BALTIMORE' BEST BUT KEEP IT UNDER YOUR HAT

THE BALTIMORE SUN

I was having lunch at the Four Seasons in New York one day last summer -- not my usual habit, let's make that clear from the top -- as the guest of a magazine editor who happens to be a regular at the place. The black-and-white decor, the laughter of the ice cubes in the wine goblets, the subtle scent of power -- all of this readied me for a high nouvelle-cuisine experience. I fully expected to be dining on some sort of salad made up of designer greens that tasted like a couple of teaspoons of coastal Maine topsoil. Instead, my host insisted, "Order the crab cakes." I didn't need to be told twice.

They arrived appropriately browned and impressively thick -- and accompanied by a pile of small red circular things that looked something like tiddlywinks that had warped because someone had left them on a steam radiator. In language as discreet as I could make it, I asked the waiter exactly what they were. He gave me a glance that would have wilted a plastic poinsettia.

"Beet chips," he said.

Ah. Of course. Beet chips.

Now, there's a place for beet chips, I suspect: in a bowl, next to a frozen Stolichnaya martini, in the cocktail lounge in the lobby of a grand hotel in St. Petersburg in the dead of a Russian winter.

There's a place not for beet chips, too: in proximity to a crab cake. This is when I began to suspect what I'd known all along: that the rest of the world just doesn't get it when it comes to things Baltimorean.

I took a bite of the crab.

"How is it?" asked my host.

Now, truth be told, I was trying to get a job on his magazine, and I was not about to admit that the Four Seasons' crab cake wasn't as good as the one I'd had the day before -- in Henry & Jeff's on North Charles Street in Baltimore. That one had been accompanied by chips, too -- potato chips. A bag of Mrs. Ihrie's potato chips, in fact. (I don't know if that was gauche, embellishing good crab with potato chips, but it worked for me.)

I also didn't tell him that the day before that, I'd had a better crab cake at Louie's, also on North Charles Street. And a few days before that, I'd had two better crab cakes in the press dining room at Memorial Stadium. (Actually, I had one. I smuggled the other one into my briefcase and brought it home to my wife in Philadelphia.) And a few days before that I'd had a better crab cake in a Greek restaurant on Pratt Street.

But discretion, in this case, was the better part of getting a job. "It's real good," I told my host. It wasn't a lie. It just wasn't as good as any I'd had in Baltimore -- which had little to do with the crab cake itself, which, on pure taste-bud scale, was pretty remarkable.

No, it had to do with the attitude and atmosphere -- which, I've discovered, is just about true for everything in Baltimore. You have to be here to appreciate it. The perfect crab cake, served in a power-lunch room off New York's Park Avenue, is no crab cake at all. Baltimore just doesn't travel well.

And I'm starting to think it's a good thing.

Now, first off, make no mistake -- I'm not some pseudo-sophisticated cosmopolite presuming to tell the city what's good for it. Anything but. I'm just a frequent visitor from the outside looking in, with a few observations. Convinced that what makes Baltimore special is worth holding onto. And hoping that, in its leap into the 21st century, with the new stadium and the ongoing Inner Harbor development and the burgeoning skyline, Baltimore doesn't lose some of what makes it unique on the East Coast: its ability to act like a town, all the while wrapped in a city.

A brief background: I'm from the outside world. I was raised in New York City. I went to school in Connecticut. I've worked in Washington, San Diego, New York and Miami. I've had an academic fellowship in Boston. I now live in Philadelphia. But through the years I've spent some time here.

I wrote about the Orioles '79 pennant drive for the New Haven Register. I wrote about the Blast for the Washington Post. In five years with the Miami Herald I covered the '83 World Series (and the Orioles' victory parade), the '84 slump, the firing of Joe Altobelli, the flight of the Colts, the Orioles' losing streak and, a few months before Edward Bennett Williams' death, the signing of the long-term lease. I covered five straight Oriole opening days, each one beginning with a walk from my hotel down on East Pleasant Street up to the stadium, notebook open all the way. Finally, for the National, I wrote a memorial to a Memorial.

That's just a sampling. I've come to know the town in a passing way, but, I think, an honest one. Being on foot can do that.

So that last spring, when I was asked to write a book about Camden Yards (that's what it says in my contract: deliver a book about "Camden Yards," and that's what I call it) I jumped at the chance. And one of the motivations was my belief that Baltimore has long been given a short shrift in the East Coast rankings by the people who presume to know such things, which, of course, they never do.

dTC From the first day in '76 when I walked up Charles beneath the flowering trees, up to the evening I ran into Glenda Jackson in my hotel elevator, I began to think the city had innumerable hidden attributes. And, I thought, if I could bring a few out, and present them to a larger audience in the book, they could enhance the city in some small way, as well as enhance my book.

