in the land of pleasant living. [September 2010]
by Ann Levelle
A travel bug bit me in late May. I don't mean one of those big heavy-duty travel bugs that really gives you the fever, makes you drop everything and buy a one-way ticket to India. No, just a little bitey fly, the kind that makes you itch a little, makes you want to get out of Dodge for a few days, head to the Big City, perhaps. It wasn't touristy stuff I craved, or even a flashy shopping district. I just wanted to be somewhere different, hang out in a funky-cool neighborhood, stroll about for a little while, try on some coffee shops, pubs and restaurants. And, oh yes, it also needed to be somewhere I could get to by boat, because . . . well, because I said so.
So let's see, big city, striking distance from Annapolis by boat. Baltimore, of course. But where in Baltimore? Inner Harbor? No, that's where I went the last time. Fells Point? No, that was the time before last. . . . Ah, I know: Canton. Yes, I'd been there before a few times too, but always as a side trip or afterthought, never for its own sake--and it was high time, because it is indeed one of the new up-and-comers among Baltimore neighborhoods.
Not wanting to boat alone, I persuaded senior editor Jody Schroath to join me on the Annapolis-to-Baltimore leg of the trip--which actually took very little persuading. The conversation went like this:
"Hey Jody, I'm going to take a quick cruise up to Baltimore, would you like to-- "
After an equally brief consultation with editor Tim Sayles, to arrange a ride home for Jody ("lunch" was the magic word), we chose a mid-week time slot in early June and reserved one of the Albins from the boating club. That day arrived gift-wrapped--70 degrees and breezy, bright blue sky, not a hint of humidity and fairly calm seas--with the exception, as always, of the lowermost Patapsco. As has always been my experience, the wind blew the hardest (right on the nose) and the water was the bumpiest there, from Bodkin Point to the Key Bridge. Once under the bridge, though, as always, things settled down very nicely and we were able to putter along slowly and enjoy the sights--the massive ships and cargo cranes perched at the water's edge like so many gigantic wading birds. Then it's a right turn at Fort McHenry, into Northwest Harbor and past more big ships--to the right along the Clinton Street docks, to the left at Locust Point. And from here the Canton waterfront spreads out before you, to the north and northwest, starting at the pretty low-lying Canton Waterfront Park, with its Korean War Memorial, and stretching west to Fells Point. The space between is filled mostly by two big (and I mean big) marinas--Baltimore Marine Center at Lighthouse Point and Anchorage Marina, with so many boats between them that it looks as if the city itself spilled into the water.
We putted slowly past Lighthouse Point to Anchorage Marina, which is easily identifiable by its signature blue awnings on the gray buildings, and the large American flag flying at the center of the long T-head. The breeze fought us a bit, but before long we had the Albin securely lashed into her slip. We were on the last full-length pier on the west side of the marina on G dock, where we had a great view of Fells Point to the west, including Henderson's Wharf and Captain James Landing, and a dizzying number of boats in the marina to the east. To the north the shore was lined with attractive new townhomes.
After checking in there, we went to the parking lot to rendezvous with Tim Sayles--our lunch date and Jody's ride back to Annapolis. For convenience's sake, the obvious choice for lunch would have been the Can Company complex just across Boston Street from the marina, which has a few chain restaurants and a few local places. But when I'd asked CBM's Facebook gang a few days earlier to recommend dining spots in Canton, the consensus had clearly been the restaurants of O'Donnell Square, which was several blocks east on O'Donnell Street. So we headed down Boston Street, first crossing what I'd been told was the mouth of Harris Creek (long since paved over and integrated with the manmade storm drainage), and then past a big post-industrial apartment building called the Shipyard at Lighthouse Point. (Note to self: I wonder if this Shipyard apartment building is a remnant of the famous Stoddard Shipyard on Harris Creek, builder in the late 18th century of the original U.S.S. Constellation, the first official U.S. Navy ship and sister frigate of the U.S.S. Constitution? Answer to note to self: No, according to a brief entry I later found in a timeline published by the Canton Community Association, the building was part of the Booz Brothers Shipyard, established in 1848. So much for idle guesses.)
From there we crossed Boston Street, turned right at the foot of O'Donnell Street and headed east a few blocks to O'Donnell Square. There, as promised, we found a bevy of restaurants and shops, lining a street that's divided by a narrow block-long grassy park. In the middle of the rectangular park stands a statue of Captain John O'Donnell. Returning to the West from Canton, China, he sailed into Baltimore in the late 1780s with a cargo of teas, silk and other goodies from the Orient. Apparently he liked what he saw both in China and Baltimore, because soon after he bought 11 acres of land east of the aforementioned Harris Creek and named it Canton.
