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Fans who enjoyed watching TV’s “Homicide: Life On the Street” might find themselves pleasantly surprised by a visit to Baltimore. Yes, the city has its mean streets, not very different from the ones portrayed on the show. But it also has upscale neighborhoods like Federal Hill that are chockablock with restored townhouses, interesting restaurants, and old-fashioned markets where you can shop to your heart’s content for everything from fresh red snapper to parsnips to organic free-range poultry. Not far from Federal Hill is the city’s Inner Harbor. With its world-class Aquarium, the tall ships on anchor there, the Walters Art Gallery, the Babe Ruth Museum, the nearby B&O Railroad Museum, and Camden Yards — the first and still the best of the new “retro” baseball parks — the waterfront is Baltimore at its best. Even more so if you happen to like to eat out. Now everyone knows that soft-shelled crabs are at their best when freshly harvested from Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay. But it’s not just the succulent crabs that have garnered kudos for Baltimore’s top chefs. This is an area where seafood and shellfish should — and usually does — rise to the occasion. The Blue Point oysters from Chesapeake Bay, for example, not only rival but often triumph over their Long Island cousins. These big, juicy oysters arrive at your table still in the shells, swimming in their own clean yet briney liquor. And don’t forget that the rolling hills of the Maryland hunt country, a mere 20 minutes or so north of Baltimore, are home to numerous small farms. The happy result is that not only are Baltimore’s food markets suffused with local produce, but so too are the restaurant kitchens. And with such a horn of plenty to work with, food-loving Baltimoreans have it good. A half century after his death, the writer H.L. Mencken remains the city’s most famous son. Were he still alive, Mencken, that old gourmand, would no doubt raise his mug of pilsner to the excellence of today’s Baltimore cuisine: Salute. WHAT THE RATINGS MEAN The Zagat ratings are based on a 0-to-30- point scale and are for Food, Decor, and Service, in that order. The fourth column, Cost, reflects the estimated price of a dinner with one drink and tip. Lunch usually costs 25 percent less. 0-9 Poor to Fair 10-15 Fair to Good 16-19 Good to Very Good 20-25 Very Good to Excellent 26-30 Extraordinary to Perfection Tio Pepe 25 22 22 $38 10 E. Franklin St. (between Charles and St. Paul Sts.), 410-539-4675 This Downtown Spanish-Continental is an institution — and one of those places people love to hate. Some complain about being “treated like cattle” and made to “wait [even] with reservations” in a “whitewashed dungeon.” Loyalists, however, relish such disparate entrees as garlic shrimp and roast pig, washed down with glasses of spicy sangria. The cozy nooks here are synonymous with old-line Baltimore celebrations. Prime Rib 28 25 25 $46 Horizon House, 1101 N. Calvert St. (at Chase St.), 410-539-1804 The town never tires of this swank, old-fashioned supper club, with its sexy bar, glass-topped baby grand, and “retro-chic decor.” Butter-soft steak and the best crab imperial around consistently win it high ratings for food. Devotees claim that every diner feels special here. Charleston 27 25 26 $40 1000 Lancaster St. (between Central and Exeter Sts.), 410-332-7373 Chef-owner Cindy Wolf and her husband Tony Forman’s stellar performance at the now-defunct Savannah continues here with Charleston’s inviting take on Low Country delicacies. It also boasts one of the best wine cellars in town. Pierpoint 25 17 21 $35 1822 Aliceanna St. (between Ann and Wolfe Sts.), 410-675-2080 This sophisticated and intimate boite showcases chef-owner Nancy Longo’s innovative Maryland cuisine. Her fans love its smallness, which permits her to offer up tremendous cuisine without fancy prices. When the cooking’s good, it’s very, very good here, especially the brunch. Boaccaccio 26 23 24 $41 925 Eastern Ave. (between Exeter and High Sts.), 410-234-1322 Chef Giovanni Rigato receives customers in the kitchen of this high-end, celebrity-filled Northern Italian restaurant, where he shows Baltimore that there is more to Little Italy than red-sauce pastas. Reservations may not always be on time, but the wonderful veal chop is. Linwood’s 27 26 25 $41 McDonough Crossroads, 25 Crossroads Dr. (at McDonough and Reisterstown Rds.), 410-356-3030 This elegant bistro is highly appreciated for its imaginative California-style menu. The staff is well trained too. If there’s a downside, it’s that there’s far too much table-hopping for the tastes of steady customers — Linwood’s is definitely the place to be seen. Polo Grill 26 25 24 $42 Inn at the Colonnade, 4 W. University Pkwy. (between Canterbury and Charles Sts.), 410-235-8200 The Polo Grill is a clubby and highly professional operation. It’s here that Baltimore’s “big dogs” and power players come to be seen (but not heard — it’s too noisy). The atmosphere may be a bit stuffy, but the kitchen turns out surprisingly innovative Continental cuisine that earns raves.

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