Neighborhood Watch: Mount Vernon
Baltimore’s historic district promises the city a brighter future
Photography: Scott Suchman
It’s mid-afternoon on a Monday, normally a slow time for restaurants, but here in Mount Vernon, just north of Baltimore’s famous harbor, business is hopping. I walk into Dooby’s, a Korean-inspired coffee shop-restaurant that opened in 2013 in a burned-out townhouse, which has become well known for its pork-belly banh mi. Music from indie darlings Arcade Fire blends with the tippy-tap of laptops, as the young people around me work on their screenplays and business plans. “This wouldn’t have been the case 15 years ago,” says conservationist Lance Humphries, a Michigan native who moved to Baltimore in 1995 and Mount Vernon in 2001. “It’s great to see the space animated with people.”
Outside the youthful eatery, the neighborhood, which is a National Historic Landmark district, is rife with monuments, along with the elegant Victorian row houses that once accommodated the city’s elite. Today, the area is at the forefront of a broader revival in the city—indeed, as if signaling this fact, this spring saw the opening of the Hotel Revival, a colorful boutique property in the heart of the neighborhood.
From Dooby’s doorway, you can see one of the neighborhood’s more traditional attractions: the Washington Monument, a 178-foot column topped with a statue of the headlining founding father, providing a fitting contrast to the kids inside Dooby’s. The monument dominates a cobblestone square, surrounded by radiating gardens and beautiful buildings, including a Norman-Gothic Methodist church, the breathtaking Peabody Library, and the Renaissance-inspired Walters Art Museum, whose collection ranges from the ancient world to the contemporary. Two blocks west is the Maryland Historical Society, a library and museum that houses the original handwritten lyrics of Francis Scott Key’s “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Mount Vernon Square
Humphries runs a nonprofit called the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, which works to preserve the 200-year-old monument and the surrounding park squares. The area possesses a European splendor that seems at odds with the urban squalor depicted in HBO’s gritty crime drama The Wire—the tall central column in particular honors an ideal as well as a historical figure. “People here really see the monument as the symbol of their city,” Humphries says. “It’s a special place steeped in tradition and one of the finest things Baltimore has ever built. It’s symbolic of civic pride.”
Steeped in history as it is, the Mount Vernon of today seems very much focused on what lies ahead. You’ll see this impulse in places like the hip Mount Vernon Marketplace food court, which opened in 2015 in a former warehouse, and whose menu ranges from Chesapeake oysters to gourmet Mexican and Greek. Next door is Ceremony Coffee Roasters, whose bright interior calls to mind an Apple store—albeit one that sells avocado toast and nitro cold brew.
This is not to suggest that the turnaround has happened overnight. For decades, Mount Vernon has been home to a thriving LGBT community, and has long boasted some of the best gay bars in town—along with a starring role in the annual Baltimore Pride celebrations. Then there are places like The Helmand, a quarter-century-old restaurant owned by the brother of a former Afghan president, which still ranks as one of Zagat’s top 10 Baltimore restaurants. Esquire declared the nearby Brewer’s Art the best bar in the country a decade ago. And the neighborhood’s longstanding ethnic diversity has spawned cuisines that span Afghani, Spanish, Indian and Nepali.
The architecture, too, is remarkably diverse. Flanking Mount Vernon’s tranquil park squares are stately row houses built in a variety of styles: Second Empire, Italianate, Greek Revival. Next to Dooby’s is a tree-draped brownstone—the kind you might find in New York or Boston—that houses basement cocktail bar Sugarvale. Nearby, the beaux arts Belvedere Hotel, which hosted royalty and presidents in the early 1900s, now contains condos. The old Stafford Hotel—now an unusually elegant block for student housing—once hosted F. Scott Fitzgerald, who reputedly racked up a hefty bar tab.
Steamed shrimp with oysters at Mount Vernon Marketplace
And while many of the area’s more prosperous residents fled for leafier neighborhoods in the early 20th century, their arts patronage left behind some of the city’s best cultural institutions. Among these is the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, founded in 1916, and the imposing Enoch Pratt Free Library, which dates back to 1886. Mount Vernon is also home to Maryland’s largest professional theater, Baltimore Center Stage, whose past performers have included the likes of Anna Deavere Smith and Charles S. Dutton.
Then, there’s the Walters Art Museum, which, on the day I visit, is showing an exhibition that provides an edgy take on Fabergé: digital prints superimposing images from modern life—such as a Starbucks storefront—on the famous eggs. Just down Charles Street from here is the 41-year-old C. Grimaldis Gallery, touted as the city’s oldest contemporary art space. In July, meanwhile, the neighborhood will host the three-day Artscape festival, billed as the nation’s largest free arts festival.
As Mount Vernon continues to draw younger, livelier crowds, cultural institutions are looking for ways to keep up. Baltimore Concert Opera, which was formed nine years ago after the city’s classical opera house dissolved, regularly holds what it calls “Thirsty Thursdays” events, which pair cocktail, beer and wine tastings with live opera in one of Mount Vernon’s most spectacular historic homes, the 19th-century Gilded Age Garrett- Jacobs Mansion.
