Find Divine Pride in Baltimore
At dawn a couple weeks ago, the tide was lapping against the bilious pilings of Baltimore's Inner Harbor in a murky wake. Pleasure boats bobbed lazily against a skyline dominated by the neon Domino Sugar sign that cast a syrupy-red glow on the waterfront.
By mid-morning the Inner Harbor was transformed by residents and tourists alike, all taking the air along the pathways or visiting multifarious attractions and eateries that populate the area.
Baltimore is already in the throes of celebrating summer. There are many reasons to visit this friendly and historic city, and chief among them is to lend hearty huzzahs to the LGBT community as it rallies for what is hoped to be a final push to ensure passage of the marriage equity act that will grant same sex unions - a law that seems so close and yet so far.
At Club Hippo -- a gay bar founded in 1972 and a beloved community gathering place easily reached via a fifteen minute walk up Charles Street to W. Eager St. from the Inner Harbor -- the mood was cautiously optimistic.
Struggle for marriage equity
"It’s not a done deal yet," a patron admonished me when I asked him if he was enthused about the marriage equality bill that cleared an important hurdle in February of this year. "There’s a ton of opposition to it," he said.
So the LGBT community in Baltimore is not taking anything for granted.
"So, while the opposition is gathering signatures against it, we’re fighting back and mobilizing," another Club Hippo patron told me. "Just wait until Pride!"
On sheer numbers alone, Pride Baltimore set for June 15-17, which last year attracted 30,000 revelers, should be able to push support for the bill over the top, (if every person signs a petition first, before imbibing their fill of Natty Boh beer).
The first Baltimore Pride was held in 1975. This year’s parade once again begins on Charles Street downtown and makes its serpentine journey to the historic Mount Vernon neighborhood where even more festivities await.
Starting on Charles Street
Each year, Club Hippo commandeers a nearby parking lot and transforms it into one of the most sought after watering holes along the route during the two-day event. There’s already been quite a media build up, namely several parties and the crowning of the King and Queen of Pride (Jaimal "The Crucial" Diamond and Sparkle A. Diamond, respectively), at a well-attended (and well high-heeled) coronation event that took place on May 19.
In the spirit of the block party, several neighborhoods throughout the summer cordon off automobile traffic and set up booths and tents that serve locally harvested foods and baked goods.
Should you be traveling to the Charm City on June 9, a precursor to the citywide Pride event is HonFest , which features the ever-popular toilet bowl race. Even the New Yorker magazine tipped its hat to HonFest in an article that quoted a resident as saying, "Baltimore has quirkiness to it. You can go down to Lithuanian Hall for the Night of 100 Elvises, then to Hampden for the HonFest, where you’re going to want to wear your spandex and your beehive hairdo. We’re a city that likes to poke fun at itself."
I stayed at the Hotel Monaco, a Kimpton property a few minutes’ walk from the Inner Harbor and on Charles Street. The hotel occupies a renovated historic building that was once the headquarters of the Baltimore and Ohio railroad. They don’t build them like this anymore.
Entering the hotel from street level, you find yourself instantly in an elegant setting from the Beaux-Arts school of architecture: a marble foyer with staircases rising on the sides, recessed lighting from high above, and brass fixtures inlaid into the stone. Walking up the marble staircase you pass by Tiffany stained glass windows backlit and glowing, as if in a cathedral.
Built in 1906, the B & O building is at once a testimony to Baltimore’s past as it is a living embodiment to what Baltimore must evolve into as it struggles against time to reclaim more historic buildings - many of them now derelict.
There are 202 guest rooms in the Monaco Baltimore. I stayed in one that accentuated the marble interior of the foyer, most noticeably in the spacious bathroom that included a Jacuzzi. From my windows on the eleventh floor I could see the Inner Harbor and the towering office towers that populate downtown Baltimore. The ceilings and windows are over 12 feet high, and the room fills with light, a bastion of civility, privacy and quiet.
The restaurant B & O American Brasserie is part of the Hotel Monaco. You enter to the right of the marble foyer from Charles Street. Its reputation as one of the finest restaurants in the Baltimore is deserved.
Chef Thomas Dunkin, who hails from the south, has found a home in Baltimore, and emphasizes "a focus on local, seasonal flavors" with each dish he prepares. Chef Dunkin is a master. The night I dined there I sampled several extraordinary dishes.
Dinner included briny oysters on the half shell, tuna and beet tartare, and house-made scrapple. The server brought over some freshly baked flatbread that was quickly devoured, followed by an array of main dishes that my friends and I shared, including poached rockfish swimming in a dish of cauliflower puree, black trumpet mushrooms and salmon roe; scallops; braised pork shank; and a special entrée of fresh Maryland crab. Service was never intrusive, always well timed, and highly professional.
In previous visits to Baltimore, I’ve explored many of the city’s neighborhoods. The city has an Italian heritage, and if Italian food is something you desire, check out Chazz, a restaurant founded by film actor Chazz Palminteri.
A coal-fired oven dominates the main area of the restaurant where fresh pizzas are baked before your eyes. But the menu is much more adventurous, and includes an impressive sampling of prosciutto from Italy, fresh salads, house-made pastas, slow braised pork shank, and a fabulous veal meatball served red sauce that is simply divine.
I have also dined and stayed in the Pier 5 Hotel complex that includes McCormick and Schmick and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse, located on its own pier across the harbor from the Domino Sugar sign that provides that warm glow to the murky water I described earlier.
Staying adjacent to the Inner Harbor affords access to the Power Plant entertainment complex (noted for its plethora of bars). At night, the revelry is on the loud side, but none reaches you in your room, especially if you request accommodations facing the harbor.
And the hotel loves to host surprises: one of the hotel’s employees, whose first name is Empress, led a cooking class on how to make scrumptious chocolate truffles from scratch. All of the hotel’s guests got to partake and later sample these tasty morsels.
I arrived in Baltimore from Washington, D.C. via the MARC train (one way ticket: $7.00). It was fast, clean and efficient. Along the way, it stops at nearby Baltimore-Washington International Airport, fifteen minutes from the heart of downtown.
Once I arrived at Baltimore’s Penn Station, it was a short cab ride (cost: $6.00) to the Hotel Monaco and to the Inner Harbor.
Plan on staying a few days, and explore the architectural and community treasures that Baltimore offers.