Aside from geography, the shops and restaurants on West 36th Street in Hampden have little in common. On the strip better known as The Avenue, you can get a haircut, browse sex toys, eat a gyro, sip espresso, buy a bong and order a loveseat with minimal effort and time.

If the Avenue has any connective tissue, it's a palpable aura of small-business cool. These spaces emanate warmth, and their interiors reflect the personalities and whims of their owners and staff.


No restaurant on 36th Street exudes this appeal as effectively and effortlessly as the Food Market, which celebrated its fourth anniversary in June. It remains a hot ticket for Hampden residents and visitors alike, and a recent trip there revealed its staying power: The Food Market offers quality execution in a setting that balances excitement and comfort.

I stopped in on a Sunday that happened to be the Food Market's last night of Baltimore Restaurant Week. As I've seen on previous visits, the wide-open dining room and dozen-seat bar were nearly full, abuzz with the anticipation and conversations of those expecting to be wowed.

Also striking was the Food Market's malleability. Based on fashion choices, this was a fancy night out for some (tucked-in shirts, chic dresses), and a casual late-night dinner for others (T-shirts and baseball caps). To the restaurant's credit, no one appeared out of place at the bar or dining tables. The visual mix, indicative of present-day Hampden as a whole, only bolstered the atmosphere.

There are no TVs in the Food Market, and I didn't miss them. There was already plenty to look at — bartenders making cocktails, cooks pumping out orders in the open kitchen, and colorful, abstract paintings by local artist Joel Cohen adorning the white walls.

The close quarters of the bar promoted conversation between strangers, too.

"What'd you go with?" a man waiting for his table asked, pointing to my drink.

It was the W.A.S.P., an $11 summer cocktail and acronym for "Whiskey and Spicy Pepper." Bourbon and jalepeno are familiar friends in the craft cocktail world at this point, but the Food Market's take still sings. Honey and lemon pair well with the ginger beer and bitters, but it's the trifecta of Buffalo Trace bourbon, jalepeno and Domaine de Canton (Ginger-flavored liqueur from France) that makes this a must-order.

The bar splits its cocktail menu into two sections — "Here For Now" and "Original Crew." The former is currently focused on summer flavors like the eye-catching, SelvaRey rum-based Watermelon Crush ($12) and the Sweet Willi ($12), which combines Green Mountain organic lemon vodka, lime juice, simple syrup, and soda water with muddled basil and strawberries.

From the standbys, I tried a Lil Lemon Gable ($11), another cocktail that demonstrated the bar program's understanding of spirits and flavors. The cocktail was clean and refreshing, with each ingredient — Limoncello, Espolon Tequila Silver, ginger beer and muddled lemon — creating a sum greater than its parts.

Throughout the visit, my amiable bartender seemed well-trained (discarded stirrers and garnishes were promptly removed, while questions were confidently answered) and entirely comfortable. He was precise, but maintained a relaxed demeanor that seemed right at home in the Food Market.

The cocktail list commanded my attention, but it was nice to see the Food Market applies its thoughtfulness to the bar's other areas. Twenty-five white and red wines are offered by the glass ($8-$12) and bottle ($30-$60). Local brews (Union Craft Brewing, Peabody Heights, the Brewer's Art) dot a craft beer list ($3.50-$8), while mead, Champagne and virgin craft cocktails round out the menu.

A 2012 Baltimore Sun restaurant review described the Food Market as "a restaurant that takes its cooking and service seriously — but not itself." Self-seriousness is the quickest way to zap your own cool, and the Food Market should be applauded for avoiding such trappings others have not. Four years after opening, it's still humming along, bar program included.