through abstraction. His masterpiece Still Life With a Bottle of Bordeaux is most definitely worth seeing in person.
A quick taxi ride away, we settled in for a post-museum drink at the r. bar, the frenetic central hub of R. House, the city’s hippest food hall (located in Remington, in close proximity to the now fervently hip Hampden hood). A youthful crowd was gathered around us for some happy hour flirting…but we soon found we ultimately couldn’t resist the scent wafting over from the hall’s many stalls, especially Amano Taco and BRD. We ended up bringing back a chorizo quesadilla and life-changing Bmore BRD chicken sandwich to consume at the hotel.
But before our in-room repast, we took a short walk along the waterfront from the Canopy to commune with the work of another Latin-blooded artist, Colombian Fernando Botero, whose 12-foot-high, 3500-pound horse sculpture lords over the courtyard of the Sagamore Pendry hotel. We decided to take the work as a reminder to rediscover our ability to be both awed and humbled by nature – especially considering what terrible destruction we all have wrought upon her. But we also really needed some chill out time, and the beauty of the skillfully draped Christmas lights in the hotel’s opulent lounge was impossible to resist. So we found ourselves ordering a up Biscotti Old Fashioned cocktail (sounds like it might not be, but it was actually sublimely delicious) and relaxing contentedly on a very plush sofa, in an attempt to absorb some bit of unhurried holiday spirit.
Back at the Canopy, the absolutely sprawling, breathtaking view of the lit up harbor from our room made having dinner in bed an absolute highlight of our visit.
The next morning we made our way to one of the country’s most unparalleled cultural institutions, the American Visionary Art Museum, which had built its ideology around “outsider art,” but has also fostered something of a socio-politically contrarian bent. To wit, the main exhibition was the absolutely zeitgeist-nailing Healing & The Art of Compassion (and the Lack Thereof!). After all, we were nearing the end of a year which began with a Capitol insurrection, and which afterwards saw a not insignificant percentage of the American populace openly disregarding the health and safety of their fellow citizens. Lack of compassion indeed.
The exhibit was quick to point out that even in religion, empathy has always been embodied in women: the Virgin Mary, Cabalistic Skekinah, Guan Yin… But Francis of Assisi, one of our personal heroes, was also given play via the story of the Wolf of Gubbio, which ended with humans and animals agreeing to coexist in peace (if only humans and other humans could do the same). There were quite a lot of plaques bearing quotes – Egdar Cayce, Arthur Schopenhauer…Ricky Gervais – hoping to collectively point the way towards enlightenment. But we were also starkly reminded of its antithesis by way of works like David A. Haughton‘s Mug Shot XXXII, Agitator 2019, Charlottesville, and Kim Edgar Swados’ unsettling portraits of Eichmann, Goebbles, Mengele, and Hitler.
We headed back to the hotel as the sun was peeking out, for lunch with a view across the harbor to the historic Domino Sugar Factory (which almost burned down in spring of 2021) from the aforementioned Cindy Lou’s Fish House. Lingering over smoked salmon and a warming Richfield Farms cauliflower soup, we bonded with our bartender Ian via our shared time spent in the ’90s New York City music scene. We were also duly impressed with his ability to mix us a near perfect dirty martini. That the restaurant was proudly displaying a Black Lives Matter sign just outside its front door played precisely to the matter-of-fact sense of standing up for one’s principals that is so much a part of the soul of Baltimore. After all, restaurants are not exactly known for taking political stands, are they?
Afterwards we headed north again to peruse the vinyl at record shop / coffee house Baby’s On Fire (the name nicked from a 1973 Brian Eno track), whilst sipping a house made cold brew. It was located in Mount Vernon, which has kind of become the city’s indie shopping mecca, especially for vintage fashion and antiques.
We then also made the rounds of Fells Point’s independent shops, which is actually quite a terrific way to while away the late afternoon hours. At Su Casa – which offers interior design services, as well – we picked up handcrafted Christmas ornaments; at Fair Trade crafts shop Ten Thousand Villages we found a Himalayan singing bowl from Nepal; and then we enthusiastically stocked up on gourmet chocolates from an outpost of Michigan-based Kilwins.
For dinner that night we decided to bypass the city’s more bleeding-edge offerings (star chef Matthew Kenney opened a pair of trendy vegan eateries here in 2021), opting instead for a table at Cinghiale (translation: “wild boar”), one of Baltimore’s most enduring scenes, which opened in the Inner Harbor in the autumn of 2007 and has never stopped being popular. The bar area especially felt like stepping into a glamorous scene from 1960s Rome or Milan, with its well turned out crowd and Fellini-esque energy. Upon perusing the menu it was clear there was only once choice for us, the cocoa tagliatelle w/ roasted forest mushrooms, sage, garlic and mushroom broth, paired with a slightly fruity 2020 Colterenzio Pinot Nero. At that moment, we hadn’t a care in this very worry-filled world.
Walking back though an energetic Saturday night in Fells Point, we ultimately ended up popping in for a final nightcap at Rye, an atmospheric little bar that also seemed as if it could have been plucked right from a side street in Amsterdam. Our eyes scanned the drinks menu and quickly landed on a cocktail called Coin Operated Boy (Rittenhouse 100 rye, Gran Classico, lemon, caramel, absinthe), as that was also the name of a song by our fave Boston goth-cabaret band Dresden Dolls. As we took it all in, we couldn’t help but think that if this bar were in New York, it would be totally and tiredly overdone. Yet it’s exactly the sort of place that Baltimore does so well.
Obviously with the Omicron variant still hovering over international travel plans, the Northeast Corridor cities, with their easy access by car or Amtrak, remain a particularly attractive option for short or long getaways. And as we have learned that Baltimore is a city that seems to reveal itself over time, we could not more enthusiastically recommend visiting again and again in the pursuit of getting to know her better.