By Richard Gorelick
Baltimore Sun reporter
I made last-minute adjustments to the ranking of this list as I was writing up the captions for this photo gallery. My gut guided me. I'd consult my memories, the online menus, and the reviews I wrote about them (often the review that Elizabeth Large wrote).
When I found myself thinking, "I want to go there now," that told me something. When I didn't get that feeling, it told me I had ranked a restaurant too highly. Nothing on the list slid obviously into position. This juggling was a barrel of monkeys compared to the decision of which restaurants to include on the list. I stand by what I've come up with. If you disagree, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments field below.
Here are Baltimore's 50 best restaurants. We'll be releasing them 10 at a time, Monday through Friday. Enjoy and make your reservations soon!--Richard Gorelick
50. Abacrombie Fine Foods and Accommodations -- The countdown begins with two question marks. First, why does Jerry Pellegrino's Mount Vernon restaurant, Abacrombie, with all of its potential, seem so quiet?
49. Crush -- Like the restaurants ranked just below it, Crush's future feels uncertain -- it could rise quickly up the list, or just as easily fall off.
48. Da Mimmo -- Da Mimmo stands as Mary Ann Cricchio's loving tribute to her late husband, "Mimmo," who introduced the idea of high-end dining to the family-friendly neighborhood.
47. Akbar -- A sentimental addition. Akbar may not be capable of surprise or change but there's something about that lower-level dining room that still works a spell.
46. Oceanaire -- The historic and very weird absence of stellar high-end seafood restaurants in Baltimore paved the way for an out-of-towner like Oceanaire, which succeeds with consistency.
45. Minato -- No sushi spot in Baltimore has an enthusiastic, citywide following. But, I'm including Mount Vernon's Minato because I like the balance it strikes between the traditional, costume-drama restaurant and the newer high-energy locations.
44. Zorba's -- A Greektown favorite, home of the magical charcoal-flame rotisserie. It's full name, Zorba's Bar and Grill, suggests the casual, neighborhood atmosphere.
43. Thai Arroy -- High scores on the cheerfulness index help Thai Arroy edge out the city's other Thai restaurants, including the sentimental favorite on Greenmount Avenue. Just across the street in Federal Hill, the freshly minted Thai Yum has the potential to vault ahead of them all.
42. Regi's -- With his enthusiasm for the city's local markets, Alan Morstein's has kept Regi's relevant. The Federal Hill chestnut remains unusually focused on accommodating its customers' whims and preferences.
41. Ikaros -- A friend who loves this Greektown restaurant writes, "After 43 years on Eastern Avenue, Ikaros is still serving up Greek hospitality that never falters."
40. Nam Kang -- Among the Charles North Korean restaurants, Nam Kang remains the essential destination for restorative and potent hot pots, casseroles and pancakes. It's still one of the city's classic late-night spots.
39. Lebanese Taverna -- Not every D.C. import is welcomed with open arms, but with Baltimore's historic scarcity of good Middle Eastern restaurants, the Lebanese Taverna was greeted with joy jumps.
38. Grano -- There are now two editions of Grano, Gino Troia's Hampden restaurant. The larger, newer one is evolving nicely. The pocket-size original makes the list with sheer warmth and a knockout Bolognese sauce.
37. Sotto Sopra -- After years of hosting vesting chefs, Sotto Sopra owner Riccardo Bosio took back the kitchen at his theatrically swank downtown Italian restaurant. His food is rich and very good.
36. Vino Rosina -- With a cassoulet and a "16-legged burger," the fall menu at this new Harbor East wine bar and restaurant shows Top Chef alumna Jesse Sandlin making big strides. This is one to keep an eye on.
35. Carlyle Club -- Reopened last year as a "coastal Indian" restaurant, Carlyle Club is Singh's posher, more intimate version of the nearby Ambassador.
34. Sascha's 527 -- By relocating its bar from the back to the middle, Sascha Wolhandler's Mount Vernon restaurant is riding an invigorating second wind. Go on a Monday for the fried chicken dinner.
