« Free bites at Ruth's Chris | Main | Now here's a holiday my daughter can get behind »

November 10, 2009

Top 10 Fine-Dining Bars



This week's topic, Top 10 Fine-Dining Bars, intrigues me because they seem to me to be a peculiarly Baltimore institution.

They aren't bistros. They aren't wine bars. The decor isn't stylish -- in fact, you can't even describe it as decor. They are places in city neighborhoods to go for a beer that also happen to have surprisingly inventive food. ...

If I thought of a place as a restaurant first and a bar second, I didn't put it on the list (with the exception of one, and Other Reviewer Richard talked me into it).

Here's my list in alphabetical order. Let the arguments, outrage and scorn begin:

Annabel Lee in the Canton area. At heart it's a neighborhood corner bar, only with duck fat fries, filet mignon and mushroom risotto.

Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon. Other Reviewer Richard convinced me this is more brewpub than restaurant and deserves to be on this list, although plenty will argue otherwise. The fine New American cuisine isn't in question.

Hamilton Tavern in Hamilton. OK, it's very casual fine dining, but the menu includes a beet and prosciutto salad, roasted harvest vegetables, and a meatloaf made with pulled duck as well as ground beef and pork.

* Mama's on the Half Shell in Canton. I know it's appeared on lists as a seafood restaurant, but it always feels more like a bar to me, even the upstairs dining room.

* One-Eyed Mike's in Fells Point. Still more bar than restaurant, but any place that offers both balsamic vinaigrette and raspberry vinaigrette offers more than just pub grub.

* Peter's Inn in Fells Point. The quintessential example of the genre. No one could mistake this for anything but a neighborhood bar, but oh, that osso buco and those pots de creme.

* Red Star in Fells Point. Any bar whose kitchen even knows what aioli is, let alone has $10 yam fries with brown sugar aioli on the menu, gets my vote as a fine-dining bar.

* Reserve in South Baltimore. This was the bar that inspired this Top 10. When I reviewed it recently, I commented on the disconnect between the imaginative food and the neighborhood bar-like atmosphere.

* Ryleigh's Oyster Bar in Federal Hill. A few years ago Ryleigh's Brewpub became Ryleigh's Oyster Bar, and the menu got much more imaginative, with dishes like coriander-crusted tuna and salad with duck confit.

* Waterfront in Fells Point. Under "Pub Grub" is panko-encrusted fried oysters with a horseradish cream sauce. Enough said.

Posted by Elizabeth Large at 4:09 AM | | Comments (73)
Categories: Top Ten Tuesdays


1) What are you doing up at this hour? I thought I was alone in insomnia this evening.

2) Agree on all fronts, save Red Star. For all the times I've been there, I can't seem to get anything but middling pubgrub. Also, lackadaisical service. Even the Fells DuClaw manages a more ambitious menu, even if they're the pits on execution and delivery. IMHO, and all.

3) Any more people tune into One Eyed Mike's, and I'm afraid the secret is just plain out.

4) I can't help but think of shoutouts to the fine folks at Ale Mary's and Life of Reilly. Perhaps not necessarily "fine", but always hearty and satisfying fare. Holla!

Brown sugar aioli, huh? I'm trying to wrap my brain around that one.

But Brewer's Art has decor--if you count books as decor, as I do. They could use more, though.

Henninger's seems like it would have been perfect for the list. Definitely neighborhood feeling bar, but with the dining in the back areas. Yummy.

dahlink, have you ever been downstairs at brewer's art? it doesn't get much more "fine dining bar" than that.

How about Luca's in Locust Point? Certainly meets your criteria, and the food is excellent.

I second Henningers.

I third henningers

How bout fancy eatin rooms?

Its always more fun to eat in a bar than drink in a restaurant.

I fourth Henningers and second Ale Mary's. The crab cake dinner at Henninger's is my favorite in Baltimore, as are their fried oysters.

Can you include Henninger's and not include Hull Street Blues? EL

I understand your reluctance to include Brewer's Art on your list. I, too, always think of BA as a great restaurant that just happens to brew their own beer.

To-may-to, to-mah-to.

I can't think of a better list to consult if you have out of towners in and you want to show them "Baltimore." Surprised we don't have Hamden represented. Rocket Ship to Venus?

I have to put my three cents in for Friends.

No major complaints with these 10, although I haven't been to the Waterfront in years and wouldn't have included it based on past experiences. I would add Claddagh Pub in Canton--a place that could easily thrive on liquor and pedestrian grub but has always exceeded that.

