Friday, August 31, 2007

Top Baltimore Restaurant Picks (so far)


last update: September 11, 2007
order: alphabetical

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kawasaki


Kawasaki
907 S. Ann St.
Fell's Point, Baltimore
sushi
410-327-9400
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: August 29, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I had an excellent sushi experience at Kawasaki last night. When we arrived at 7:30 or so, there was plenty of seating indoors. All the outdoor tables were taken, but one opened up after a very brief wait. Kawasaki's decor is better than that of most Japanese restaurants, with the outdoor seating area overlooking the pier. This can also be seen from the tables by the window, which are low to the ground with floor cushions for the patrons.

We ordered the sushi and sashimi boat for two ($40, the boat for three is $55), as one in the group wanted vegetarian sushi (go figure). This was the most expensive thing on the menu, with other sushi combination in the $15-20 range; while I gave this a cost of $$$ I'd say it is a low $$$ and maybe even a high $$.

The boat took a while to be prepared (20-30 minutes), but was worth the wait. It had the usual combination of salmon, yellowtail, tuna, mackerel, red snapper (I think), and shrimp. The salmon and yellowtail were both outstanding. I was disappointed that it did not include unagi (eel) but was happy it did not include octopus, clam, or egg. It included two rolls, one with asparagus and (maybe) tuna, the other with a spicy sauce. The boat included a bit of seaweed salad, which was excellent, and some pickled vegetables. Everything was great, with fresher fish than either Asahi or XS. Asahi is slightly cheaper (but not much); XS has a slightly hipper vibe (but no view). Still, at this point I would go to Kawasaki over either of these options. The only better sushi I've had (except at astronomical prices) was at Oishii in Boston's Chestnut Hill.

One minor drawback of Kawasaki was service, which could have been faster and more responsive. Service was competent and polite, but they were understaffed both in and out of the kitchen.

Kawasaki has a rather sordid history of exploiting illegal immigrant employees and not paying taxes. This shuttered another branch of the Kawasaki brand on Charles Street. I understand that the Fell's Point Kawasaki is now under new management; I have no reason to believe current management engages in any illegal or unethical conduct, which is why I was happy to go. I guess the optimal number of employees went down once employees had to be legal, be paid more than minimum wage, and have taxes withheld and paid.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

NYT on Canton Restaurants

In the Sunday travel section of the New York Times, there is this "Day Out" piece about Baltimore, which focuses on the restaurants around O'Donnell Square in Canton. It highlights Helen's Garden, and also Mama's on the Half Shell as a good place for oysters. Vaccaro's is mentioned for pastries.

I wonder how much demand for these venues will go up as a result of this mention.

Inefficiency of Splitting the Bill

Have you ever been to a restaurant with a large group of people and split the bill, so everyone pays the same amount? Most of us have; it is common among my friends. Under these circumstances, have you ever been temped to order more than you otherwise might? After all, if you spend an extra $1, you only pay $1 x 1/N (where N is the number of people in your group). Have you seen your friends order things (e.g., one more $10 cocktail, the lobster) you think they wouldn't otherwise when you are splitting the bill? Again, they alone get the benefit of the food and everyone shares in paying for it.

The first person who expressed concern about this to me (in 1998) was Sarah Reber, an economist with excellent economic intuition. Sarah's guess was that this problem was particularly severe for (alcoholic) drinks, and less severe for food. I hadn't given it much thought, but recently found out about this paper by Uri Gneezy, Ernan Haruvy and Hadas Yafe which provides nice evidence that this is a problem. The authors found groups of people going to a restaurant. At the beginning of the meal, they were randomly told that a) they would each pay for their own meal, b) that they would split the total bill equally, or c) that the person running the experiment would pick up the tab. People spent least in (a) when they bore the full cost of ordering more; they spent less in (b) when they bore only some of the cost of ordering more; they spent least in (c) when they bore none of the costs. So people spend more when their friends pick up much of the cost of this extra ordering. They don't take into account the harm they do their friends by ordering more.

The efficient outcome is obtained if everyone pays for themselves, so people bear the full cost of their food (which makes sense given that they also get the full benefit of eating). So why is it so common to split the bill? One answer is that it is easier. It is always hard to figure out each person's share of the tax and tip. Another is that it is awkward to suggest that everyone pays for themselves. If you took the harm you did to your friends by ordering more (when you are splitting the bill) into account when ordering, there would be no problem with splitting the bill. Suggesting that you want everyone to pay for themselves is effectively accusing your friends of not caring about your welfare. Now that's an awkward conversation.

Asahi


Asahi
629 S. Broadway
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-534-4255
sushi
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: June 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Asahi is a small, unassuming sushi joint in the heart of Fell's Point. The decor is extremely low-key; for example, they have a stack of books for patrons to read while they eat. I found all this pleasant but be warned that the vibe is neither romantic nor hip.

Service was good. We ordered a sushi combination and they were willing to make substitutions (who wants shrimp when you can get raw fish?). Sushi was plentiful and displayed nicely. Tasty and fairly fresh, it didn't blow my mind. However, the price point is very appealing (quality sushi entrees <$20). While I'd be willing to pay a bit more for higher quality fish, Asahi is a good value given the price and quality. To my mind, this makes Kawasaki (which is down the street) a better bet for Fell's Point sushi. Kawasaki has better decor/view, substantially fresher sushi, and is only marginally more expensive.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Bertha's


Bertha's
734 S. Broadway
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-327-5795
Seafood
www.berthas.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: June 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

While Bertha's is known for its mussels, it is their marketing that makes my mouth water. (I guess this is what happens to you when you work as a business school professor for four years.) The first clue is that they have "www.berthas.com" as their website. They have bumper stickers,



and t-shirts.

What's more, people actually wear them. I haven't seen such brand loyalty since Vanguard or Harley-Davidson. (I bet you can guess which of these two brands I'm loyal to.) To top it off--which may be trying too hard--Bertha's has its own myspace page (which lists "her" marital status as "swinger").

Bertha's has a restaurant and a bar. The restaurant is substantially up-market of the bar; I haven't been to the restaurant yet. The bar is eclectic-kitchy-divey, a bit like a cross between Delux Cafe in Boston's Back Bay and Mama's Royal Cafe in the San Francisco Bay Area's Mill Valley. The walls are covered in bumper stickers.

You go there for the mussels (and maybe some beer). I got both, taking advantage of the many sauce options. Mussels were reasonably priced; they were also very good, although the bread for dipping was not as good. I enjoyed it and would be very happy to go back. However, I'm not sure what all the fuss is about. These mussels seemed pretty similar to those on offer at many solid Belgian brew pubs (Monk's and Eulogy in Philadelphia come to mind). Given Baltimore's smaller market, I'm delighted it has a yummy place for mussels in a low-key environment.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Little Havana


Little Havana
1325 Key Highway
Federal Hill, Baltimore
410-477-1975
Cuban
www.littlehavanas.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Accepted
Date of meal: Monday June 25, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I went to Little Havana with a large group on a Monday early evening. Little Havana overlooks the water and has a great view. Since the weather was nice, we had a bit of a wait for an outdoor table. Indoor decor is like a typical bar for middle-income 20-somethings; nothing fancy but not gross either.

We ordered lots of mojitos, which were fine. Service was reasonable, which is better than expected at a bar with outside seating. The food, however, was disappointing. Most nights of the week have a special deal here, and Mondays have half-price sandwiches (which is a loss-leader for the alcohol, the price of which motivates a solid $$ on cost). I had a Cuban sandwich, which I normally enjoy. Unfortunately, this one was gross. The pickles were bad, the mustard of poor quality, the bread industrial. I couldn't eat it. We got a variety of sides, including nachos and French fries. These were edible but nothing special.

