A recent stay at one of Baltimore’s many fine medical establishments got me thinking about hospital food.

Once a punchline of jokes, hospital fare seems to generally have gotten better over the years, perhaps in keeping with our food-centric times, not to mention competition for patients. The fruit cups and gelatinous turkey of yesterday don’t quite cut it.

While a patient, I found myself looking forward to the fresh morning pancakes and the occasional cheeseburger and fries, plus cake for dessert. A turkey dinner served on Thanksgiving with a side of mac and cheese made me cry in appreciation — though those postpartum hormones may have played a role, too.

In my first week back at The Banner from maternity leave, I decided to scope out the cafeterias at four of Baltimore’s top hospitals and see how they stack up.

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Johns Hopkins Hospital’s Cobblestone Café

Somehow this is my first time visiting Johns Hopkins Hospital. Inside the Sheikh Zayed Critical Care Tower, everything feels cutting edge and futuristic — befitting the medical pioneers.

Similarly, the customer experience at the cafeteria is fully automated. Place your order at a self-service kiosk and be sure to provide your phone number. You are sent a link to a Grubhub app that you can download should you want to track your order. It’s impersonal and somewhat confusing for a luddite like me, though it seems to move efficiently.

I go for some sushi from one of the stalls. Though the photo on the kiosk showed a special combination platter with shrimp, tuna and salmon, customers can only pick one of the three proteins. Tuna it is.

The pickup system stresses me out in a major way. A box of little white cubby holes lit blue and green contains individual meals. You’re invited to scan a QR code, but I can’t seem to make it work. I see my order trapped behind a plastic door lit neon green. With no one on hand to ask for help, I ask a fellow customer how to use the system. She tells me to use a code sent to my phone. I flip through the multiple text messages and find it. At last! My lunch.

I carry it outside to eat on the welcoming outdoor terrace, in view of the historic dome. With a ribbon of discolored wasabi garnish and a pile of less-than-fresh-looking ginger, the tuna sushi platter suddenly seems like a suboptimal choice. After a few bites I end up tossing most of it.

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On my way out of the loop, I pass by Dot’s BBQ, where savory aromas have drawn a healthy lunchtime crowd. Elsewhere in the hospital are two Balducci’s stalls, including a quick-service counter selling coffee and muffins, and another stand with sandwiches and salads. Skirt the long line by placing orders ahead of time, if you can figure out the technology.

The sushi tray at Mercy Medical Center's Corcoran Café is fresh and a good value. (Christina Tkacik)

Mercy Medical Center’s Corcoran Cafe

By my mid-afternoon visit to Mercy’s Corcoran Cafe, I’m ravenous. While tempted by the terrific prices at the sandwich counter (where else can you find a BLT for $5?), I opt for the soup of the day: a hearty Moroccan lentil. It’s well-seasoned and thick with chopped vegetables. I could eat it every day. One downside: the soup is self-service, positioned right next to the salad bar. The pandemic has made me leery of the kind of setup where many customers touch the same ladle, given the seeming potential for the spread of germs.

Still hungry, I pick up a “chef special” sushi tray from a refrigerated shelf of grab-and-go items. Is all hospital sushi created equal, I wonder? I’m encouraged by the freshness of the wasabi and ginger and the combination of tuna and salmon slices. While priced around $13, it tastes like a much better value than the similarly priced meal at Hopkins.

So far, Mercy’s cafeteria holds a clear advantage over Hopkins’ in terms of both cost and freshness, but what really wins me over is the friendliness of the staff. Employees are quick to offer assistance. The female cashier calls me sweetie in a voice that feels like a hug. Even the lighting, not too bright, reminds me of a warm and inviting restaurant.

Back in The Banner’s office, I learn I’m not the only fan of the hospital cafeteria. My co-worker John-John Williams IV, a regular at Charleston, tells me he frequently stopped by for lunch when he worked nearby. Even a gourmand can’t argue with great prices.

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The breakfast burrito at GBMC’s cafeteria is greasy comfort food. (Christina Tkacik)

Greater Baltimore Medical Center’s Main Cafe

I’ve heard good things about the cafeteria at GBMC in Towson, so I drive there for breakfast the following rainy morning. After parking (for free!) outside, I make my way to the fifth floor.

Options are somewhat limited in the morning. The salad bar, sandwich bar and pizza section understandably aren’t open at 9 a.m. I place my order for a breakfast burrito and French toast sticks at the Wow American Eats stand, which sells chicken and burgers at lunch. All the food is made to order, but there’s no line ahead of me and it takes just a few minutes for cooks to prepare.

I take my feast to the dining room, where I sit near some parents with their young son, who is growing antsy at a tablet. There are employees maybe getting ready for the morning or perhaps just getting off an overnight shift.

The burrito is slightly greasy, but the eggs inside are perfectly fluffy, with chopped up bits of sausage and vegetables. I dunk it inside a condiment cup of cold salsa. Is it the best thing I’ve ever eaten? No. Is it far better than expected hospital fare, cooked by a real live human? Yes. The fried French toast sticks are crispy and crunchy on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. I can feel my cholesterol rising as I indulge.

I imagine for a moment how nourishing this meal would taste had I spent all night at the hospital with a loved one. How relieved I would feel to be ordering from people, eating food I can watch being prepared. How grounding it would be to be told “good morning” by multiple employees, as I am while seated alone with my breakfast. Hospitals can be incredibly stressful places, and the cafeterias at GBMC and Mercy seem to me to be refuges within them.

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The cafeteria at the University of Maryland Medical Center offers cheap coffee and pie — just what the doctor ordered. (Christina Tkacik)

University of Maryland Medical Center

My deadline approaching, I head back downtown for one final stop: the University of Maryland Medical Center. Entering through the emergency department, I walk past the Maryland Shock Trauma Center and up the stairs to the dining area, which is mostly quiet in the lull between breakfast and lunch service.

I’m encouraged by the lack of QR codes and the wide number of options, including Mamma Ilardo’s Pizzeria, once a well-known local chain. There’s also an impressive-looking sushi and ramen shop with a fully stocked shelf of grab-and-go options. Though I’m still full from breakfast, I grab a slice of meringue pie and a cup of coffee. Both are a bargain, even without an employee discount: The coffee is $1.59 and the pie just $2.99.

Back in the dining room, the pie reminds me of the kind you’d get at a diner or one of Baltimore’s old school bakeries like Hoehn’s — light and fluffy meringue atop a jelly-like lemon filling. And the coffee, while not exactly the knockout jet fuel I prefer, is reasonably strong and fresh tasting. Enough, I think, to power up surgeons, technicians and new parents alike.