Eating outdoors is one of life's great pleasures. That's why man invented the Weber grill. And that's why so many local restaurants, noticing the tremendous interest in decks and "outdoor kitchens," have created outdoor seating in recent years -- in spite of Baltimore's heat and humidity.
At least that's my theory.
Whatever the reason, visitors to the Inner Harbor have many more options for open-air dining than they did even a decade ago. Of course, Harborplace practically invented the concept in downtown Baltimore, with almost every restaurant space having seating on a terrace outside and many of them also having an atrium with sides that can be opened up. But that's old news. What's new is that many of Harborplace's restaurants are offering more than just a water view -- which used to be enough. Now the patios on the ground level have nice-looking furniture in wood, rattan or metal. They are landscaped with potted palms, coleus, purple petunias and red geraniums.
If you haven't eaten at Harborplace for a while there are also new restaurants to try: Tir Na Nog, which has New American cuisine with a heavy Irish accent, La Tasca, a handsome tapas restaurant on two levels, and Edo Sushi, the latest in a well-regarded local chain of sushi places.
It would be a mistake, though, to limit yourself to Harborplace or to old favorites like the Rusty Scupper, McCormick & Schmick's and Legal Sea Foods, once the tourists arrive in force. Must you have a water view?
By walking west on Pratt Street, in the blocks across from Camden Yards, you get to a charming row of outside seating areas and a good mix of places. The blocks' best features are the huge shade trees and wide sidewalk -- the patios are set quite far back from the traffic. Shade vs. water. It's a hard call.
The newest kid on the 300 block of W. Pratt is California Tortilla. It specializes in fast food Tex-Mex that's cheap and fresh. JJ's Cafe, a nice little coffeehouse, offers breakfast and lunch.
Both Luna del Sea and the Wharf Rat have been around a while, but you probably don't think of them when you want to eat outdoors near the harbor. The former is the most upscale of the bunch, with lots of seafood and steaks but also pasta and sandwiches. Its outside seating has expanded from just the front to around one side, all of it shady, with red geraniums and pink impatiens in stone urns, black wrought-iron furniture and umbrella tables. There are even propane heaters for cool evenings. (Maybe in September.)
The Wharf Rat is a popular brew pub with food that's a notch above pub grub. Flowers and lots of shade make its outdoor seating more appealing than the usual few tables with Amstel Light umbrellas.
Away from the crowd
If you don't want to venture that far from the water, you'll get both more water and less traffic farther east in the Inner Harbor at Piers 4 and 5.
Houlihan's, a casual dining chain that tries to be terminally hip but can't quite pull it off because the staff is too good-natured, has just opened in the Power Plant building where the Pier 4 Kitchen + Bar used to be. The dual-level outdoor seating is as handsome and contemporary as the interior, with gorgeous plantings to warm it up.
Across the way is the under-appreciated Peacock Cafe in the Pier 5 Hotel. The hotel has built a charming wooden deck for its upscale coffee shop, which is stylish and right on the water. It's a good alternative when the McCormick & Schmick's patio is packed. (Ruth's Chris, also in the complex, has also started serving dinner in its outside seating area.)
If you're willing to hike a little farther, the James Joyce Irish Pub and Restaurant on President Street has a terrace with umbrella tables tucked away on its side. The food is Irish with plenty of other choices for those who want them.
Peaceful at lunchtime
The outdoor spaces at Power Plant Live! -- just a couple of blocks north of the harbor -- are worth trying for much the same reason as those at Piers 4 and 5: They are off the street and not as crowded as Harborplace. The square has a fountain and more potted trees, greenery and flowers than it did last summer. The entertainment complex can be crazy at night, but at lunchtime the area is quite peaceful.
Restaurant Row at Power Plant Live! includes Babalu Grill, which features fine dining Cuban-style and is open for dinner only, and Mondo Bondo, an Italian bistro where you can get both lunch and dinner. At Babalu especially, pots of plants and flowers create a little island in the cheerful chaos of the square.
Power Plant Live! (not to be confused with the Power Plant at the harbor) is also the home of the new-this-spring Mex, a bar that makes guacamole fresh at your table. Mex has a fine new wooden deck with handsome brown umbrellas and metal and wood furniture.
Rams Head Tavern, known for its musical acts, has an extensive menu of American tavern food and a nice outside seating area toward the back of the square.