I would happily come here for a drink outside given good weather. I would not eat here again (even if I was forced to come, I'd eat before or after elsewhere), except perhaps to order fries.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Pricing Power of Baltimore Restaurants

I want to begin this post with two stylized facts about Baltimore restaurants relative to other cities.
1. On average, nice Baltimore restaurants are more expensive than comparable restaurants in other cities.
2. On average, nice Baltimore restaurants are easier to get into (a.k.a. emptier) than comparable restaurants in other cities.

These two observations seem pretty clear to me after just a few months in Baltimore (and having spent lots of time in more than a few major cities for comparison). I'm going to use them as the starting point for this discussion, but I welcome thoughts on either point. If either of these is wrong, my theory (which attempts to explain them) is probably wrong too.

Can we explain these two facts with a single unified explanation? Why doesn't a restaurant cut prices to get fuller? Given the fixed costs of running a restaurant, this would certainly be worth doing if a small price cut would substantially increase the number of customers. The fact that we don't see much of this (judging by the high prices and empty restaurants) implies that in Baltimore you wouldn't get a big increase in customers with a small decrease in price. In other cities, you see lower prices and fuller restaurants because empty restaurants can increase their number of customers more dramatically with small price drops. In other words, Baltimore's restaurant patrons have a more inelastic demand for a given restaurant than patrons in other cities.

Why are Baltimore restaurant patrons more inelastic demanders of dinners than patrons in other cities? The obvious answer here is that larger and richer cities have room in their markets for more nice restaurants of any given type and therefore more competition. The Baltimore restaurant market is less competitive and "thinner" so restaurant owners have more pricing power. Thai Restaurant in Waverly charges much higher prices than similar restaurants elsewhere because you have to Mount Vernon (and arguably to the DC suburbs) to get good Thai food nearby. I'm willing to pay $3 to avoid this commute, and Waverly doesn't have a big enough market to support two Thai restaurants. Therefore, the one Thai restaurant can raise prices a bit knowing our other options are limited.

Costas Inn


Costas Inn
4100 Northpoint Blvd.
Dundalk, Baltimore
410-477-1975
Seafood
www.costasinn.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended (reserve "large" crabs)
Date of meal: Saturday August 11, 2007 (7pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


Costas Inn is a traditional, paper tablecloth, hammer as utensil, crab place. To say it is casual would be an understatement. It is Dundalk, which is East/Southeast of downtown and pretty far off my radar screen. I had never heard of the area before this meal.

We made a reservation the day before; they suggested we reserve crabs which we didn't do. When we got there, they were out of large crabs so we got medium-sized crabs. We hat potato skins and crab dip to start and crabs for dinner. Potato skins were great; crab dip wasn't. Crabs were good; prices are high but that is pretty much par for the course. (If you haven't done this before, be warned that eating crabs is extremely messy and a lot of work.) We also had two pitchers of beer (there were four of us). All in, the meal cost $40 per person plus tip.

Kali's Court


Kali's Court
1606 Thames St.
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-276-4700
Seafood
www.kaliscourt.net
Cost: $$$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: February 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I went to Kali's Court as a recruiting dinner before I moved to Baltimore. There are two floors, with a bar and dinner seating downstairs and more seating upstairs. We sat upstairs. Decor is old-world plush. This was particularly successful downstairs, where the dark lighting and dark wood bar. Upstairs felt more like overflow seating, which it was.

Our service was OK, but not great. It was a bit fawning but not very helpful, heavy on the hard-sell. I had a seafood bisque to start and crab cakes for dinner. Both were very good. At the price, you would expect this. To be honest, I wasn't as wowed as I should have been at $30+ for an entree. If someone else was paying, I'd be happy to go there but wouldn't suggest it. I would not go there again if I was paying.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

La Tavola


La Tavola
248 Albemarle St.
Little Italy, Baltimore
410-685-1859
Italian
www.la-tavola.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Friday July 20, 2007 (6pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

We had an early and quick meal here last month. We were in a hurry to get home so we skipped dessert and appetizers and each had a pasta. I had the fettuccine alla romana; my spouse had the gnocchi. (Both were in the $15 range; I'm using a $$$ for cost because meat entrees are in the low $20s.) Put simply, both were outstanding, if not healthy. Flavors were rich; ingredients were of good quality. We were very impressed. Our server was extremely helpful and friendly; she didn't push the specials up-sell too hard, recommended a yummy cocktail for my spouse, and helped us get out quickly. Decor is standard boring nice-Italian-restaurant-in-America.

We liked it a lot and look forward to returning for a more leisurely meal. While not up to the standard of the best Philadelphia Italian restaurants (e.g., Caffe Casta Diva or Bistro La Viola), I think it is superior to the other Italian restaurant I went to a the same price point, La Scala.

Cafe Hon


Cafe Hon
1002 W. 36th St. (at Roland)
Hampden, Baltimore
410-243-1230
Traditional American
www.cafehon.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: July 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Before I moved to Baltimore, I had never heard of a Hon. So I looked into it a bit. Apparently, Hons are archetypal white, working class, big-haired, middle-aged women of Baltimore. They are given this name because they call everyone "hon". If you look around Baltimore, you'll see bumper stickers and signs with ", hon" as a suffix. For example, "Believe, hon" ("believe" is Baltimore's branding slogan), "Impeach Bush, hon", or my personal favorite:

Note that this combines Baltimore's madison avenue branding campaign, "Believe" and the slogan of the Church of Flying Spaghetti Monster, particularly appropriate for this blog since it is the only religion I know with a food-based diety (no, not a deity).

I digress; back to Cafe Hon. It is straight out of the 1950s. It looks like an idea place to share a root beer float if you were a 14 year old on a date in 1958. This is the restaurant's angle. They push it pretty hard, and pretty successfully. To my taste, they are trying a bit too hard (or not quite hard enough, waitresses could be in costume if they wanted to put a little ironic distance on it), but I think this is more taste than fact. If decor is your priority and this is the kind of decor you want, Cafe Hon is the place for you.

As one would hope, the menu is sandwiches, burgers, meatloaf, crab cakes (it is Maryland after all), and other things you'd expect on a traditional American menu. Prices for sandwiches, burgers, and salads were about what you would expect ($10 range) but some of the entrees were quite pricey; given food quality I think I'd avoid these. When we went for dinner, we found the execution of the food completely fine but nothing special. Quantity was large; quality was so-so. If I was in the neighborhood and was in the mood for that vibe, I might go again for sandwiches or burgers. However, there are tastier places to go for a soup and salad in Hampden.

Friday, August 24, 2007

La Scala


La Scala
1012 Eastern Ave.
Little Italy, Baltimore
410-783-9209
Italian
www.lascaladining.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Varies
Date of meal: Friday, August 24, 2007 (6pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I made reservations for 6pm on Friday night at 5pm the same day. While it was filling up by the time we left at 7:30, reservations are probably not going to be very necessary except perhaps for large groups or at 8pm on a Saturday.

There are two levels. The main level has a bar with a dining room behind it. There is a second floor for overflow seating, which is where they stuck us. It was overflow seating, and felt like it.

At La Scala, they have a very long list of specials in addition to the main menu. These are full of crab and lobster; prices are not mentioned. I like the idea of specials as a way to serve the freshest ingredients available that day, but that is clearly not what is going on here. Specials are used here to get (a.k.a. trick) people to spend more on entrees than they had planned. Of course, other places do this also. A more consumer-friendly approach would be to say the prices when listing specials, or put them on a board. Given that several specials showed up on online reviews, I'm guessing they are always "specials" in which case it would be more transparent to put them on the menu.

Our server, while perfectly professional, was not really able to give any suggestions. When my spouse asked if he had any pastas he particularly enjoyed, he said everything was popular and good. I'm not sure what this meant except that he didn't have much knowledge about or interest in the food, which was the sense I got generally. I think we may have just gotten a bad draw, the server helping the table next to us seemed quite a bit better. (As we walked out of the restaurant, a regular was greeted with hugs by the manager; as someone who had been shuttled up to the second floor for indifferent service I felt like I got 2nd class service as a 1st timer.)