For lunch we decided on Nacho Mama's on the southwest corner of the square. Its nearby sister restaurant, Mama's on the Half Shell, was appealing too, but we were all in a vaguely south-of-the-border mood, so we chose the former. This wasn't your basic Mexican restaurant, with sombreros and Mexican blankets and cartoon cacti on the walls. It was a funky little bar, a long, narrow, dimly lit space with strangely fascinating decor--Christmas lights above and walls decorated with an assortment of Elvis, Baltimore Colts and National Bohemian memorabilia. Indeed, hanging above the bar are the foot-high steel letters, spelling out National, that once adorned the nearby National Bohemian brewery. Behind the bar are the letters Boh--truncated not only because they like to call it Natty Boh hereabouts, but also because there wasn't room for "Bohemian."
The menu, while leaning heavily toward Mexico, is also quite eclectic. Quesadillas and burritos, yes, but also wraps, salads, Mama's meatloaf, stir-fry, and even a few pastas. I ordered from a long list of quesadillas, which aren't your average wilty tortillas with some cheese in between. These were two flour tortillas roughly the size of a hubcap, stuffed with all kinds of goodies that made the quesadilla about the size of a spare tire. Mine was probably two inches thick, full of plump shrimp, chorizo and gooey cheese.
Also on the menu were the rules of the bar, which include: "Be nice or leave," "Report Elvis sightings to your server," and "Natty Boh will not be served in a glass, it comes in one already." Oh, did I mention Natty Boh? Mama's doesn't just honor it with memorabilia on the walls, it serves it up by the bottle (no silly cans here) and it should be officially noted that it indeed tastes great with Mexican food--a great complement. Most places here in Canton serve the time honored Baltimore brew (it started brewing in Baltimore in 1885, was the first beer to come out in six-packs of cans and coined the phrase "From the Land of Pleasant Living.")
After lunch the three of us waddled back to the marina, where Jody and Tim said their good-byes and headed back to Annapolis. I, meanwhile, needed to get back to waddling, in the vain hope of burning off a few of those quesadilla calories. So I strolled along the waterfront promenade, past the lovely waterfront town houses, past umpteen runners, most with four-legged escorts trotting happily alongside, past the marina's last dock, and past the small grassy jetty that, according to marina manager Jim Ruscoe, had been a tugboat pier and home to one of the city's fireboats. I kept on until I reached the sharply angled corner of Aliceanna and Boston streets, an intersection dominated by the literally ship-shape Captain James Landing Restaurant. I'd reached what most consider the west edge of Canton, which is to say the east edge of Fells Point, so I decided to double back from there. Also, why go farther once you've seen a restaurant shaped like a big white steamship?
Leaving the restaurant ship to port, I crossed Boston Street and continued north, wandering up one block and across another, admiring the charming marble front steps on so many of the row houses, and--another Baltimore twist, painted screens on windows and doors. The house styles here vary greatly from one block to the next, and sometimes even from one house to another. Some are painted some are not; some look recently renovated, some not, and on nearly every block, mixed in among the homes, there are hair salons and corner bars. Sure there were a few blocks here and there that could use a little TLC, but nothing like in other parts of the city, for sure. The few people that I did meet on the streets all either smiled or said hello (or they were running and therefore just nodded while jogging by). There were a few alleyways here and there that I wouldn't have gone down, but otherwise I felt very safe and at home here.
Without realizing it I had quickly made my way to the northern edge of Canton--Eastern Avenue and, across from that the vast green square of Patterson Park. But what caught my eye at the moment was the answer to the question I'd asked every time I've come past Canton by boat: What are those beautiful golden onion domes off in the distance, just beyond Anchorage Marina and the American Can Company? They are, it turns out, St. Michael's Ukrainian Catholic Church on Eastern Avenue, and they are even more breathtaking up close than they are from half a mile away, five gleaming golden domes topping what looks like a tight bundle of towers.