But I've started to change my thinking. The more I poke into the city's crevices and corners, the more I find I want to leave everything just the way it is, for fear that I might have some hand in changing it. It's the Heisenberg Principle, the one named for the German physicist who discovered that you change the flight of a molecule just by observing it.

The truth, I'm afraid, is this: The more time I spend in Baltimore, the less I want anyone else to know about it. The more I get to know it, the more I always want it to be here the way I've found it, because, as far as I can tell, every other city in the damned country, except maybe Cheyenne, is determined to join the great American homogenization. And if there's one that shouldn't, it's yours.

Selfish? Of course.

But why shouldn't I be? Why, for example, would I want to share the Club Charles with the outside world, and risk changing it? See, I'm writing this at a table in the Club Charles, over a cold beer, listening to two of my all-time favorite bands -- Wall of Voodoo and X -- on the CD machine, while I wait for my train home to Philadelphia. Now, in 15 years as a journalist, I've never ++ come across a bar in any city with both Wall of Voodoo and X on its jukebox, except maybe in Los Angeles, which doesn't count, because in Los Angeles if there's a good song on the jukebox everyone leaves before it's over to beat the traffic. And I certainly never thought I'd find one in Baltimore -- in a bar with a dusty plate-glass window two blocks from the train station.

I'd never have known about the Club Charles if I hadn't wandered in during one screamingly humid summer afternoon. Like everything else in Baltimore, it didn't announce itself. The Lion's Head in New York, the Plough and the Stars in Cambridge, Mass., the Tune Inn on Capitol Hill -- these are the stuff of common legend among East Coast-corridor beer drinkers. But the Club Charles is an unknown.

It's not alone. How many people outside Baltimore know about the B&O; Museum down in Pigtown? A few years ago, at Christmas, I took my son to the Citibank Building in Manhattan and stood in line for two hours to see a model train layout exhibit about half as impressive as the one that sits up on the second floor of the rail museum down on Pratt Street, with its astounding red-brick roundhouse and its staff of saints.

The antique shops on Howard Street. The markets. The markets!

Most of them presided over by people who act like people. From librarians to cabdrivers, the people of Baltimore still seem to be in touch with the fabric of humanity. The other day I was shopping in Lexington Market. In one stall I bought some crab meat. "Here you go, dad," said the clerk. In another I bought a crab cake. "Here's your change, babe," said the clerk. Grabbed some fried chicken at another. "Enjoy, enjoy," said the clerk. I don't know about you, but this stuff doesn't happen to me in other cities.

To get some confirmation on my impressions, I visited former Orioles shortstop Mark Belanger the other day in his 26th-floor, windowed office overlooking Manhattan. Mark has lived in the Baltimore area since '78, and commutes up to New York for his workweek. "The people in Baltimore are nice people," he said. "Not like in some other cities I'd better not name. It's a great place to raise a family. We'll stay there, and I think my kids will raise their families there. I hope they do."

Mark still takes his family to the same Japanese restaurant that he took them to 20 years ago. The same waitresses who waited on his infant kids then wait on his grown kids now.

"I don't think it'll ever change," he told me.

But a very troubling thing happened a few months ago. I ran into a couple from the Midwest on a train. We struck up a conversation. Turns out they'd come to Baltimore for a visit. They were walking downtown and asked a woman police officer where Lexington Market was. "You don't want to go up there," they said they were told. "You want to go to the Inner Harbor."

The cop tried to turn them around. But they persisted. And were delighted when their perseverance paid off.

The more people I talk to who grew up here, the more I hear talk of its inferiority complex, of how Baltimore felt it was always sitting in the shadows cast by the more glittering towns to the north and south. "We were just a stop on the train between Washington and Philadelphia," is how Baltimore-born writer Frank Deford remembers it. And to a certain extent, I suppose, that was understandable. But I don't think it is now.

I have a friend from Minneapolis. She calls it mega-Minneapolis. She says that in its headstrong rush to get big for big's sake, to raise its profile and build more interstates and seize the day, it's forgetting what made it special. Maybe there's a lesson here for Baltimore. Maybe not.

The Four Seasons' beet chips, by the way, were very good. If I ever go to there again, I'm going to order them. Without the crab cakes.

And speaking of crab cakes, I got the job, at GQ, and the restaurant critic for my magazine asked me the other day if I could recommend anywhere particular in Baltimore for a story he's doing in our April issue about his search for the best crab cake in America. I said I couldn't. I told him I tried about a dozen places, and that they were all good.

"Where should I start?" he said.

"Walk down any street and turn into the first place you see," I said, "and it'll probably be the best crab cake you ever had."

I haven't heard the results of his survey, by the way. If he reports that the best crab cake in America is to be found in Baltimore, it'll come as no surprise to you. But if he doesn't, I wouldn't worry too much. What do we know?

Not a lot. And I can't help hoping it stays that way.

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