For wine, I had a glass of Chiani Classico (Valliano, $8) that was drinkable but not memorable. My spouse had two glasses (I was driving) of the Poliziano (Montepulciano, $13) which was quite good but not surprisingly so at that price point.

Before food is brought, they serve excellent warm bread with olive oil. There is also a cold vegetable plate with potatoes and green beans. These have a sharp flavor, of what I suspect is balsamic vinegar. I thought these were good and a nice touch.

As an appetizer, we had the Funghi Abbruzzesse (about $7), sauted mushrooms topped with cheese. While neither the mushrooms nor the cheese was terribly good, the sauce (rosemary, olive oil, maybe some wine) was richly flavorful.

For entrees, I had Fettuccini alla Amatriciana (about $18), which has prosciutto, onions, and tomatoes. To my taste, this Amatriciana was way heavy on the tomatoes to the point where the other flavors couldn't come through. It wasn't terrible, but it felt smothered. My spouse had a the chicken Raffaelo (also about $18), which was chicken with artichoke hearts with prosciutto in a wine sauce, served with a side of penne pasta. It was kind of like a veal marsala but with chicken; we both thought it was excellent. Portions were large, and we took much of it home despite enjoying it thoroughly.

For dessert (which our server did have opinions about, perhaps to help make a sale), we split a cannoli (about $6). You can have one cannoli filled with up to two fillings. Options include chocolate (which we got), espresso (which we got), hazelnut, and something else. The chocolate was excellent (and recommended by our server) while the espresso was not. It had a hard graininess to it, like flavoring came from dumping in lots of store-bought pre-ground espresso beans.

Overall, our meal was fine but not as good as it could have been. At $90 (not including tip) for two people, I was a little underwhelmed. Fortunately, Little Italy has many other great options. At the price point, I think La Tavola offers better service and better food (in our limited experience) at the same price point, in the same neighborhood, and with similar menu.

Using Zagat Data to Pick Restaurants

As a foodie economist, one of the few things that makes my mouth water more than a good meal is good data about restaurants. The basest form of such data are the restaurant hygiene ratings I blogged about recently. For a foodie economist (though not an epidemiologist), more interesting data would include information about a restaurants cost and quality.

Zagat collects just such data. As you probably know, Zagat includes data about the location, type of food, hours of a variety of restaurants in most metropolitan areas. More interestingly, it asks readers/eaters to post their evaluation of restaurant cost and quality (in terms of food, decor, and service). Zagat aggregates these evaluations into scores for cost, food, decor, and service for the restaurants it includes. (They also include blurbs with witty and punny remarks about the restaurants, but as an economist I'm not sure what to do with these.)

So given all this data, how do you pick a restaurant? You want to find one that is "good" but also a "good deal." This restricts you to restaurants on the price-quality frontier, but how do you identify these? Below, please see instructions for doing this. I haven't done it because:

a) Step 1 below would take a fair bit of effort;
b) I couldn't get a good publication out of it; and,
c) Without Zagat permission (which I don't have) I suspect that it's not legal to use their data.

I should say at the outset that this idea is not unique to me. This is what any decent economist would tell you to do if they thought about it. In fact, I think this is pretty much what Orley Ashenfelter does to choose wines and what was done in this paper by Olivier Gergaudy, Linett Montano Guzmanz, and Vincenzo Verardi to pick French restaurants (which was written about in a July 13th, 2006 New York Times article by fellow foodie-economist-blogger Tyler Cowen). I suspect other researchers have done this as well. (If you are an economist or statistician who has written a paper which does this or something like it, please let me know and I'll add a link to it here.)

Step 1: Enter Zagat data. Put it in a spreadsheet, with each restaurant in its own row. Columns would have "Restaurant Name", Cost, Food, Decor, Service, Neighborhood, City, Cuisine, and perhaps some of the other attibrutes (open late, etc.) Zagat includes. Convert this data into the applied statistical software of your choice, in my case STATA.

Step 2: Generate dummy variables for location (either city or neighborhood) and cuisine. There is one of these for each location or cuisine, and they take on a value of 1 if the restaurant is in that location (or of that cuisine) and zero otherwise. You will want to lump together any categories that are similar but with few observations. (I'd put Lao food in with the Thai category unless there are a lot more Lao restaurants on Zagat than I expect. In Baltimore, you would want to lump together nearby or similar neighborhoods into groups. You want at least 20 values of "1" for each dummy variable, but given the large number of cities in the data this shouldn't be too hard.) You may also want to create a polynomial function of food, decor, and service, by creating variables like food², decor², or even food×decor.

Step 3: Run an OLS (ordinary least squares) regression to predict "cost" with food, service, decor (and perhaps the squared and cubed and cross-multiplied versions of these variables), location dummies, and cuisine dummies. Collect the "residuals" from this regression. Multiply them by negative one and call them "value".

Step 4: Choose a restaurant with a very high (highly positive) value (or equivalently a strongly negative residual). This restaurant is cheap for how good it is, what kind of food it is, and where it is located. You can then look for the restaurant in your preferred price range, neighborhood, or cuisine type with the best value.

(Optional Step 5: Make your own personal value measure to your taste by calculating your own residuals. If you particularly value decor but don't care about food, you can make your own residuals by using different coefficients on those variables than the one given by the regression. Don't do this unless you know enough statistics/econometrics that you can scale your adjustments properly or this will go badly.)

I'm surprised that Zagat doesn't put up a list of the restaurants in each city with the best value by this criteria. They do have a list of good deals, but they obviously use another criteria, as their "good deal" picks are invariably cheap and come from cuisines (e.g., coffee shop, pizza) where all the prices are low. The cuisine dummy variables I discussed fix this problem.

(N.B. 1: Tim and Nina Zagat, call me. We can improve your lists of preferred restaurants. Or you could add a list of "economist picks" online or have several statisticians/economists each of us post our preferred lists. It would make all the great data in your guides more useful and actionable. You could add in a tool to come up with customized picks based on an idiot-proof user interface that let's people do Step 5. They would enter in the relative importance they place on various attributes and would get individual-specific ratings.)

(N.B. 2: This would make a good undergraduate senior thesis, particularly if you set up Step 5.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Brasserie Tatin

Brasserie Tatin
105 W. 39th St.
Tuscany/Canterbury, Baltimore
443-278-9110
French
www.brasserietatin.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: weekday dinner, April 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I've been to Brasserie Tatin once for a work dinner. If Saffron and Gertrude's had a love child, it would be Brasserie Tatin. All three are perfect for work and should probably be avoided otherwise. Brasserie Tatin has a decor like Saffron, kind of plush with warm reds. The food is plain but well prepared.

The environment is a little bit more lively than Gertrude's. The bar is actually pretty happening, though with upper-middle class folks in their 40s as drinkers. Does this count as happening? I think of this liveliness as a drawback; Gertrude's sedation is sometimes ideal. Once you are no longer catering to the octogenarian and University administrator set (and with the ban on age-based forced retirement the intersection of this Venn diagram is not disjoint), you might as well go to Petit Louis Bistro. It is just about as much fun as Brasserie Tatin (read kinda fun if you are upper-middle class and in your 40s), but with better and more interesting food.

Gertrude's

Gertrude's
10 Art Museum Dr.
Charles Village, Baltimore
410-889-3399
Traditional American
www.gertrudesbaltimore.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: various (lunch)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

I've been to Gertrude's twice for lunch. If ever a place was aptly named, it is Gertrude's. This was my late paternal grandmother's first name, and she would have loved the place. It's attached to the Baltimore Museum of Art. You will find it filled with middle-aged and elderly women who go there in connection with museum trips. At lunch it has more than its fair share of Johns Hopkins' senior administrators.