What about Jacks Bistro in Canton? They're menu is very imaginative and its gotten quite popular. I dont think Red Star or Waterfront should be on there. They are fun bars but the food is just average.

No bistros allowed. :-) EL

I don't think half the people commenting even read the blog entry.

I could also see Yellow Dog Tavern on this list.

But Lissa, what do you mean? I think Pappas crabcakes are much better than G & M!

Now cut that out, Trixie!

Do people go to Mama's for beer or for an orange crush?

General: Duclaw? Really? I can't think of a place in Fells with dining or service that is worse. If it wasn't for seasonal brews and free happy hours for work, I wouldn't step foot in the place. Waste of a good view.

I'd have to say that my favorite one of these bars is The Reserve. I love going there on Sundays to watch the games and eat lunch. Their lobster mac and cheese and crab dip have changed my life.

ditto on duclaw, herb. the food is oversalted slop and the beer ain't much better. "waste of a good view" sums it up nicely. i really wanted to like that place.

The title of the top 10 is fine dining at bars...Friends? That is no longer fine dining, hasn't been for years now.

Henningers is such a hidden secret of fine food and neighborhood atmosphere that it is likely not to be with us for much longer. Folks, take a trip to Bank Street in upper Fells and check it out!

Can't believe there has been no mention of the recently reopened Miss Irene's.

I haven't been, but I hear it has too much decor. :-) EL

I am going to humbly disagree with Friends. The last time we went in (within the last month), there was a new chef and he seemed to be trying more creative items. The meat-eating boy of mine had some pork shanks that he found quite tasty. On the flip side, I think the nachos may have been a casualty in the upgrade. They used to be my absolute favorite in the city, and they are still good, but something is different and not for the better.

"But Brewer's Art has decor--if you count books as decor, as I do. They could use more, though." Dahlink

Ahhh for the good ole Peabody
Book Store and Beer Stube..plenty o books there
use to swear that the guy who ran the bookstore was the former owner of the 7 East or 5 West theatres!!
"they paved paradise...."

EL, please take a look at the bar menu at Miss Irene' is very nice food.

"EL, please take a look at the bar menu at Miss Irene' is very nice food."

Hmmm... I've never thought of food as being "nice".

perhaps you don't like my choice of words but there are a lot of exotic and specialty ingredients in their recipes. Don't know why you are being cynical if you have never been there.

I think a good top ten list would be of places that have never appeared on a top ten before. Although, it is creative to take a total of about 20 restaurants and see how many lists you can come up with for them. I guess I have to give you props for that.

Well, the problem is that good restaurants do a lot of things well, and mediocre restaurants don't. I guess I could do a top 10 of mediocre restaurants. EL

Herb, unbelievaboh:

If you reread me, perhaps you'll notice that I'm not exactly giving Duclaw a whole lotta credit:

What little credit I do give them, the menu certainly looks more inspired than anything that actually comes out of their kitchen.

Now that I'm persona non grata at one locale, I might as well highlight that the comment was made to disparage another insipid Fells failure, by comparison.


I think I can hear what you're thinking.

FWIW, if she was a shill, I'd think there'd be a thesaurus available, no?

I'm not sure if it's a pecularity of my awkward age bracket, but I have mental images of Paula Abdul's video for 'Cold Hearted' every time I hear the word "nice" in critical review.

Izzit just me?

I have been to quite a few of the bars mentioned, and the Reserve is definitely my favorite. I have been there to watch games on Sundays, but also to have dinner on a Saturday evening. The entrees are superb and reasonably priced. The chef is definitely inventive and is bringing a bit of DC to Baltimore.

I think the top 10 mediocre or unmemorable restaurants would be perfect for either 1 April or for the week after New Year's, when folks' resolutions haven't worn off yet.

Dahlink, Trixie can tease me anytime. And everyone knows that Howard Johnson's has the best crabcakes!

Geckos on Fleet St. absolutely needs to be on the list. I thought the Italian at Della Rose's in Canton was pretty good.

Good to see One Eyed Mikes is doing well, haven't been in a few years and wasn't all that impressed.

While pretty much standard bar fare, I always thought the food at The Ropewalk in Fed Hill was always well prepared from top to bottom.

Okay, Lissa--I give up.

And unbelievaboh (wish you would stop shouting in boldface), no, I've only eaten in the regular dining area of the Brewer's Art. Just not the bar type, I guess.

nancy, Miss Irene's was reviewed this past March by Other Reviewer Richard. The fact that he did not lobby EL to include it in this list ought to speak volumes to you. Also, as EL has previously stated on this blog, Miss Irene's is more of a bistro these days, which disqualified it from consideration for the list.

everyone knows that Howard Johnson's has the best crabcakes!