33. Mezze -- The Kali Group's decade of expansion began with this lively and satisfying small-plate restaurant. Mezze was the first splash of chic along the cobblestones of Fells Point.
32. Mama's on the Half Shell -- My vote for the restaurant that should franchise itself. A solid and consistently satisfying Canton citizen since 2004, Mama's on the Half Shell owns the area's casual seafood restaurant category.
31. Meli -- Encouragingly, Rashad Edwards continues to test the limits of a casual bistro menu at Meli -- a seductive Kali Group property attached to the Admiral Fell Inn.
30. Mekong Delta -- Mekong Delta, a storefront Vietnamese restaurant, is proof that Baltimoreans were serious when they insisted they would support a real pho joint.
29. Henninger's -- Henninger's has been Baltimore's best second-date restaurant since 1989. Anyone not moved by Jayne and Kenny Vieth's quirkily romantic Upper Fells Point restaurant is soul-deficient; that's the kind of thing you'd want to know before things get too serious.
28. The Dogwood -- Now in full bloom, the innovative, community-focused Hampden restaurant is here to stay. The laudable Dogwood mission no longer intrudes on the pleasures of Galen Sampson's classic preparations of American cuisine.
27. Ethel & Ramone's -- Now a fixture at the Baltimore Farmers' Market, the Mount Washington home base has established itself as Baltimore's premier establishment for Cajun and Creole cuisine. Ethel & Ramone's also has the city's best gumbo, hands down.
26. Ruth's Chris Steak House -- The presence upstairs of the Havana Club keeps this Ruth's Chris a front-of-mind destination for power dates and romantic business meetings.
25. Black Olive -- The Spiladis family's Fells Point restaurant, a revelation for the freshness of its fish and produce when it opened in 1997, has seen its act repeated all over town. The opening of a long-awaited hotel property behind the restaurant should help return the Black Olive to center stage.
24. Ambassador -- Would this Tuscany-Canterbury Indian restaurant be as adored, or be ranked as highly here if it weren't for the dining patio and gardens that ravish your senses?
23. B&O American Brasserie -- B&O provides a breath of life in the Downtown district. Chef Michael Reidt's good ideas risk getting lost in the larger performance this well-managed property puts on for its customers.
22. Blue Hill -- Blue Hill is the right restaurant in the right place at the right time, this contemporary American restaurant in Canton appears to have worked out its opening-season jitters.
21. Pazo -- Pazo is a fascinating case. No restaurant elicits such strong opinions or feelings. Tony Foreman took over the kitchen in the summer of 2010, and the menu changed formats. This season will reveal whether Baltimoreans still have a place for it in their hearts.
20. Gertrude's -- Few American museums are as well served as is the Baltimore Museum of Art by John Shields' home for coastal cooking at Gertrude's.
19. Brewer's Art --The current menu at this Mount Vernon rowhouse combines greatest hits like Utz-crusted cod and steak frites with new adventures in dining like a pumpkin polenta entrée and a Korean hot pot. Dinner at the bar always works. Brewer's main dining room can feel disconnected.
18. Tapas Teatro -- Going on 10 years, this Station North tapas restaurant is still a silky smooth synthesis of form and function. Don't let your server rush you.
17. Clementine -- Clementine, Winston Blick and Christine Dadant's Vermont-cozy Hamilton restaurant opened hot, made itself indispensable, got itself a liquor license, and doubled its size before you could say house-made Duroc breakfast sausage.
16. Bluegrass -- The highest ranking new restaurant on the list is Jorbie Clark and chef Patrick Morrow's South Baltimore lovable, approachable version of the local/seasonal/animal parts restaurant. Major assets at Bluegrass include the house-proud staff Chris Coker's wine list, outdoor seating and an upstairs bar.