Gertrude's is not interesting, hip, cool, trendy, or dynamic. It doesn't try to be. It is quiet and serene. The outdoor space is pleasant and the indoors have excellent but cool (as opposed to warm or bright, not cool as in hip) natural light. Dishes are well-prepared with quality ingredients from a menu that could not be more predictable. Lunches include a variety of sandwiches and crab cakes. I have ordered these twice, and enjoyed them quite a lot. They let the crab do the talking and go easy on other fillers.

It would not occur to me to come here for a date, an anniversary, or a birthday party for anyone under 40 chronologically or under 50 at heart. I would absolutely take my parents or my surviving grandparents. I would do a work dinner, or better yet lunch, where I wanted to talk seriously without interruption. It's the kind of place where no one would think it odd to pull out paperwork and go over it will a colleague if you were both wearing professional clothing.

The punch line is that for the right occasion Gertrude's is perfect. I'm just trying to minimize the frequency of these occasions.

Economics of Restaurant Hygiene

Since this is a blog by an economics professor about restaurants, I thought I'd talk about some of the economics research about restaurants. My favorite paper on this subject is "The Effects of Information on Product Quality: Evidence from Restaurant Hygiene Grade Cards," by Ginger Jin (University of Maryland) and Philip Leslie (Stanford University).

The research asks about the importance of restaurant hygiene, and more importantly what we know about hygiene. We all like to eat in restaurants where the place where we eat (which we see) and the place where food is prepared (which we don't see) are both clean. I think many of us are worried about what happens in the kitchen, and some of us probably stay away from restaurants we are particularly worried about. Local health inspectors routinely inspect restaurants (including the kitchen) for cleanliness and safety, occasionally fining or closing the worst restaurants. This gives restaurants little incentive to work on cleanliness in the kitchen beyond the minimum required to keep the restaurant open. Personally, I'd prefer a higher level of hygiene than this minimum. What can we do to improve kitchen hygiene beyond this low level?

Jin and Leslie look at a change in policy to tackle this problem in Los Angeles in 1998. Before then, restaurants were rated (1 to 100) on their cleanliness but no one knew what those ratings were. After that, grades of A, B, or C (think letter grades from school based on these ratings) had to be posted by the restaurant. So what happened when they made the change? According to Jin and Leslie:
1. Hygiene ratings improved. It makes sense that restaurants will try harder to improve hygiene when customers know about it.
2. There were fewer food-borne illnesses. This follows obviously from #1, I think.
3. Consumers started to take hygiene ratings into account. Restaurants with better hygiene got larger increases in business than those with worse ratings.

It seems clear this change is good for consumers. First, published ratings give consumers more information that they can use to make more informed choices, so they can now go to the cleaner restaurants if they prefer. Second, average restaurant hygiene improved so that any given restaurant will become cleaner on average.

So why don't all cities do this? There has been substantial resistance from restaurants (particularly the dirty ones, you might think), who are concerned that people will not eat out as often once they know how un-hygienic their favorite restaurant is. We know that cleaner restaurants gain from this law, but what about dirtier ones? Ginger Jin has told me that restaurant revenues went up even for the dirtier restaurants (perhaps consumers thought they were even dirtier than they actually were), and that overall restaurant revenues went up. This concern by restaurants is therefore unfounded.

Once rankings are published, formerly dirty restaurants now have an incentive to get clean. As a result, consumers should choose to go to restaurants more, both because average quality has improved but also because people no longer face the uncertainty about whether their restaurant is unclean.

If you want to eat out with confidence, write, call, or email your city council-person and tell them you want the local health department's rating posted in every restaurant.

(Thanks to Baltimore Snacker, whose post on hygiene ratings reminded me to write about this.)

Chameleon Cafe


Chameleon Cafe
4341 Harford Rd.
Lauraville, Baltimore
410-254-2376
New American
www.thechameleoncafe.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Tuesday, August 21, 2007 (6:30pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

Chameleon Cafe is a pleasant but low-key place tucked in a row of cute stores but next to a supermarket on a busy road. The dining room is set back from the main road and high windows insulate the place from the market next door. Coupled with the sponge-painted burnt orange walls, it almost gives the place a Mexican-style stucco feel.

Service was very good. The specialty of the house is updated Maryland fare, made from high-quality local ingredients. Our server spent quite a bit of time highlighting where meets and vegetables for various dishes were raised or grown, and giving suggestions. There were no specials on the menu, though we had been told that the menu had recently been changed. While the menu highlights the origin of some of the ingredients, I confess that the flavors described didn't really leap out at me. Entrees were all in the low $20s.

Chameleon Cafe has a wine list and an extensive selection of interesting bottled beers. I had a decent trappist ale, for example.

To start, I ordered a corn bisque, which was far too salty. A dining companion ordered a different soup and also found it too salty. The friend green tomatoes another ordered as an appetizer were excellent, reflecting the excellent tomatoes used. I had their duck entree. The duck was of excellent quality and cooked perfectly. Unfortunately, the sauce in which it was served was bland and uninteresting. It was served with green beens that were plain but excellent in quality and preparation. The duck was served on a homey bed of chopped up potatoes, corn, and some sort of bean (lima?). It tasted like clam chowder without the clams and the chowder. Come to think of it, my bisque tasted like that too... but with more salt. Given the ingredients used in the food, the pricing seemed appropriate. However, the execution made me feel it was a bit overpriced.

While I liked the concept of Chameleon Cafe (excellent local ingredients prepared simply), I think the execution was only so-so. At this price point and style of food, I would prefer b Bistro. Still, if I was in northeast Baltimore, I'd be happy to eat at Chameleon Cafe.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Helmand

Helmand
806 N. Charles St.
Mt. Vernon, Baltimore
410-752-0311
Afghani
www.helmand.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: June 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Helmand has a great back story. The owner is the brother (or is it cousin? or nephew?) of President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan. You can't go to Helmand without someone bringing up this fact. The food is good, though few of us are qualified to judge Afghani food. However, I am qualified to judge Helmand restaurants, as I've been to quite a few. There are Helmands run by Karzai's relatives in Boston (Cambridge, actually), San Francisco, and Chicago.

My favorite is the one in Boston. I went there many times and found the flavors more intense than those at my (only one) visit (so far) to the Baltimore Helmand. When I went to Helmand Baltimore (on a weekday) the wait was extensive despite our reservation. Staff was doing their best but they were a bit overwhelmed. Still, there was a bustle and intimacy to this Helmand that is lacking in the Cambridge one (where tables are more spaced out and the vibe is a little more austere).

I had a vegetarian platter, which was quite nice but nothing special. I was hoping for spicier. Still, this is a solid option for a medium-nice date or dinner with friends. I don't know of another equally nice non-standard ethnic (i.e., not Asian or European) restaurant in Baltimore.

Saffron (Closed)

Saffron
802 N. Charles St.
Mt. Vernon, Baltimore
410-528-1616
Eclectic
www.saffronbaltimore.com
Cost: $$$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: February 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

The Saffron website indicates that the restaurant is "temporarily closed." I'm not sure how temporary this is. While I believe the restaurant was closed by the time I moved to Baltimore, I was taken there by my now-colleagues when I interviewed for my current position.

I thought it was a perfect place to take someone for work. It was quiet. Decor was plush. To my taste, it was a bit fussy but this kind of formality is probably good for work dinners. Service was good. If it re-opened, I would recommend it for a work dinner in the mid- to high-$20s range.

I don't remember what any of us ate, but I do remember thinking my food was only so-so. Maybe this presaged Saffron's closure, as I've been told that it has a string of very accomplished chefs in the past.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Salt


Salt
2127 E. Pratt St.
Butcher's Hill, Baltimore
410-276-5480
New American
www.salttavern.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: weekday in July, 2007 (9pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


Salt has a simple, elegant, hip vibe that makes you very cool for going there. The place was full of very cool people, even on a weekday at 9pm. Even so, we were able to get a table pretty much immediately and without a reservation.

