Where do you grocery shop? Don’t ask that question in Baltimore unless you’re prepared for a lengthy response. Everyone has his or her favorite, and reasons why. Here, where you buy your groceries can define you. I think it might go something like school, church, club, grocery store? Sometimes a family’s loyalty to its grocer is fierce enough to span multiple generations. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day stores offered bumper stickers so that everyone knows “We’re a Graul’s family” or “I’m an Eddie’s regular.” Affix next to the ACK sticker.
Okay, okay, not everyone takes it so seriously, but Baltimore’s many independent grocery stores have distinct personalities, and big ones at that. From the old faithfuls like Eddie’s and Graul’s to the newbies like the Fresh Market, all seem to be thriving, which is surprising in the era of the super store. (And a Harris Teeter is expected next year!) That’s not to say that Baltimore doesn’t appreciate the value of a Sam’s Club or the convenience of a Target with its one-stop-shopping for Windex, Triscuits and Missoni. But there are plenty of us who leverage our grocery budget to get the Charmin at Giant (you don’t even want to know how much a measly four-roll pack will run you at Eddie’s) and make another stop at one of the independent groceries for the good stuff: the parmesan reggiano, the shitake mushrooms, the shrimp salad. With the terrific quality of the small grocery stores in Baltimore, you’d be missing out if you didn’t pop into one of them regularly for a thing or two.
As we enter the high season of cooking and eating, here is the low-down on four stores worth that second errand:
When you shop here, don’t you always feel like you are about to round the corner and see Thurston and Lovey Howell, their cart filled with tomolives, port wine cheese and five bottles of Cutty Sark from the booze shop next door? The place is true “old (cough, cough) guard” Baltimore and no matter how many improvements they make it still feels very 1963. That’s not such a bad thing. All that authenticity is charming. And if you survive the parking “experience,” there is some delicious nosh to be had. Graul’s prepared foods seem to top everyone’s list: “Meatballs so good I’ll never make another,” one shopper told me. “I serve the shrimp dip every time I entertain, never a speck left,” said one more. “That chicken sal…let’s go get it now,” yet another mumbled, and that is even before we get to the cakes. I mean NO ONE has ever complained about a Graul’s birthday cake. And, though I poked fun at the throwback vibe (ham salad dear?), this retro realm comes with a bit of throwback service, too. I recently asked to have my pork chops trimmed and the butcher didn’t look at me like my hair was aflame. Refreshing. Of course there are some drawbacks. Why can’t they get the produce right? And it can feel a little (okay, a lot) claustrophobic in there. (The Mays Chapel Graul’s is more roomy, but does not have the character of the Ruxton store.) But it all seems worth it at check out, when Lester tells you how much he loves your top.
While not a local-yokel, its diminutive stature (the ginormous one in Annapolis will make you weep bitter tears of envy) makes it feel like one. Doesn’t it seem like yesterday when Whole Foods was Fresh Fields? In the 90s, I would go there for lunch with my hippie-ish friend Annie. She would prattle on about local, sustainable, organic food — “whatever,” I thought at the time. Well folks, times have changed. Annie’s ideas are no longer “fringe” and there is no better place to bank lifestyle points than at Whole Foods. I start to feel better about myself even as I park the car. And there are perks besides the smugness factor. The food is excellent. Hands down the best produce in the area, and so attractively displayed (here’s looking at you, beets) I’m inspired to actually buy and cook the stuff. As a matter of fact all the departments here turn out a superior product (special props to the cheese section and divine olive bar). The selection of hard-to-find specialty products is stellar. I tend to wade in the shallow end of the health food pool, but it is nice to know that there are plenty of sea vegetables in the Whole Foods sea, if I decide to head for deeper macrobiotic waters…for a week. So with all this “wholeness,” why are many of the staff and patrons in such a bad mood? I believe that most of these people would lock arms with me for my right to build a goddess temple in my front yard, so why are they so intolerant of my cart being in the way? Heaven forbid you forget your recyclable bags! Best be prepared for a serious “shame stare.” So, what gives? Is it gluten-deprivation or are they just taking themselves too seriously? All I know is that they should all take a cue from the good folks over at Trader Joe’s. Possibly high but undoubtedly happy.
This relative newcomer is certainly the most polished act in town. Piped in classical music, a dark “ye olde grocery store” decor (next time, pay attention to the weird picture vignettes placed high on the walls) and inventive displays (last week there was a cranberry “bog”) all make for a very pleasant shopping experience. The rich vibe carries through to the clientele: perfectly coiffed 50-somethings with Bottega Veneta bags strolling about. It’s like a Neiman’s for food. That’s a good thing. The meat here never disappoints; it’s the perfect spot to buy filets for a special occasion. The flowers and plants are superior; it’s the perfect spot to buy a bouquet of ranunculus, for another special occasion. Pantry offerings are carefully curated, making Fresh Market the perfect spot to buy Stonewall’s lemon curd, for, you know, a special occasion. And herein lies the problem. This store can be a little too “special.” If you are shopping for daily life, it may be hard to cover much ground here. You are probably forced to make a second run to Giant — and sometimes I am just a little too lazy. It’s weird, too, because they have the space to beef up the selection: Just take away some of those damn nuts. Barrels upon barrels take up at least a third of the store. So, Fresh Market is not the place for your big Monday shop, however, it is the place for your next dinner party…and don’t forget the store made crostini — they are to die for!
Let’s say you have a friend named Eddie. He’s not a loud-mouthed jokester, not a flashy spender and not particularly dashing. But everyone loves Eddie. He is reliable, intelligent and accomplished at many things. That’s Eddie’s on Charles Street. The size and organization of the store are perfection; it’s not too big, not too small, just the right measurement to make a grocery run not feel like a chore. The prepared foods are consistently good (notice all the divorced men lined up for capellini) and Eddie’s sandwiches lure a hearty lunch crowd every day. God, that shrimp salad is good. Another win for Eddie’s is the charming little candy/gift department with its yummy treats, good cards and decent hostess gifts (a pack of those funny cocktail napkins for me, please). And then there’s the check out. Don’t pretend it’s not nice to have someone unload your cart while you scan the magazines (I somehow never leave there without one). I always leave Eddie’s in a good mood. I feel like I have had a little treat when the reality is I’ve just run an errand. But Eddie’s can be a tad too much of a “see and be seen” scene; sometimes a quick run in and out can be elusive as you take five minutes to talk to your pre-schooler’s teacher, another five to chat up the mailman on his lunch break and 15 more to catch up with someone from that committee whose meeting you missed last week. Sometimes the anonymity of a Giant can be a welcome thing. Eddie’s smaller sister on Roland Ave gets equally high marks but with its size and scope the Charles Street location is the preferred one of the two.
And if nothing here suits your taste, there’s always Wegman’s, Trader Joe’s, Belvedere Square Market and more (let us know if we’ve missed a favorite). With so many specialty stores in Baltimore, you can always find goodies to keep you fat and happy whether it’s the holidays or not.