15. Cinghiale -- It is serious pleasure to sit with a glass of wine at this ravishing bar, working your way through brilliant cheeses, exquisitely handled charcuterie, and Julian Marcucci's earnest cooking. That this pleasure never fully materializes at Cinghiale's tables is not a national concern.
14. City Cafe -- The most improved Baltimore restaurant, maybe ever. The hiring of the wily Chad Gauss has restored the City Cafe to the hearts of the Mount Vernon neighbors who had long ago stopped loving it. It's a pleasure to see.
13. The Helmand -- It struck me as odd that this is one of the oldest names on the list. Qayum Karzai opened his influential and loved Afghan restaurant in 1989. Little has changed. The Helmand is the top-ranking ethnic restaurant on the list.
12. Kali's Court -- It helps to know how to use this Fells Point luxury model. It's to be used for seduction, for sealing deals, for disinheriting a nephew. The mistake people make is squandering its power and beauty on randomness, like driving a Jaguar to the supermarket. Recent changes at Kali's bear watching.
11. The Wine Market -- At No. 11, this feels like the right spot for Christopher Spann's hardworking, forward-looking Locust Point restaurant. With the promotion of Christopher Becker to executive chef, the recently renovated Locust Point Industrial Area restaurant feels poised for a major breakthrough.
10. Salt Tavern -- When it opened back in 2006, Jason Ambrose's Upper Fells Point restaurant led the pack of chef-driven, neighborhood-based, menu-rotating, Philadelphia-style restaurants. A stint in Salt's kitchen has become a standard resume builder, and duck-fat fries march through our dreams.
9. Chameleon Café -- Approaching its 10th anniversary, the Smiths' Harford Road restaurant will always be the restaurant that people have only just discovered. The focus at Chameleon is on Maryland cuisine, which makes an appointment with Jeff Smith's summer menu something you should add to your 2011 calendar right now.
8. B -- When Jamie Forsythe took over the Bolton Hill bistro's fine Mediterranean kitchen, he gave it a mission -- local and seasonal. What's nice is that it's all guided by pleasure. On a summer night, b's patio is an urban dreamscape.
7. Jack's Bistro -- Is there a happier chef-patron relationship than the one between Ted Stelzenmuller and the gang who shows up at his Canton restaurant week after week, expecting something fearless and big-hearted to fly out of Jack's curious kitchen?
6. Aldo's -- Overlooked, except by those who have come to depend on Aldo Vitale's Little Italy restaurant as refuge for a brandy-and-cigars style of fine dining that's all but vanished. The masterpiece -- the double-cut Wisconsin veal chop. The lullaby -- homemade limoncello.
5. Petit Louis -- Tony Foreman's vision for this Roland Park French bistro was clear from the beginning. In 10 years, Petit Louis hasn't wavered. It's improved, and from soup to nuts, there isn't a more agile performer in the city. The French onion soup could run for mayor, and win.
4. Peter's Inn -- Every week a new Karin Tiffany menu appears on the blackboards. Every night, customers arrive early, before the kitchen opens, to stake out a table or a barstool in the Fells Point restaurant. Peter's Inn is the kind of place a Baltimorean points to and says, "Now do you see why I love this city?"
3. Woodberry Kitchen -- In late 2008, Spike Gjerde returned to the Baltimore dining scene with Woodberry Kitchen -- a restaurant that made farm-to-table interesting, inviting, and, no doubt about it, sexy. On some nights here, you can still feel Woodberry reeling from its instantaneous success.
2. Charleston -- If you arrive with your spirit willing and your taste buds ready, if you fully commit yourself to the experience, you'll be rewarded. Cindy Wolf's Charleston, the Foreman-Wolf flagship, delivers great pleasure for those who come looking for it.
1. The Prime Rib -- At 45, The Prime Rib, the Mount Vernon steakhouse remains constitutionally incapable of a misstep or a false move, and the relaxed dress code hasn't detracted a bit from the glamour of it all. When you leave, you feel like you've been someplace.
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