My spouse enjoyed a colorful alcoholic beverage in a martini glass. We had the duck-fat french fries, which were actually a little disappointing given the gluttony implied by the name. Given the restaurant's name, I guess I shouldn't be surprised to find their fries too salty. On the plus side, the aoili dipping sauces were underwhelming. Still, our entrees were outstanding. We had an excellent white fish, which was elegantly presented and perfectly cooked. I had a beef (I think, how embarrassing that I'm not sure) three ways, and I remember liking all three preparations. Entrees were in the $20-25 range.

I liked Salt quite a bit and plan to return.

On the Hill Cafe

On the Hill Cafe
1431 John St. (at Mosher)
Bolton Hill, Baltimore
410-225-9667
Sandwiches, Breakfast
www.onthehillcafe.com
Cost: $
Reservations: Not Accepted
Date of meal: various
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

We were thinking about buying a house in Bolton hill, so there were several days when we were hungry and in a hurry at noon in Bolton Hill. On the Hill Cafe was perfect. They are closed for dinner (and all day on Sundays) and probably serve the MICA lunch crowd. You order from the counter and sit at uncomfortable tables. They have outdoor seating, which is nice when the weather is good.

I had an outstanding curry chicken salad sandwich wrap thing with grapes that could not have been better. My spouse had a good salad. I don't remember what our realtor got but she takes people there all the time, which I guess is a good sign. On the Hill Cafe is too low-key to be worth traveling for, particularly given that most of us can't take off time for lunch. Still, if you are in the neighborhood I highly recommend it for lunch (and probably breakfast too, though I haven't tried it).

S'ghetti Eddie's

S'ghetti Eddie's
410 W. Cold Spring Lane
Roland Park, Baltimore
410-235-5999
Pizza
www.sghettieddies.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: No, Take out
Date of meal: various
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

To date, I haven't been to anywhere in Baltimore with better pizza than S'ghetti Eddie's. However, my sample is small and I expect I'll revise this assessment. While completely solid, S'ghetti Eddie's is not earth shattering.

S'ghetti Eddie's is part of a group of restaurants (with Miss Shirley's, Loco Hombre, and Alonso's) all owned by the same people in the same cluster on W. Cold Spring just east of I-83. It's worth noting that pictures on the Miss Shirley's website show that it used to be located where S'ghetti Eddies is now.

The business model is quite smart. They aim to serve the yuppie parents of Roland park with pizza that is yuppie enough to please parents (broccoli rabe is a topping) but standard enough to please their kids. Pizzas are roughly $15 for a large. There is a pretty basic area to sit, though the place is mainly set up for take-out. Ingredients are of fairly good quality and I had no complaints about the pizza. I would happily do take-out from them again, though am on the lookout for other options.

In general, this complex of restaurants with the same owner raises interesting questions about local monopoly. Should one owner be able to control all or nearly all of the establishments (in this case, Keswick/south Roland Park restaurants, though you could say the same of gas stations) in the same area? To me prices seem high at all four restaurants. I wonder if prices would be lower if these restaurants had different owners and therefore competed with one another. Of course, one is always free to travel 10 mins in any direction for lots of food options (e.g., Petit Louis Bistro). However, busy people may be willing to pay a premium for convenience that limits the ability of of non-local establishments to compete with local ones. I don't think there is a real problem here; another mid-level restaurant with a different owner could probably set up shop here (assuming the whole complex isn't owned by the restaurant group). If it happened, I'd be curious to see if prices dropped.

Regi's

Regi's Bar and Grill
1002 Light St. (at E. Hamburg)
Federal Hill, Baltimore
410-539-7344
Traditional American
www.regisamericanbistro.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: late June, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

As we walk into Regi's and as for a table, the host asks us, "So what's the deal with Singapore? Where is it? Is it a country? What" He might or might not have said hello or welcome first. My spouse and I told him (it's a city-state adjoining Malaysia), and he was very grateful. We got a free appetizer out of it. I sort of wish they had asked us harder questions so we could have doubled down for a free entree. Apparently, a pair of diners had been asking each other this question and turned to the host, who didn't know either. I thought this whole vignette says good things about Regi's. It's casual and friendly; people aren't afraid to talk to each other.

Decor is pleasant and hearth-like in a way that is standard for places that serve traditional American food. Service was good, and as the story indicates, friendly.

The menu had pretty standard appetizers (crab dip, calamari), sandwiches (bistro burger, turkey and brie), and entrees. We had the "Mongolian pork chop" and a salmon entree. Both were dried out and a bit disappointing. At the price point (entrees about $20), execution of these dishes should have been stronger. I think you can do better at that price point, for example at b bistro or Peter's Inn. Still, Regi's food isn't horrible and the environment is pleasant. It may be wiser to go there for sandwiches instead of entrees.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Pazo

Pazo
1425 Aliceanna St. (at Central)
Fell's Point, Baltimore
410-534-7296
Tapas
www.pazorestaurant.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: various
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


I've been to Pazo twice. Once my spouse and I went; once we took my parents.

Pazo is housed in a converted factory or warehouse. It has an extremely high ceiling and a n open second floor that looks down over the main restaurant. As you come in, the left third or so of the restaurant is a bar and lounge area, with the right two-thirds is dinner seating. The restaurant is large, with (and I'm guessing here) perhaps 50-100 tables. There is a DJ booth as well. It is loud; do not go if you want to have a quiet romantic dinner.

If you want to be a young urban scenester, then Pazo is a good bet. The decor is fancy and sleek. Diners are attractive, generally young professionals; doubly so for those at the bar. They may be trying a bit hard to be cool, but they are fairly successful. The place draws lots of single, high-earning 20- and 30-somethings in Baltimore, which I guess is the goal. If an investment banker friend from New York came to visit, this is where I would take them for drinks.

While service was generally good, Pazo suffers from the usual pitfalls of large restaurants. When I called an hour ahead to say I might be 15 mins late, the person answering the phone (who was nice and professional) had to put me in touch with the manager to make sure we'd be seated. When someone other than our server brought us the wrong pizza, he said it was what we ordered when it wasn't after we asked him if it was the right pizza. When the restaurant is this big, training/monitoring of staff by management and monitoring of patrons by servers is tough. A personal touch is out of the question.

Food is mostly tapas-style small plates, though they do have entrees as well. Tapas may not be exactly the right word as food is Mediterranean more than Spanish. Prices are reasonable and about what you'd expect ($10 tapas); food is clearly a loss-leader for alcohol. From looking at the menu, dishes look great. Menu items push all the right word-buttons. For example, the Bruschetta has "Wood Roasted Red Peppers" and not just peppers. This is pretty standard at such places.

Unfortunately, the execution was spotty at best. The "Wood-grilled Eggplant Dip" was yucky. The "Tonno Crudo" (aka tuna tartare) was served in overly-large cubes on wooden skewers, which looks good until you realize that the pieces are too big to eat and the skewers impale you. The ceviche was so-so. The Pizza Catalan was quite good. My dad (who knows a lot about wine) was quite put off by how pretentious the wine service was; the server insisting on decanting a wine without knowing why when decanting wasn't necessary. Our dessert was served on a cool-looking plate so wobbly that eating from it was difficult. The food-related punch-line here is that substance clearly wins over content. I suspect that most of the people who go to Pazo don't care; they go for decent food that sounds more impressive than it is and sophisticated in a scenester environment.

I would go back if I wanted a sophisticated environment. I would definitely go back if I wanted to feel sophisticated while having drinks (particularly on an off-night, when it wouldn't be too busy to enjoy). I would not go back if I really wanted to enjoy good food.

