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High Spirits

A New Bar/Restaurant Feels Like A Cherished Old Haunt

Christopher Myers

Annabel Lee Tavern

Address:601 S. Clinton St.
Baltimore, MD 21224

More on Annabel Lee Tavern.

By Richard Gorelick | Posted 3/19/2008

Named for an Edgar Allan Poe poem, the beautiful Annabel Lee Tavern opened in December and was an instant hit. It's located within walking distance of the Creative Alliance, on the corner of Clinton and Fleet streets, and is about as sweet a renovation of an old-man bar as could be wished for. Opened by Kurt Bragunier, a former general manager at the Brewer's Art, Annabel Lee, like Brewer's, feels contemporary in spirit but old and unpretentious, too.

The wooden interior, with its deep burgundy palette and free use of fabric, suggests the inside of a very nice coffin. It's cozy but not kitschy--the Poe stuff goes just far enough, stenciled poems on the wall, a portrait of the poet. It's perfectly cozy now in winter, and in summer it will hopefully stay dark and cool. There's a long L-shaped bar up front, and in the back there are tables, most of them the kind of high tavern table where diners sit on stools. It's a reasonable choice, because more patrons can be squeezed in, but the tabletops are small and the backless stools won't be comfortable for everybody. (The stools at the bar have backs, and the staff will let you pull a switcheroo.)

The lights are low, and the music is big band, Ken Jackson stuff. The crowd here is mixed, age-wise at least, a good sign because it signifies the universal appeal of thoughtfulness and good value. (Rocket to Venus has managed this with a wholly different aesthetic--the only common denominator is that someone had a vision and stuck to it.)

Word is that the original plan was for Annabel Lee to establish itself first as a drinking spot with the food, not so much an afterthought, as something that would be fully considered later. Then, Lulu's on Broadway closed, freeing up Mark Littleton of the original Simon's. Word got out, and now people are coming in for the food, every night. And it's almost a good thing that the food right now is only just OK and that the menu represents the chaos of a work in progress, because otherwise you'd never be able to get a table. Some of it works, some it doesn't. One thing was terrifying. This was a special, as bad as it sounds--pasta shells ($8.95) in a Guinness cheese sauce with portobello mushrooms and beets. It ought to be immured.

The basic menu is tavern fare, mostly sensible things, but with a some oddball flourishes and a fascination with cheese. Menu items that aren't sandwiches, soups, or salads are listed as either appetizers or small plates, and this makes navigating the menu trickier than it should be. There are not currently any entrées on the regular menu, but there are always a few as daily specials.

Good and desirable dishes evoke the food of previous decades--from the 1970s, an oozy baked brie en croute ($7.50); from the '80s, nachos, a Littleton specialty ($7.50), or a baguette stuffed with a very tender chicken breast and cheddar cheese; and from the '90s, flatbread pizzas ($9) or a portabella sandwich with brie and apples ($11). Sandwiches come with the house's blue cheese coleslaw and knockout sweet potato fries, which are tossed with Cajun spices and brown sugar.

Some things, even when they don't fully work, suggest a generous spirit--a special sandwich with flank steak and a soft-shell crab ($13.50), was ultimately undone by a mushy roll and a lack of panache. But sometimes a chef has to be told "No, no, if your only regular soup is a fabulous blue cheese mushroom ($5), the soup of the day cannot be cheddar soup with crab, even if it's fabulous, too."

The kitchen might be overwhelmed, if not exhausted. A rice side that should have been formed into timbales, per the menu, wasn't. Some of the prep looks raggedy. None of this matters too much right now; the management has only to keep feeling things through, the bones are there. Annabel Lee has something that can't be taught or bought. It's a place where people want to be.

Open for dinner Monday through Saturday.

Ulalume, Ilalume, Everybody Lalume

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