I just read that one of the remaining three HoJo's has closed. And then there were two.

Lissa, Lissa, Lissa...everyone knows that HoJo's clam strips are far superior to their crabcakes!

PCB Rob, that is actually kinda sad that there are only 2 left. Remember the one at York and Goucher (maybe, I am blanking on the road) in Towson?

Dahlink, please don't ever give up on us!

Trixie, RoCK and PCB Rob are not the same person. At least I don't think so.

Trixie, the Towson HoJo's was at York Road and Fairmount Avenue, just south of Beltway Exit 26. (Fairmount becomes Goucher Boulevard once you cross Dulaney Valley Road by the mall.) Oh, and you were responding to a post by RoCK (not PCB Rob).

I fondly remember the all-you-can-eat fried clam specials at the Towson HoJo's back in the 1980s and 1990s. It was a pity when it was closed and razed for yet another CVS.

Oops,I apologize! I certainly know better. Dang job had me distracted.

It would be neat if some website documented all the neat places that were razed to make way for CVS', Walgreens, and Rite-Aids. I bet we lost a lot.

I knew of this one restaurant in Tennessee called the Mountaineer that I always visited when I was down that way. (I ran into Ralph Stanley there once) The Mountaineer is now a Walgreens, and I have nowhere to eat in between Kinsport and Rodgersville.

Trixie - HoJos was at York Rd. and Fairmount Ave. And if you grew up in the area that spot was also nicknamed Sandy Bottom.

Ah, yes, Trixie -- work is the curse of the blogging class. ;-)

By the way, I should have clarified that Fairmount Avenue continues past Dulaney Valley Road and passes the north side of the mall before it meets the start of Goucher Boulevard. Fairmount then curves south, crosses Joppa Road, and ends by Hillen Road -- one of the more meandering routes in these parts.

I used to love HoJo's clam strips. My grandmother would take me out for them. Probably wouldn't enjoy them now, but part of me wants to take a road trip to one of those two remaining restaurants.

Yes, a HoJo's road trip! I see a possible series for the Food Network...

Memories of HoJo's clam strips: when I was in Mime School, my date took me out to dinner on a Friday night for HoJo's Fried Clam Strips Dinner Special -- ONLY $3.99 ALL YOU CAN EAT. I was not amused with his attempts to feel me up inside HoJo's while eating the clam strips special (I kept stabbing him with my fork and kicking him hard under the table). I was less amused when he took me back to his place to "get something first" before taking me home as I insisted, and seethed when I had to come inside while he shuffled through his mounds of junk looking for "something".

Finally unearthing his prize, he shoved all the debris off his coffee table onto the floor, and carefully measured out fine white powder into two lines, one of which he snorted before handing me the dirty rolled-up dollar bill. Staring straight at him, I took a deep breath and blew it back into Mr. Clam Strips' face.

Ah, memories...

Wow YUM..that was alot more information then I needed...

Location,Location, Location
"In 1929, both the restaurant and Howard Johnson's company received a great deal of fame due to an unusual set of circumstances: The Mayor of nearby Boston, Mayor Nichols, prohibited the planned production of Eugene O'Neill's play, Strange Interlude from performing in his city. Rather than fight the Mayor, the Theatre Guild moved the production to Quincy. The five-hour-long play was presented in two parts with a dinner break. The first Howard Johnson's restaurant happened to be near the theater and was also the best option available to hungry theatergoers. Hundreds of influential Bostonians flocked to the restaurant. Through word of mouth, Americans would soon become familiar with the Howard Johnson's company."

Um, YumPo, does this mean you won't be going on the road trip?

Why Hue, I'm sorry you didn't enjoy my memory of HoJo's. Once upon a time, my stories were appreciated.

Trixie, did you know that my culinary god Jacques Pépin turned down a position as executive chef at the Kennedy White House and instead accepted a position as the director of research and new development for HoJo's in the 1960's? Will this Road Trip involve a slick covertible, hot music, stilettos, and lots of laughter? Then count me in!

YumPorchetta, I always enjoy your stories.

Grazie, Camille -- and I so enjoy yours and your inimitable style.

Who needs to go on a road trip when "a slick co[n]vertible, hot music, stilettos, and laughter" are bound to come up during the testimony of one or more witnesses in Sheila Dixon's trial(s)?

Ok, making to note to myself to not ask YumPo out on a date that involves clam strips or borax.