Baltimore Restaurant Spreadsheet

In the sidebar, I've posted my Baltimore Restaurant Spreadsheet. This provides information about all the restaurants I've been to in Baltimore so far, with the names of ones I hope to go to below it. This reminds me of where I've been and where I want to check out next. It also makes it easy to look up basic restaurant information. I hope you find it (and this blog in general) a useful reference. I would very much welcome suggestions of restaurants I should add to the list.

Petit Louis Bistro


Petit Louis Bistro
4800 Roland Ave.
Roland Park, Baltimore
410-366-9393
French
www.petitlouis.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: weekday mid-July, 2007 (9pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It

We had a late-night meal at Petit Louis Bistro. I was surprised at how busy it was when we sat down at 9pm on a weekday. There are very few places in Baltimore where I've found getting a table to be a problem. This contrasts sharply with New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, or Seattle where all the good places get booked up for Saturday night by Wednesday.

Food was excellent. We started with escargot served in their shell, with the usual garlic butter. For dinner I had steak frites. Both dishes were prepared traditionally, but execution was really great. Steak was of good quality, cooked medium rare as instructed, and frites were perfect. We also had a chocolate mousse thing for dessert that was great. I even liked the bread they served, which I wouldn't mention except that it came in very handy with the garlic butter for the escargot.

The decor is traditional Paris bistro. They are probably trying a bit too hard to recapture Paris to the point of cheesiness, but it is very pleasant. We had excellent service. Entrees were in the low $20s range. I think this place sets the standard for nice-ish restaurants in northern Baltimore. While it can't quite stack up to the best French bistros in other cities (e.g, Pif or La Boheme in Philadelphia) there are many cities of similar size and good food (e.g., Seattle) that don't have a French bistro to match.

Taste


Taste
510 E. Belvedere Ave.
Belvedere Square, Baltimore
443-278-9001
Eclectic
www.tasterestaurant.biz
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: weekday week of August 8, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

We went to Taste the week after restaurant week. I saw an offer for a $25 gift certificate in the Baltimore Urbanite. When I called for reservations on the same day we came in, they told me that they weren't honoring their offer because they were extending restaurant week. Restaurant week is probably as good of a deal as this offer, but it doesn't seem cool (or perhaps legal?) not to honor their offer. Nothing in the ad mentioned these limitations. When we arrived, the place was nearly empty. They didn't have our reservation on file, which didn't matter under the circumstances but didn't bode well.

Their restaurant week options were quite extensive. Typically, restaurant week options at pricier restaurants are limited and lame. I was impressed that they were basically offering a full menu to choose from. I was also surprised because the Baltimore Restaurant Week website had a limited menu for Taste.

The decor is really swanky. It's quiet, romantic, sophisticated, and with the right chef could make for a great restaurant. Service was well-intentioned but a bit spotty.

The food was disappointing. Nothing horrible, but not really memorable. I had the salmon on a maple slab, which was dry and the fish wasn't good quality. My spouse had a salad with steak on it. It was also lame, though I think this probably was not the best possible choice. That I don't remember what we had as appetizers or dessert probably tells you something.

I wouldn't come back here without a compelling reason, but wouldn't make a fuss if a friend suggested we go there. The decor is nice enough that perhaps it warrants another try. Restaurant week fare is seldom representative. Petit Louis seems far superior if you want a nice $20 entree restaurant in that general neck of the woods.

Cafe Zen

Cafe Zen
38 E. Belvedere Ave. (at York)
Belvedere Square, Baltimore
410-532-0022
Chinese
www.cafezen.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: various
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


I've eaten at Cafe Zen once and had take-out from there three or four times. As far as I can tell, this is the best Chinese place in Baltimore. This is really sad; while Cafe Zen is solid, it isn't amazing. I've also heard you have to go to the suburbs of DC to get edible dim sum. It's too bad we don't have more authentic options.

Decor is one step up from the usual Chinatown look, or maybe it's one step down. It is clean and simple but very far from elegant or even nice. Service is fine but unexceptional. The menu is totally standard generic American Chinese fare: mu shu pork, General Tzo's chicken, etc. Execution is better than average, but nothing special.

Cafe Zen is owned by the same folks as Zen West and is next door.

Zen West



Zen West
5916 York Rd.
Belvedere Square, Baltimore
410-323-3368
Tex-Mex
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Friday August 3, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It


The decor at Zen West is Tex-Mex meets bar's bar. You sort of expect the floor to be sticky with beer and there is tons of space around the bar or in the center of rooms for standing or dancing. With that in mind, you would expect it to be frat boy central with lousy food. This is not the case.

When we went on a Friday night, the place had plenty of empty tables. It wasn't loud. In fact, we took my parents who wears a hearing aid. The volume wasn't a problem for him, which tells you it was pretty subdued. Maybe we were lucky enough to hit an off night.

Our server was excellent: helpful, friendly, knowledgeable. The menu was considerably more interesting than you might expect. One plus of Tex-Mex is you have both Tex (ribs, which were quite good) and Mex (an outstanding fish taco). Flavors and ingredients were really outstanding. I liked this place quite a bit.

While a bit more expensive than Holy Frijoles, it definitely has better food (decor is comparable though Holy Frijoles probably has a more fun bar). At the same price point, I think Arcos is probably superior in terms of authenticity and far superior on decor. I would be happy to go to Zen West if I was grocery shopping or seeing a movie across the street, though I think Arcos probably dominates it under most circumstances.

As an aside, it is odd to note that Zen West is owned by the same folks as Cafe Zen. Actually, when you note that they are next to each other and have Zen in their names, it isn't so surprising. Still, aside from solid if not mind-blowing food, they have almost nothing in common.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bicycle


Bicycle
1444 Light St
.
Federal Hill, Baltimore
410-234-1900
New American
www.bicyclebistro.com
Cost: $$$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: Thursday July 26, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: On It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It


Bicycle has a beautiful outdoor patio that we really enjoyed, though the interior decor is very nice as well. This is a standard, very good $25 entree New American restaurant. It would be great to bring parents or a date for a special occasion, or to go for a work function. It is nice and upscale but not fussy or uptight. It's quiet without being oppressive.

We were really impressed with the entrees, which included an outstanding braised short-rib dish and a great chocolate dessert. If you want to spend this amount on dinner at a nice but not fancy restaurant, I haven't found a better spot in Baltimore.

Holy Frijoles


Holy Frijoles
908 W. 36th St. (at Roland)
Hampden, Baltimore
410-235-2326
Mexican
Cost: $$
Reservations: wait at the bar
Date of meal: various
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It


The name is almost reason enough to go to Holy Frijoles. This is a good American-style Mexican joint. This is a great place to go with friends for margaritas or Corona's after work. Plus, it's in Hampden, and who doesn't like walking around on 36th Street.

There is a large bar with lots of seating (much of it full, the place is often quite busy) in case you have to wait for a table, assuming you want one at all. Lots of people come just to sit at the bar. Food here is just fine but nothing special: enchiladas, burritos, fajitas, etc. Decor is unexciting but unobjectionable. Prices are quite reasonable ($10+/- entrees). The place is not going to change your life (unless you happen to pick up your life partner at the bar), but it is a solid place to go under the right circumstances.

For dinner, I see no reason to go to Holy Frijoles when one can go to Arcos in Fells Point/Butcher's Hill. For roughly the same price (for similar dishes, Arcos has higher-end options that cost more), Arcos offers higher quality ingredients, a more creative menu, better service, shorter wait times for tables and more authentic and pleasant decor. Holy Frijoles is clearly not on the price quality frontier given this better option at the same price point.