After ogling the church for a good long while, I crossed Eastern Avenue at the church and made my way into Patterson Park. It was late afternoon now, and with the gorgeous June weather, the park was bustling with joggers, picnicking families, countless dogs walking their humans, people milling about around the pond and a ton of kids at the playground. The ice cream man was driving around with lively music playing and ringing his bell. This park is absolutely huge--quite nearly as big as Canton itself, nearly a mile wide along Eastern Avenue, and about half a mile deep along the western edge. It's here on the western side that you'll find the architectural centerpiece of the park, an ornate four-story tower known simply as the Pagoda. Originally called the Observatory when it was built in the early 1890s, it was designed by Charles Latrobe, then superintendent of the park--mostly in the Victorian style of the period, but also with a nod to Asia, with its three encircling balconies looking from a distance like the tiered roofs of a classic pagoda. Hence the latter-day name.
I was surprised to learn, from the historical markers at the Pagoda and then from later research, that this very spot had been quite important in the failed British assault on Baltimore in August of 1814, one of the key moments of the War of 1812. Then called Fort Hill or Hampstead Hill, this was the high ground where Major General Samuel Smith, commander of the troops defending Baltimore, amassed some 15,000 or 20,000 American soldiers and Baltimore militiamen, in anticipation of a British force coming ashore marching on Baltimore. And they did just that, in concert with the more famous bombardment of Fort McHenry. Though the Brits did make landfall, they could see the troops, earthworks and artillery standing before them on Hampstead Hill, and stayed put, eventually withdrawing and ending the two-pronged attack that became known as the Battle of Baltimore.
Standing here alongside the Pagoda (it's only open to the general public from noon to 6 p.m. on Sundays, May to October), I could see why General Smith had chosen this spot. You can see everything from here: the domes of St. Michael's, the spires of St. Casimir, the old smokestack now adorned with a giant Safeway logo, the 1st Mariner building on the waterfront, the Key Bridge--and, to the east, Mr. Boh winking drunkenly over his kingdom from atop the old brewery building. Wait, what's he doing over there, I thought? Isn't that the Brewer's Hill neighborhood? It would make sense--a brewer on Brewer's Hill. Or maybe that's Highlandtown. Oh heck, I don't know. Every map I've seen has the neighborhood names in slightly different places. And, except for certain obvious things--for instance, that Patterson Park is at the north edge of Canton--it seems that no two people agree on exactly what is where or where the dividing lines are betwixt them.
After my ridiculously long walk--oh, it was at least a quesadilla's worth--I moseyed back to the marina to wait for my husband John. He hadn't been able to do the boat trip but was driving up now to join me for dinner with our friend Lee, whose boat was being hauled that week in Baltimore. Lee showed up first and we decided to wait for John in more civilized fashion --with wine glasses in hand--at the nearby Chesapeake Wine Company (at the American Can Company complex) a combination wine bar and store that has tables set up outside for the sake of al fresco sipping.
John arrived just as Lee and I were finishing our wine (a very nice pinot grigio) at one of the outdoor tables, so we wrapped things up there and headed back to O'Donnell Square. Our first thought had been dinner on the waterfront, but the Bay Cafe--perched on a pier on the east side of the Baltimore Marine Center--was having a private party that night and was closed. And since Lee and I had eaten at nearby Bo Brooks the last time we met here, it was back to O'Donnell Square. This time it was Fins, situated right between the aforementioned Mama's establishments. It's got nice open windows along the front, overlooking the street, but with tables actually inside so you don't feel like you're sitting in the parking lot. It too is a slightly campy place, decor-wise, with tiki-bar and tropical-island murals on the walls.
I had a crabcake, which was absolutely huge and delicious. John ordered the ahi tuna and was rewarded with an impossibly huge piece (at least a pound) and perfectly cooked, nicely rare in the center. I marveled out loud that, at $15 for the entree, the restaurant couldn't possibly have made money on John's meal. And Lee got his money's worth too with the soft crabs--though I'll have to take his word for it, because I'm not a fan. To top it all off they had a nice selection of microbrews, so we had Magic Hats all around and enjoyed the people-watching from our window. Even for a Tuesday night the square was pretty lively, with a lot of young couples out for dinner and groups out at the bars.
The following morning I'd set aside for unstructured exploring. It was a cloudy day, possibly rain coming, but a nice day for a walk, since the sun wasn't beating on me. First, I decided, I'd check out Chris's Seafood, which supposedly has the best and most reasonably priced take-out steamed crabs in all the land (of pleasant living). It was easy enough to find on South Montford Avenue, but it wasn't open yet. So I kept walking, and came upon a charming little shop called Baltimore Contained--Gardens for the City. Owner Anne Fleshman opened it a year ago and it's been flourishing since. She's doing a lot of gardening on rooftops and in back courtyards in the area, doing a lot of the design and planting herself, and would love to get into planting green rooftops. But the retail business keeps her pretty busy too, she says, selling everything from window boxes and other plant containers to vegetables, seeds, plants and other assorted gardening supplies. It's a nice bit of green in the concrete jungle.
