Charleston and Chaps

Mike Cook

I recently had two of my favorite Baltimore culinary experiences, and it has presented me with a problem. I dined for the first time at Charleston and for the first time at Chaps pit beef.

            Both Chaps and Charleston were on my Baltimore bucket list, a list I've been working hard on because I'm moving to Utah. In fact, as you read this, my final article, I'm on the road headed west, my mind filled with conflicting thoughts about food. Having two of your favorite Baltimore meals at two establishments so vastly different is enough to throw a food writer into confusion.

            What does excellent food even mean if you can get it at a roadside shack in the parking lot of a strip club as easily as you can in one of Baltimore's most expensive restaurants?  Of course, you can't get it that easily: there are few roadside shacks serving up pit beef as good as Chaps’ and few fine dining restaurants as well tuned as Charleston. That's one clue to the secret of excellent food: it's not common. Excellent food is exceptional.

            Charleston cost ten times as much as Chaps. (Though since there was alcohol and service included at Charleston, the comparison isn't a fair food to food cost comparison). Clearly, if we didn't know already, food isn't about how much you pay for it. So why go to a restaurant as expensive as Charleston at all? Doesn't the price counteract the flavors? First, there's much to be said about ambiance and service. Rent in Harbor East is surely more than in Pulaski Highway parking lots, and service at Charleston (when I was there, at least) is excellent. Could Charleston lower its prices and still provide the same style and quality of food and service? Probably not. Can you get excellent food cheaper? Of course.

            Deciding on the best foods we've had, or the best available in a city, really shouldn't be done by price anyway. That's like deciding your friends based on their bank accounts. We pick our friends because we like most of their traits, which is just how we should pick our favorite foods.

            There's one thing that no restaurant can control, though, and it's the most important thing about food. That is who we eat with. Charleston can't keep you from bringing in an annoying date, just as Chaps can't keep away a bore. As I leave for Utah I'll be leaving behind a lot of great friends. I went to Chaps with three guys I've known since college. We were on a quest to get away from wives and jobs and to relax as we used to in our bachelor pads. We succeeded. I went to Charleston with three guys with whom I've been in a dinner club for the last year. They took me to Charleston to help round out my culinary Baltimore experience; one they've been a huge part of. That too, was a complete success.

            Take a moment and think back on the best meals you've ever had. Chances are you had people next to you who are amongst your favorite people. It's surprising how often I remember getting together with people but can't remember what I ate, even though I know I liked it. So, as the Holidays and winter weather descend on us, get some good friends together and go out for a meal. With the right friends, there's dozens of great Baltimore restaurants that can help you enjoy one of your new favorite meals.


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