Nearby, on Charles Street, the neighborhood’s central artery, you’ll find The Elephant, a storied and gloriously ornate restaurant that reopened two years ago in a 19th-century mansion following extensive renovations. While Charles Street is booming, the subsequent hike in rents has led more and more local entrepreneurs to take to the side streets when looking for spaces.
Down narrow Morton Street, a rainbow flag flies outside the café-record shop Baby’s on Fire. On the wall is a “staff picks” list, which includes The Mighty Lemon Drops and Fugazi, and a black-and-white poster advertising a 1976 Amsterdam gig by Patti Smith. I rummage for a bit, then take a short walk west to the equally funky Bun Shop bakery, whose interior resembles an artist’s loft—both in terms of the décor and the scruffy-chic kids munching the shop’s famous sweet and savory buns. A few doors down, you’ll find soy candles and vintage clothes at the two-year-old Knits, Soy & Metal and Keepers Vintage. There’s more vintage gear for sale across the street at Bottle of Bread.
Wet City Brewing
As the sun goes down, I head for a much-needed drink at Wet City brewing, a fashionable bar that opened a couple of years ago in a space once occupied by an Irish pub. Struggling to be heard over the booming sounds of Kendrick Lamar and Rick Ross, I ask the bartender if they have any fruity beers, and he pours me a Fruit Cup, brewed by the bar in collaboration with a D.C. brewery. The peach, pineapple and pear-flavored drink comes topped with a layer of slush—a boozier version of the convenience store refresher.
The next day, I have lunch at city cafe with Michael Ross, managing director of the nearby Baltimore Center Stage theater. “I do love this part of town,” he says before ordering a salad with pot stickers, wasabi peas and mandarin oranges. I order the same dish, which offers a nice crunch from the peas and a hint of sweetness from the oranges. “I like the mix of old and new in Mount Vernon. You can see this incredible architecture from the past, but so much of it is also contemporary.”
Ross’ Center Stage recently completed a $28 million renovation and expansion, which was partly aimed at turning the public areas into pre-show destinations, with several new bars and design touches that include the projection of theatrical quotes onto the walls. “I’ve seen people try to push the words,” Ross says, “thinking they will light up like a computer.” He smiles and shrugs. “Culture changes.”
Marie Louise Bistro
So does commerce. In recent years, investors have pumped countless millions into lavish apartments, restaurants and hotels in the area. Four blocks north of Center Stage, a Relais & Châteaux property, The Ivy, opened three years ago in a 19th-century mansion, offering 400-thread-count linen sheets and private car service for guests. The hotel is located on a residential street, around the corner from the fine-dining institution The Prime Rib and a few blocks from a firehouse that was converted into Brew House No. 16. Across the street from City Cafe, a developer plans to demolish several historic buildings and build a modern 10-story apartment and retail complex.
Gentrification will always have its casualties, of course, and the most notable of these in Mount Vernon might be the much-loved club Hippo, which once hosted drag shows and bingo nights. It’s now a chain drugstore. Ross, who moved to Baltimore three decades ago and spent one of his first nights at the Hippo, says he misses the place as much as anyone—but, he quips, many of the area’s gay residents are getting older, and probably need a drugstore more than a bar. “It always seems like this neighborhood is going to get itself fancied up,” he adds. “But it doesn’t feel high-end or precious.”
Others are not so blithe about the kind of changes that the Hippo closure represents. Nikki Davidson, who runs the blog cocktailcrafty.com, has lived in Mount Vernon for 14 years. “I spent my 20s at the Hippo,” she says over a cocktail at the basement bar Sugarvale, which has pine cones dangling from the ceiling and wood stacked in a non-working fireplace. “You want the neighborhood to grow, but you don’t want it to change.” She smiles and adds, “I guess you can’t have it both ways.”
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Mount Vernon’s boom brings a crop of new hotels
The newest of the lot (pictured above) opened in May, with 107 rooms in a 1929 deco-infused building replete with karaoke spaces and a rooftop restaurant with lovely views.
The Ivy Hotel
The 3-year-old Ivy Hotel occupies a former Gilded Age mansion and features 19th- and 20th-century art, fine dining at Magdalena and an ivy-walled courtyard.
Hotel Indigo Baltimore
The 162-room hotel opened three years ago in a 1907 building and features a cozy lobby with a fireplace, library and drinks from Poets Modern Cocktail & Eats.
The S.V. Zombie cocktail at Sugarvale
As hip as the ’hood is, old-school dining thrives
The Owl Bar
This gastropub features an oak bar, stained-glass panels and stag heads.
Food and interior design evoke a Spanish taverna at this popular spot.
The Prime Rib
The steak house is modeled after a classic 1940s supper club.
Adapt and Reuse
Historic properties make for restaurants with eye-catching architectural details
Adaptive reuse is a fun element of Mount Vernon’s revival. Take, for instance, Brew House No. 16: Situated in a century-old firehouse, the 3-year-old brewery-restaurant has preserved the fire-engine red doors and industrial finishes. Another epic renovation took place at The Elephant, a storied Baltimore restaurant set in a 19th-century mansion. New owners revived it two years ago, preserving its Tiffany stained-glass dome, carved teak wood from India and Waterford crystal chandeliers. Down the street, Spirits of Mt. Vernon sells wine and beer from a mid-19th-century building. The restoration, which included installing a replica of the original tin ceiling and updating the aging structure, was featured on HGTV.