Miss Shirley's

Miss Shirley's
410 W. Cold Spring Lane
Roland Park, Baltimore
410-889-5272
Brunch
www.missshirleys.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: weekend wait
Date of meal: several
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It

Miss Shirley's is the quintessential generic, yuppie brunch place. Service is good and unobtrusive. The decor is bright, clean, upscale but unpretentious. Food is well-prepared with quality ingredients, with a diverse but fairly standard set of breakfast, brunch, and lunch fare options. (I believe they are open for dinner too but haven't been for that.) I would feel comfortable taking my parents there, having a social or business lunch, whatever.

My main complaint about Miss Shirley's is cost. At $13-$17 for omelettes and $3 for coffee, Miss Shirley's costs more than it should. I'm not sure there is any competition at or near this price point, but an entrant serving a similar product at 20% lower prices should be able to cover costs. I don't think there would be much point in trying to improve quality, as Miss Shirley's already provides everything most of us want in a brunch venue. Still, given the lack of other options, I will happily return to Miss Shirley's when I want a nice brunch.

Blue Moon Cafe



Blue Moon Cafe
1621 Aliceanna St.
Fells Point, Baltimore
410-522-3940
Brunch
Cost: $
Reservations: weekend wait
Date of meal: Sunday, August 19, 2007 (8am)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

I was expecting to love Blue Moon Cafe. It's a cute Fells Point brunch place and looks the part. It's full of yuppie parents and urban hipsters in equal (and excessive, they don't take reservations and we had to wait even at 8am) numbers. The atmosphere is great.

I should start with a very fixable complaint. Their web presence stinks. It's not just the lack of a web page, but there is considerable ambiguity and disagreement among other cites (citysearch, etc.) about their hours. This problem is compounded by the fact that they don't pick up the phone much and their answering machine (if they have one) doesn't turn on within a small number of rings.

The staff are obviously over-stretched and this led to sub-par service (e.g., 10 minute wait to get a check) despite the best efforts of the servers. The menu looked promising and creative (apple and bacon pancakes!!) but execution was mediocre. I had an omelette, and ingredients were of low quality and eggs were cooked badly. Toast was served with sub-par jam. My spouse's pancakes were kind of blah.

I guess all this is about right given the low prices ($8 omelettes) but given the clientèle, the neighborhood and the high prices of restaurants in Baltimore in general, I think Blue Moon would be well-served by raising prices a bit ($10 omelettes) and putting the the extra money into better ingredients and more servers. While at a higher price-point, for me Miss Shirley's is worth the extra price for brunch.

Arcos


Arcos
129 S. Broadway
Upper Fells Point, Baltimore
410-522-4777
Mexican
www.restaurantearcos.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: Saturday, August 18, 2007 (5pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It


Arcos has an amazing back patio. If the weather is nice, this is a real draw. In general, the decor is both pleasing and authentic. You feel like you are in Mexico. While we arrived early, there were very few people there even when we left. It is hard to imagine that getting a table would be a problem.

Alcoholic beverages were good and reasonably priced. I had the house margarita ($5), with Mexican beers (Sol and Bohemia, not just Corona) for $3.75. They have more expensive tequilas with more expensive margaritas to match, but I didn't try these.

Chips were the yummy high-fat ones and salsa was good.

The menu is divided into appetizers, lighter fare, and entrees. We ordered two items from the lighter fare despite being quite hungry. This proved to be plenty. The "Tacos al Pastor" ($9.xx, only available Friday and Saturday nights!) were the real standout. These are small soft tortillas served with barbecued pork, onions, guacamole, etc. The pork had a great tangy flavor to it, and the tacos were served with an outstanding cilantro sauce. We also ordered the tamales (also about $9), which were good but not as exciting. Entrees were in the $13-$17 range, though again we didn't order any. For dessert, we split the fried ice cream which was pretty good but not amazing. This put us quickly into a food coma.

I would highly recommend this place. It would be a great place for a date, or a group of friends. The reasonable prices and nice atmosphere are a great combination.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

XS


XS
1307 N Charles St. (at Preston)
Mt. Vernon (technically in Mid-Town Belvedere), Baltimore
410-468-0002
Japanese
www.xsbaltimore.com
Cost: $$$
Date of meal: Thursday, August 16, 2007 (9pm)
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It

XS is in a skinny building and has four floors. The first one is a coffee shop. The third one is a sushi bar, with additional seating for meals on the second and fourth (half) floors. There is a DJ booth floating at the level of the 4th floor looking down on the 3rd floor.

The sushi is somewhere between so-so and mediocre but is reasonably priced ($15-$20 for sushi dinner combinations). It's clear that food is a loss leader for alcohol sales (e.g., $9 mohitos). Given this, it was disappointing but not surprised to find that drinks were weak (literally as in low alcohol content and metaphorically as in of poor quality). After all, how can one be convinced to buy more alcohol if you feel tipsy after the first drink.

The menu is noteworthy though not in a good way for a foodie. They don't really have serve cooked entrees. They have a few Pan Asian noodle options (e.g., Pad Thai), some appetizers, and sushi. There was a cooked fish (Cod) dish on offer as a special. I suspect this lack of a cooked food menu reflects a dearth of kitchen space.

While I'm glad I went so that I could say I'd been there, this is not a good place for a foodie. They aren't shooting for that so this isn't really something to fault the restaurant owners. I suspect it is a good place to impress a 20 year-old club-goer. Even then, the scenester ambiance is too contrived and nakedly commercial to be convincing.

Organics @ Waverly Market

I just came back from my usual Saturday morning shopping trip to Waverly Market. The vibe there is great.

Why are there so few (only one) organic produce seller at the Waverly market? It seems like the whole point of going to a farmer's market is so you can get local and organic fruits and vegetables. These sellers are local (and I'm guessing what they sell is mostly from their own farms) but generally not organic.

Generally, folks who favor eating happy free-range lettuce and such (I count myself in this group) like organic food because it is healthier and better for the environment. Buying locally is allegedly better for the environment because you don't have to use as much energy in shipping. However, the latter rationale was recently undercut in a recent article by James McWilliams in the New York Times. So why do Baltimore consumers value local produce but not the organic stuff? Why don't these farmers find it worthwhile to farm organically and pass the increased cost on to consumers? That's what farmers who sell to farmer's markets do in most other big cities.

From the look of it, the Waverly market crowd is exactly who you would expect to buy organic food. We bring our own re-used plastic bags and carry our purchases in re-usable totes bearing NPR or Whole Foods logos. In short, they look just like shoppers at other farmer's markets, who demand and get organic produce. Maybe the marginal purchaser of these local producers' produce is not farmer's market customers at all. Perhaps in Seattle these growers can sell overstock to crunchy local markets. In Baltimore, such places don't exist or exist in fewer numbers (I think Whole Foods is the only game in town, and I believe they buy organics mostly from industrial, non-local organic farms), so these farmers have to sell to producers who don't value organics. So even if farmer's markets have similar clientele the world over, they are still left with different products.