However, I would be up for any road trip involving Trixie, YumPo, a convertible, hot music, laughter and stillettos, as long as I get to wear non-stillettoed boots. I suspect we might need multiple convertibles for all the folks who'd be up for that, though.

Thank you for correcting my typo, hmpstd (I HATE when I do that!).

So Mayor Dixon loves the Fried Clam Strip Special, too? She could be featured in the next HoJo promotion! The mind boggles.

Mental image of a gaggle of us from the sandbox, sitting in the courtroom watching testimony, all eating from boxes of fried clam strips...

Yum Po, that's a great story. All you can eat clams, getting felt up at mime school and lines of cocaine is what you would get if the writers of Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives; Silent Movie; and Miami Vice would all collaborate.

As for a road trip to see the remaining HoJo's, we have two options: Maine or upstate New York.

Wow. YumPo's fried clam strip story leaves mine in the dust. In high school I had a boyfriend who was originally from New England. He was ecstatic when a HoJo's opened near us and insisted we go for the fried clams. I just didn't get it. (Still don't ...)

Mimes need a special school?

YumPo, don't sweat the typos -- I make enough errors in my own posts!

I doubt that Mayor Dixon is a big fan of HoJo's fried clam strips, but it's possible, given that there were a number of HoJo's in the city in the old days. (An online search disclosed that one former location is now the site of Chap's Pit Beef and, ahem, the Gentlemen's Gold Club.) However, the Mayor's tastes may well include everything else on your list.

Oh, I didn't think covertible was a typo.

Borax? The fine white powder was borax?

way too often, LL.

Borax is the only fine white powder I have in my house, Laura Lee. Except for the small vial of aspirin I made in freshman chem. But who would have vials of aspirin around.

Yum, I certainly hope you gave him the silent treatment.

I'm late to the party, but great story YumPo! Did you have to hitchhike home?

Grazie, RoCK. Perhaps you could document our Road Trip in one of your Friday posts.

hmpstd, although I'm such a terrible typist, my perfectionism won't let me shrug off the typos.

Dahlink and Trixie, loved the puns!

Hi, PCB Rob, grazie! No, which is even hard for me to believe now. I not only walked out of there unharmed, but convinced Prince Charming to call me a cab and pay for my fare home. He also had the cojones, or stupidity, to ask when he could see me again as he was paying the cabbie.

I'll let you imagine my response.

I propose a new slogan for Dining@Large: "Where a blog entry about fine dining bars can somehow make the leap to a discussion about Howard Johnson's clam strips and blow."

I would've started posting years ago if I knew what went on here.

Yup Lee, that is how we suck people in! And this was a fairly timid topic drift.

We don't have topic drift around here, we have topic omelets.

In regard to Annabel Lee. I found it extremely off-putting to be served frozen French fries cooked in duck fat. Something just doesn't seem right about combining the two/ Anyway that is my two-cents worth for the day

finally! someone mentioned Gecko's! this surely should be #1 on the list, at least in my opinion, a row house neighborhood bar with excellent food and a great selection of beers and tequilas to go with! this is the barkeeps choice.

Never been there. No one mentioned it in the earlier discussion. Tell us about the fine dining. EL

I had a great meal at Don't Know Tavern last Saturday night, more of a sports oriented restaurant but the food was excellent. I had an appetizer at the Reserve which was good, however the clientele was extremely young and loud! The Rowhouse shows a lot of promise and I am looking forward to their full menu. Things are on the up and up in South Baltimore, hopefully the old and new Bicycle/Ulswater opens soon.

To call Gecko's fine dining might be a stretch, but they have what I would call the best Tex-Mex I've had in MD.

Prices are reasonable, ingredients are fresh, and the specials are usually very interesting and tasty (duck confit quesadilla anybody?). I've had much of the menu and have yet to leave disappointed, plus you can get pitchers of housemade sangria and margarita which is always a plus. Nick, the owner, is friendly to a fault.

All in all, this is one of the hidden gems of Baltimore, so much so that we used to head there often after work when I waited tables at Charleston many moons ago. Talk about a tough group to please in terms of food...

Oh well, it's not like some of my other choices weren't a stretch. :-) EL

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

Top Ten Tuesdays
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Restaurant news and reviews Recently reviewed
Browse photos and information of restaurants recently reviewed by The Baltimore Sun

Sign up for FREE text alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for dining text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Food & Drink newsletter
Need ideas for dinner tonight? A recommendation for the perfect red wine?'s Food & Drink newsletter is there to help.
See a sample | Sign up

Stay connected