After I left Fleshman's shop I decided to explore the eastern fringe of Canton, and so continued down Eastern Avenue, passing the old 1930s theater called the Patterson. Like so many movie theaters of its vintage, it's now home to a nonprofit arts group, in this case the Creative Alliance--which uses it for art shows, openings, film screenings, concerts and performance art, as well as renting the place out for receptions and other celebrations. As I got farther east, nearing Conkling Street, the landscape changed a bit, now comprised of more tiny corner shops and bars, a few taquerias and kabob joints, and--I mention this because I cannot not mention it--a restaurant called the Corned Beef Factory!
But I had to skip the corned beef, as I was on my way back to O'Donnell Square (the Facebook people were right; I like it there!) to meet my old friend Karin for lunch. She lives in Canton, actually upper Canton. Or maybe it's upper Fells Point, or Linwood. She lives near the park, that's all that's important. Plus she works in Fells Point . . . for herself . . . which means she was available for a long lunch!
For this I chose Helen's Garden, which several people told me was the place to go on the square. What they didn't tell me was that pretty much everyone is mildly confused, if not outright distressed by the restaurant's entrance. It seems straightforward enough, with doors that appear to offer access to both sides of the establishment. But they don't. The actual door is the little one, the tiny one, right between the two sections of the restaurant--the one that looks for all the world like it leads down a rabbit hole. But no, it leads to the restaurant by way of a very narrow brick-walled corridor. Turns out it's two separate buildings, and that corridor is what used to be the alley between them. The upstairs dining room spans both buildings, and the first floor is dining room on one side and bar on the other. I was seated in the charmingly decorated downstairs dining room, with colorful artwork on its brick walls (much of it Canton scenery) and billowy yellow silk curtains hanging from the front. Karin arrived minutes later--followed shortly by a late addition to our lunch party, CBM advertising rep Ellen Honey, who asked to join us when she heard I'd be in Baltimore that day. I had a fantastic almond-crusted tomato and portobello sandwich, and Karin and Ellen both had the tomato-basil-mozzarella sandwich. We also decided to share a bread pudding. It's made fresh daily at Helen's, and we just couldn't resist. That day's offering was made with fresh strawberries and blueberries and topped with a healthy blob of homemade whipped cream. Three words: to die for.
While we ate, Karin mentioned that she had been here several times over the years for brunch and has always been impressed. She also mentioned that Wednesday nights are big here, as they have $10 entrees. Pair that with the daily happy hour from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. and you can get one heck of an inexpensive and delicious meal!
After lunch, when I was alone again, I decided to check out the square more carefully. Other than restaurants, of which there must be at least ten on the square, there isn't much else. There are only two shops: the Doggy Style pet boutique and a shop called 2910 On the Square. I started at 2910, since it's next door to Helen's Garden, and started browsing through the crafty jewelry, some fun, kitschy Baltimore items, Natty Boh paraphernalia, artwork and a huge collection of handpainted old wooden floorboards that depicted nearly every shop or restaurant that's ever been in Canton, and probably all of Baltimore.
While browsing I started chatting with owner Stephanie Fleishman about her shop and the area. Yep, she confirmed, by way of non-restaurants, it's just her and the pet store down the street--and that works pretty well for her. She's done a decent business for 11 years now, not least because some people like to browse around in shops after a nice meal--and so much the better if you're the only shop on the square. The only one for humans, that is. I was about ready to head back to the boat when the rain started and I chose instead to duck into Firehouse Coffee, which is still actually owned by the fire station with which it shares a building. The life-size Blues Brothers statues just inside the entrance took me by surprise, a bit, but otherwise the place had a nice comfy feel to it--big soft couches and chairs, a wide-open room with tall ceilings and bright red walls. It actually smelled a bit smoky, though that might have been the power of suggestion; it was a firehouse, after all, complete with a fire pole in the back of the room.
I looked east up O'Donnell Street and winked good-bye to Mr. Boh. I'd had a great mini trip away from home and was happy I'd taken the chance to explore on my own, all the while meeting up with old friends and meeting a few new ones, too. Thanks to its recent renaissance, Canton is definitely a part of Baltimore that's worth its own trip and it's a nice soothing aloe to a travel bug bite, I might add . . . the Land of Pleasant Living, indeed.