Demographics may change, but Baltimore markets are still bustling food destinations

Today's markets in Baltimore offer a taste of old-time traditions — without the muskrats.

On a recent rainy Saturday, I found myself in search of a sandwich and wound up at the Mount Vernon Marketplace at Park Avenue and Centre Street.

I was surprised at the size of a merry crowd I encountered in what used to be an old Hochschild Kohn furniture warehouse.

The raw bar was packed, and my many companions at a sandwich counter seemed younger versions of the patrons I once encountered at the old Marconi's restaurant. On this weekend, the lunch crowd enjoyed adult beverages in this post-industrial setting.

The Marketplace, on the southwest side of the Mount Vernon neighborhood, has emerged as a food destination. Physically, it has the bare concrete floors and stalls Baltimoreans associate with a traditional market system. It's a little noisy, and not pretentious.

A similar situation can be found in the Remington neighborhood. R. House opened late last year in another bare-bones spot, the former Jarman Pontiac building, and has been a standout success.

Jon Constable, one of the Seawall Development partners at R. House, told me the operation is "exceeding expectations across the board." He believes some of that good fortune stems from its appeal to families.

"It's a place for kids and adults," he said, predicting more patronage once better weather arrives and the market's garage doors are rolled open to a patio setting.

Market lunches are a Baltimore food tradition. But the market, or marketplace, has found a new meaning in city neighborhoods today. It's a trend that began in the 1980s when Belvedere Square was created — from the parking lot of another Hochschild property, its Belvedere store.

This week Cross Street Market merchants asserted their independence from a proposal to usher change there, where my grandmother bought her fish on Fridays and my father once earned pocket money selling shopping bags.

I've observed changes sweep through both the municipal and private markets of Baltimore. Far less produce, meats and seafood are sold at these markets today, as many neighborhoods now have commercial grocery stores, such as Harris Teeter in Locust Point, not so far from Cross Street.

In days gone by, city markets overflowed onto the street certain days of the week. I have vivid childhood memories from one cold February day on Gay Street, at the now demolished Belair Market. On an inside stall, a candy dealer offered homemade, thick chocolate Valentine hearts lined up on glass shelves. They were priced to sell — and did.

Outdoors, another enterprising merchant had skinned muskrats displayed on planks along the sidewalk. It was a sight a 10-year-old could not forget.

Lexington Market's delicatessens satisfied hungry patrons who appreciated Baltimore economics — those sandwiches were quite tasty and cheap. Where else were beef tongue sandwiches always on the menu?

Lunches sold at the old city markets tended to be offered at the perimeters of the market buildings. Seating, if any, was what you could find. Still, those griddles sizzled with steamed onions, hot dogs and hamburgers. And as prosaic as these items are, they still each had distinctive tastes.

Today, those heading off to one of Baltimore's neo-market/restaurant venues can experience prepared foods that also were offered at traditional Baltimore markets. Perhaps the most famous is the Faidley crab cake platter at Lexington Market, where the Devine and Faidley families kindly provide stand-up tables for those who need a crab cake or shucked oyster on the spot.

The lines for such prepared foods at summer farmers' markets are sometimes longer than those for tomatoes or corn.

A good crowd can be part of the experience, and markets old and new share that people thing. They're great places to mix it up with folks when you don't want a formal restaurant setting — and when you can't deal with home cooking.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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