Yeah, B'more ain't exactly culture central hon. I also wouldn't recommend to tourists and the not so street-wise that they wander about too much, especially at night.
Little Italy still has some good places to eat, although nothing that I'd rate a great bargain. Heading out past Patterson Park, (a great place to pick up transvestite hookers I'm told) and on up Eastern Ave. there's a block or so of authentic Greek restaurants that are hands down some of the cleanest kitchens and best food in Baltimore.
Canton's not exactly cheap, or all that safe from problems. Matter of fact it's one of the last places I think I would recommend if you're by yourself and just looking for a friendly spot to relax and have a beer. I guess if you're still in the 20-30's crowd it has it's appeal, but I'm more partial to drinking my beer rather than wearing it, too crowded and loud for old farts like me. The old Fells Point Wharf Rat has true Baltimore grit, and the best Orange Roughy fish and chips this side of Manchester, (if they still have it).
The Route 40 / Pulaski Hwy. corridor has some of the best pit beef in Baltimore. From the Gold Club parking lot, up to Big Als and another out by the Go Cart track near Ebenezer, it's like pit beef row driving out that way. There's another that was pretty good right in the parking lot of Midway Liquors as well. The Charcoal grill in front of the Parkville fire house is great but a little on the pricey side. While you're in Parkville there's a great Italian sit down and carry out across from the Perring Plaza Home Depot at Perring and Joppa, called Casa Mias. The owner (I think his name is Dom) is almost always there and the food is usually top notch as well as being fairly priced. If you're looking for something a little spicier take Satyr Hill Rd. across Joppa from the Home Depot to North Plaza Mall. There's a stand alone Mexican restaurant that has great food and terrific service there called El Salto's. It's mainly a sit down, further out Joppa Rd. as you enter Towson there's a Chipoltle's if you want great burrito carry out. Also in North Plaza Mall is the Italian Bistro and their Italian food is entirely out of place for a strip mall location. If these guys were in a stand alone building or down in Little Italy they could charge twice the price. This is where my Italian friends go for a taste of home when they visit.
Joey's Bamboo House out in Timonium/Cockeysville's Padonia Shopping Center, corner of York Rd. and Padonia Rd. Great sushi bar and awesome food, sit down or carry out. There's also a sushi buffet in Carney Shopping Center that my kids all rave about. Never been there but they swear it's da bomb...and relatively cheap too. The shopping center is anchored by the Mars super market at the corner of Joppa and Harford Rds. in Carney, just a few blocks from the Beltway.
Two note worthies in very unlikely places are The Ponca Bird Inn at the end of Holabird Ave. in the shade of the 895 overpass. They have a grill in the middle of a big oval central bar where you can get a great monsta burger (it's like a 1/2-3/4 lb. chunk of grilled goodness on a fresh kaiser roll), steamed shrimp or clams, and one of the best shrimp salads in town. Kind of weird spot though. Surrounded by windows that let you see the edge of the GAF shingle plant across the street, the underneath of the highway overpass, or the parking lot for the all nude strip club Night Shift across the street (at least I've been told that it was all nude...I've never been there myself mind you...BYOB I believe with a five dollar cover). The food is great, the setting is straight weird and the barmaids are some of the surliest in Baltimore so don't piss'em off.
The other Dundalk diamond in the rough is Vinny's between the Ponca Bird and Dundalk Ave. Vinny's is as kitschy as it gets. From the building side wall murals inside and out to the Tuscan looking architectural disguising of a small industrial area building, it is authentic Dundalk. The dining room features some of the nicest wait staff in town and the food is an absolute steal. Real veal Marsala, fresh tomato gravy...ummm. A great place to scrap the diet, and cheap too. They have the same foods available as carry out but if you do that you'll miss the old Italian Pete singing Louie Prima and the like on his electric piano. It's a great time and a truly affordable family dining experience, or just for a date.
Also in that neck of the woods is Jimmy's Seafood a block or so further down from Vinny's. Jimmy's is legend, both for the incredible Crab Imperial stuffed Rock fish to the incredibly snotty service. I suppose if you eat there every day and know the owner's wife you might be treated differently,...but I seriously doubt it. I've been going there in spite of the service for that Rock fish dish in particular for years and I swear to you that there is nothing like it.
Lastly my ultimate kudos to Ruth's Chris Steakhouse in the Marketplace at the Inner Harbor. As a general rule I stay as far from the giant tourist trap as possible but some things are worth risking life and limb for, and this is one of them.
If you only eat out once a year this is where you should go. The wait staff is nothing but professionals, and by that I mean these are people who take great pride in what they do and most of them continue to do it as their permanent, and very well rewarded thanks to their level of expertness, careers. Never hovering but the glass is never empty. Not ever rushing you but as each plate empties it magically disappears as though there are fairies hiding about the dining room. The steaks are without equal and you hear them sizzling as they cross the dining room on their way to your table. The sides are not to be ordered lightly, and the entire menu is a la carte. When they say broccoli what they mean is a whole head of fresh delicious broccoli perfectly steamed. When the menu says baked potato what they mean is a small watermelon disguised in a potato skin. The garlic smashed taters are awesome as is the Prime Rib and desserts. Even the bar is outstanding. One of the few that I don't mind cooling my heels in for a couple of Scotches before dinner. If and when you make the trip ask for Bananas Foster for dessert. I don't believe that it's been on the menu for a while but the waiters there are know for their table side flambeed presentation of this deliciously simple final course. Go early, request a booth, buy several magnums of wine and stay late. One of the few really fine dining experiences in Baltimore that is actually worthy of the title.
and I don't personally buy into the great fairytale that many seem to want to try and believe in just to hedge their bets. But if ever I was to believe that there is a greater being that's pulling all of the strings, there can be no time closer than listening to Beethoven's Ode to Joy when played by the BSO, or any good orchestra for that matter.
Even people who are not fans of classical music are moved by the power of that work. It is just a perfect amazement to listen to and consider...that the whole of it was composed by a man who was deaf. Utterly fantastic. Keep an eye out for one of the BSO presentations under the stars out at Oregon Ridge.
It's a haul but another great outdoor venue is The Wolf Trap in Northern Virginia. My brother took my son and I there to see Jeff Beck this summer and it was amazing. Again, even if you're not a fan of the genre, there's nothing quite like a beautiful evening out of doors listening to genius music played by great musicians.
On a more pedestrian scale, the summer concert series out at Aberdeen Proving Grounds is a total bargain, and the crowds are probably among the smallest that the artists appearing there ever play for any more. Toby Keith and a lot of Country stars play there and it's as casual as it gets. Bring a chair and suffer with the limited selection of beer, but it's good times and cheap entertainment.
Southern Fells Point is a good spot to visit when the weather is nice and the harbor is packed. The beautiful cobblestone roads and village feel are part of the charming side of classic baltimore.
If you do visit the Inner Harbor, you should definitely purchase tickets to the water taxi. For only $10, you get unlimited boat rides between Canton, Fells Point, and the Inner Harbor. Not only does this let you see 3 of the best parts of Baltimore city, it's a relaxing and lets you enjoy the Harbor and see much of the skyline.
Chaps is great pit beef! It was mentioned before but listed as the stand in front of the strip club. Also I like driving up 83 to Monkton for Gunpowder Bison farm with the kids. Not too far out of Baltimore.