When my son, Dixon, was a baby, he’d try anything. Heaping spoonfuls of Dijon mustard? Sure. Anchovies? You bet.
Then he turned three and his adventurous culinary spirit rolled over and played dead. Now that he’s nine, he’s starting to show a little interest in food that’s not beige. But over the past several years, as we’ve visited restaurants all over Baltimore, he has relied on one fallback, a dish he knows he’ll always like: mac and cheese.
Having tried the stuff at dozens of Baltimore’s finest establishments, he has become something of a mac and cheese aficionado.
What makes a great restaurant mac and cheese, you ask? According to Dixon, there are three major factors: how cheesy it is, how creamy it is, and what (if anything) is on top. As an adult, I also care about things like the flavor of the cheese, the overall texture of the dish, and whether any additional ingredients have been added to the mix.
Ultimately, though, we’re looking for the same thing: a big pile of gooey, savory pasta and cheese. These days, there are a lot of good iterations of the classic comfort food in Baltimore, which is good news for the two of us and for kids all over the region.
After some very careful deliberation, we came up with a list of five of our favorite mac and cheese spots in and around the city. This list is by no means exhaustive, but if you’re looking for some good mac in Baltimore, any of these restaurants would be a good place to start.
the best mac and cheese in baltimore
Ashley’s, the cake shop and café in Kenilworth, is known for its desserts, but if you manage to tear your gaze away from the pastries, the café has some good savory options, too.
The mac and cheese comes in a paper cup and will look familiar; its pale orange hue and the creamy consistency of the sauce look similar to the stuff that comes from a grocery store box. But don’t be fooled. The café makes its sauce from scratch and it is milky, well-seasoned, and fantastic. As a bonus, since it does look like the stuff from the box, even when Dixon was at his least adventurous, he was a fan.
Pimiento cheese is not just for snacking anymore. At Bryan Voltaggio’s family-friendly Inner Harbor spot, the mac and cheese is made with the southern spread. The result is a little tangy, but smooth. According to Dixon, it is “almost like Velveeta,” but grown-up palates will recognize that the sauce doesn’t taste processed.
On top, bread crumbs finish the dish with just a little crunch – like a big scoop of pimiento cheese on a crumbly cracker.
*Editor’s Note: Family Meal in Baltimore closed right before this article was published. You can still get the mac and cheese at their Frederick location if you’re up for a drive!
Including The Food Market’s mac and cheese on this list almost doesn’t seem fair to other macs. After all, it has lobster in it.
But the Hampden restaurant’s cheesy shells, mixed with chunks of lobster, are such a good combination that we couldn’t overlook it. The dish is sweet and just cheesy enough – the pasta and shellfish are evenly sauced, but not over-coated, so the lobster isn’t weighed down by the cheese.
Gunther & Co., a new spot in Brewers Hill, has received all sorts of accolades for its cocktails and oysters and fabulous décor. It’s a great date night spot, but it’s kid-friendly, too! Not only is Dixon enthralled by the indoor green wall, he is just about obsessed with Gunther’s mac and cheese.
It arrives at the table bubbling and hot from the oven, with a sharp cheese sauce and crunchy bread crumb topping. It’s as pretty as the space and incredibly satisfying.
SoBo Café has been known for its comfort food for nearly two decades, so it’s no surprise that the restaurant’s mac and cheese – a big bowl of pasta, cheese and tomatoes topped with browned bread crumbs – has a longtime fan base.
Truth be told, Dixon eats around the grape tomatoes in SoBo’s mac and cheese, but that just means I can swoop in afterwards to scoop them up. It’s a grown-up dish, with strings of melted cheese intermingled with the creamy sauce, but not so sophisticated that kids will be scared to try it.
Photography by Laura Black