Favorite Philadelphia Restaurants When I'm Not Paying

My Favorite Philadelphia Restaurants When I'm Not Paying:
1. Lacroix at the Rittenhouse ($$$$$, French)
2. Morimoto ($$$$$, Japanese)
3. ¡Pasion! ($$$$$, Latin)
4. Buddakan ($$$$, Asian-Eclectic)
5. Washington Square ($$$$, Eclectic)
6. Gayle ($$$$, French)
7. Tangerine ($$$$, Mediterranean)
8. Barclay Prime ($$$$$, Steakhouse)
9. Prime Rib ($$$$$, Steakhouse)
10. Brasserie Perrier ($$$$$, French)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Favorite Philadelphia Restaurants When I'm Paying

My Favorite Philadelphia Restaurants When I'm Paying:
1. Django ($$$$, New American)
2. Matyson ($$$, New American)
3. Marigold Kitchen ($$$, New American)
4. Audrey Claire ($$$, Mediterranean)
5. Lolita ($$$$, Mexican)
6. Caffe Casta Diva ($$$, Italian)
7. Effy's ($$$, Greek)
8. Branzino ($$$$, Italian, Seafood)
9. La Boheme ($$$, French)
10. Vietnam ($$, Vietnamese)

Thai Restaurant


Thai Restaurant
3316-18 Greenmount Ave. (at 33rd St.)
Waverly, Baltimore
410-889-6002
Thai
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: several
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


Yes, that is really what this restaurant is called: Thai Restaurant. I guess this does not bode well for creativity. I've done take-out from this place several times, and eaten in a few times as well. Thai Restaurant is supposed to be the best Thai place in Baltimore. This is a better-than-average Thai place but is far from earth-shattering or original. Like the Ambassador Dining Room (which serves solid Indian fare), there are dozens of equally good Thai places in most major cities. Ambiance too is pretty standard for decent Thai places. Whereas comparable places would have $10 entrees in other cities, entrees here are in the $13-16 range. If one thinks of this as the premium for quality food in Baltimore, then pricing is about right. Outstanding Thai places in other cities (Djan's in Seattle comes to mind) have better food, nicer atmosphere, and lower prices. Still, I'd be happy to order take-out from there or wanted casual Thai food.

b bistro

b Bistro
1501 Bolton St. (at Mosher)
Bolton Hill, Baltimore
410-383-8600
New American
www.b-bistro.com
Cost: $$$
Reservations: Recommended
Date of meal: several
National Price-Quality Frontier: On It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It


b is a simple but outstanding bistro. The ambiance is clean and unpretentious but also attractive and tasteful. You would feel comfortable eating in jeans here and also comfortable bringing your stuffy grandmother. (Not that my grandmother is stuffy; she is adorable and sweet.) Pastas are great; fish is great; desserts are great. Entrees are reasonably priced (entree cost: about $18-24) given the quality. Service is good too. They have outdoor seating as well. Really, I have nothing negative to say about the place.

Yabba Pot

The Yabba Pot
2433 Saint Paul St (at 25th St.)
Charles Village, Baltimore
410-662-8638
Vegan
www.theyabbapotcafe.com
Cost: $
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: many
National Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: Extends It


The Yabba Pot rocks! In all seriousness, I almost bought a house two blocks north of The Yabba Pot so that I could be near it. That the house is still for sale must mean I have non-standard criteria for houses. Good vegan food is hard to find even in cities with large yuppie vegan populations. To the best of my knowledge, Baltimore is not such a town. Still, this place is probably the best vegan restaurant I've ever been to in any city. The proprietor, Skai Davis, is a very nice woman from the Virgin Islands. (Her staff is not always so nice, but I can live with that.) Entrees vary from day to day and are ordered from the counter (cost: about $10). You can sit there and eat in a bright, cheery, simple environment. It is not fancy but it is perfectly pleasant. Take-out is also a good option. I've had a number of amazing tofu dishes, and even a kale dish which I liked even though I generally don't like kale.

Ambassador Dining Room


Ambassador Dining Room
3811 Canterbury Rd. (at University)
Tuscany/Canterbury, Baltimore
410-366-1484
Indian
www.ambassadordiningroom.com
Cost: $$
Reservations: Not Needed
Date of meal: late June or early July, 2007
National Price-Quality Frontier: Inside It
Baltimore Price-Quality Frontier: On It


If you sit outside at the Ambassador Dining Room, you overlook a beautiful garden. This is a bit surprising given that the place is in one of the large nondescript apartment buildings on the north side of the Johns Hopkins Homewood campus. Still, if the weather is nice, this makes it a great place for a date. I wouldn't both coming if weather ruled out outdoor seating. The food is standard Indian fare. It was good but not special or interesting. Honestly, the entrees were quite expensive ($15-20) given the quality. In any major city there are a dozen restaurants of this quality with $10 entrees and excellent service. Of course, almost none of these places have the beautiful garden. To the degree you are paying for the garden, this is a very poor choice for take-out. I also think that Baltimore restaurants are on average 20-25% more expensive than restaurants of comparable quality in other cities. This explains some of the cost of the Ambassador Dining Room.

  cuisine
  • American(traditional)
  • Cafe Hon
  • Gertrude's
  • Regi's
  • Asian (other)
  • Ambassador
  • Cafe Zen
  • Nam Kang
  • Saigon Remembered
  • barbecue
  • Alabama BBQ Co.
  • Big Bad Wolf BBQ
  • Rub BBQ
  • breakfast
  • Blue Moon Cafe
  • Miss Shirley's
  • eclectic
  • Pazo
  • Saffron
  • Taste
  • French
  • Brasserie Tatin
  • Petit Louis
  • Italian
  • La Scala
  • La Tavola
  • Mexican
  • Arcos
  • Holy Frijoles
  • Zen West
  • Latin/Caribbean
  • Little Havana
  • Trinidad Gourmet
  • Yabba Pot
  • pizza
  • Iggie's
  • S'ghetti Eddie's
  • pub/bar
  • Brewer's Art
  • Red Star
  • sandwiches
  • On the Hill Cafe
  • seafood
  • Bertha's
  • Costas Inn
  • Kali's Court
  • sushi
  • Asahi
  • Kawasaki Cafe
  • Matsuri
  • XS
  • Thai
  • Thai Landing
  • Thai Restaurant
  • vegetarian
  • Yabba Pot
  •   neighborhood
  • Bolton Hill
  • b Bistro
  • On the Hill Cafe
  • Butcher's Hill
  • Salt
  • Canton
  • Three...
  • Charles Village
  • Gertrude's
  • Nam Kang
  • Trinidad Gourmet
  • Yabba Pot
  • Dundalk
  • Costas Inn
  • Federal Hill
  • Bicycle
  • Little Havana
  • Matsuri
  • Regi's
  • Rub BBQ
  • Fell's Point
  • Asahi
  • Bertha's
  • Kali's Court
  • Kawasaki
  • Red Star
  • Hampden
  • Cafe Hon
  • Holy Frijoles
  • Lauraville
  • Alabama BBQ Co.
  • Big Bad Wolf BBQ
  • Chameleon Cafe
  • Little Italy
  • La Scala
  • La Tavola
  • Mount Vernon
  • Brewer's Art
  • Helmand
  • Iggie's
  • Nam Kang
  • Saffron
  • Thai Landing
  • XS
  • Tuscany/Canterbury
  • Ambassador
  • Brasserie Tatin
  • Upper Fell's Point
  • Arcos
  • Waverly
  • Trinidad Gourmet
  • Thai Restaurant
  •   cost
  • $$
  • Alabama BBQ Co.
  • Ambassador
  • Arcos
  • Asahi
  • Bertha's
  • Big Bad Wolf BBQ
  • Cafe Hon
  • Cafe Zen
  • Helmand
  • Holy Frijoles
  • Iggie's
  • Little Havana
  • Miss Shirley's
  • Nam Kang
  • Red Star
  • Saigon Remembered
  • S'ghetti Eddie's
  • Thai Landing
  • Thai Restaurant
  • Zen West
  • $$$
  • b Bistro
  • Brasserie Tatin
  • Brewer's Art
  • Chameleon Cafe
  • Costas Inn
  • Gertrude's
  • Kawasaki
  • La Scala
  • La Tavola
  • Matsuri
  • Pazo
  • Peter's Inn
  • Petit Louis
  • Regi's
  • Salt
  • Taste
  • Three...
  • XS
  • $$$$
  • Bicycle
  • Kali's Court
  • Saffron
  • $$$$$
  • none yet
  • Labels

  • gastronomic economics
  • lists
  • markets
  • news
  • reviews
  • Baltimore
  • Philadelphia
  • Foodie Links and Blogs

      foodie bloggers in Baltimore
      foodie blogroll
      foodie economist links

    Blog Archive