I thought I understood quintessential Baltimore food.
After ten years living there, I should know.
Before I went to Peter's Inn this past weekend, if you were looking for a taste of the charm, I'd just tell you order up a linguini with clam sauce in Little Italy. Or claw your way through a couple dozen blue crabs at Bahama Mama's. And, while you're at it, get a $7 lamb gyro at any place in Highlandtown.
Don't expect any of these at Peter's. No, the menu reads like a stuffy New American place on Capitol Hill; a quick scan reveals contemporary dishes like veal cheeks, seared rare tuna, and osso bucco.
This place? Real Baltimore? What's a burly, Natty Boh guzzling longshoreman supposed to do with seared rare tuna?
But now look closer. Why can't you read the last "o" in osso bucco? It looks like ... someone accidentally erased it - the whole menu is written on a chalkboard!
In addition to the chalkboard, handwritten menus
New American restaurants in DC would call this ambiance suicide. And that's not all. The facade, which consists of nondescript bricks, a scuffed red door, and a crooked, misplaced drainage pipe, could easily be mistaken for a Hamden pool hall.
Inside, you'll find a biker bar. No, really. As recently as the early 90s, Peter's Inn catered to the leather-clad, face-tattooed, unshowered variety of Baltimoreans, and the current owners haven't done much to polish the rough edges. Yes, that picture on the wall is Johnny Cash giving you the finger.
And while New American restaurants in DC look down at Peter's, the beautiful thing is that Peter's clearly couldn't care less. That's why it's a Baltimore classic right up there with Cafe Hon and Papermoon Diner. Because, I realized as I scanned the shelves in the tiny dining room, filled with random articles like little league baseball trophies, what really makes an eating experience scream out Baltimore isn't any one particular kind of food. What truly says Balimer - whether it's defiling yourself with Old Bay and tomalley during a crab feast, or sharing a bathroom with a punk-rock manikin at Papermoon, or sporting a beehive at Cafe Hon - is funkiness without apology.
Although they might read like the New American menus you find inside the Beltway, many of the items at Peter's are full of that Baltimore funk. They pack strong, almost overpowering flavors that restaurants in the District shy away from.
Except for the veal cheeks, which were overcooked and mushy, each of the following was tastier and more memorable than versions of the same dish I've had in DC. Best plates of the night were the shrimp with cheese grits and the seared rare tuna.
Side of Cheese Grits
Three of hearts, celery, romaine and palm hearts with a dolce gorganzola dressing
Shrimp and Cheese Grits with Andouille Sausage.
Duck leg confit salad with roasted beets and a parmigana panna cotta
Braised Veal Cheeks
Seared rare tuna on fried won tons with seaweed salad
Wild rockfish fillet with a meyer lemon buerre blanc and wilted spinach
Jess looks excited about the French coffee press