The "I'll Have a Lite Beer 'Cause I'm Watching my Weight" Diet
It's a tempting thought: Somehow, drinking a "lite" beverage makes all those cruel calories from the rest of our meal just . . . go away. And certainly enough people seem to believe it, because how else can you explain the popularity of nasty-ass piss-water lite beers? If we ever finagled ourselves a government grant to study the phenomenon, these are the bars, pubs, and taverns we'd head to first.
Call it the Irish Pub, call it Dougherty's (223 W. Chase St.,  752-4059), call it home of the best burgers in Baltimore. We're highly enamored of Dougherty's fat, fine patties. Better yet, the hand-cut french fries that go along with are simply perfect--our pet pub-grub peeve is places that trot out mealy prefab potatoes, ruining an otherwise perfectly serviceable burger 'n' fries feed. If you don't eat meat, it's no problem--you, too, can still enjoy a super burger at Dougherty's, where the kitchen does an equally pleasing job with turkey or salmon burgers. Best of all are the black bean veggie burgers, so substantial and tasty that they make us forget all about our Love for the Cow.
Peter's Inn (504 S. Ann St.,  675-7313) is a bar, no doubt about it, but the food here travels far beyond those triple stars of the bar-food firmament--burgers, nachos, and wings. None of these items grace Peter's menu, but we sure don't care--not when they're replaced with an ever-shifting roster of interesting and delicious dishes like wild rockfish with edamame and rye crust, chive oil, and chive mashed potatoes. There's always a solid steak on the menu, too, plus excellent homemade soups like wild mushroom bisque or creamy leek and potato. Best of all, everything comes with kick-ass garlic bread certain to cure what ails you.
Affable, cozy Simon's Pub (2031 E. Fairmount Ave.,  522-4477) is the ultimate neighborhood tavern/restaurant where both the friendly staff and enthusiastic regulars make newcomers immediately feel like family. Simon's feels like a real find, mostly because, well, finding this little gem in a back corner of Butcher's Hill is not so easy. The menu offers the usual pub grub--burgers and quesadillas and nachos and such--but everything is done with such care and attention that quality is kicked many, many notches above the norm. Where Simon's menu really shines, however, is with daily specials: Duck in habanero-raspberry sauce and grilled romaine salad with chèvre cheese are recent stars, and whatever inventive pasta or risotto appears on the specials sheet is always a solid choice.
Henninger's Tavern (1812 Bank St.,  342-2172) is neatly divided between dining room and the actual bar itself. On the saloon side, grab yourself a draft and hang with the Fells Point locals (though the staff will happily serve your dinner on the bar); for serious dining, head to the cozy, casually elegant dining room. One of our all-time favorite appetizers--padded oysters served atop spinach with a Pernod cream sauce--is a Henninger's original. Simple entrées are transformed by the kitchen's creative flair: Witness the filet mignon, dressed up with apple-wood-smoked bacon and port wine reduction sauce and served with a roasted Vidalia onion and golden potato gratin. Entrée prices are steeper than your average deep-fried Fells Point watering-hole food, but affordable light fare--steamed shrimp, crab soup--is also on tap.
John Stevens Ltd. (1800 S. Ann St.,  327-5561) also features a divided bar/dining room setup, but we much prefer the homey taproom over the rather stiff dining room (though in warm weather the outdoor patio setting is pleasant). The straightforward menu--steamed seafood, grilled meats--is supplemented by, of all things, sushi rolled right there in the tavern side of the operation for all the world to see. That's right, there's a bar sushi bar. The fine, fat "Bawlmer" rolls are stuffed with crabmeat and avocado, particularly delectable when washed down with one of the imported ales on tap.
Local favorite Kelly's (2108 Eastern Ave.,  327-2312) is a great find, and not just for its prime location across the street from the Patterson duckpin lanes. Crabs--especially nice steamed in Kelly's own five-pepper crab spice blend--are available much of the year, but bar fare is also a sure bet. Crab cakes are great, soft crabs handled with the adept hand this delicate crustacean needs but does not always receive, and even the lasagna is topnotch (though that might just be the Natty Boh talking). Add a little weekend karaoke and you're set for the quintessential Baltimore bar experience.
Across town in Federal Hill, Sean Bolan's Irish Pub (1236 Light St.,  837-4440) does the drunken Irish thing for real: Not only is there Irish beer and whisky on tap at the bar, but they're poured all over the food, too. Bangers and mash swim in a gravy made from Sam Smith's Nut-Brown Ale, while New York strip steaks are bathed in a sauce of Jameson whisky and Harp lager. Mostly, however, this is a deep-geek beer bar: The owners carefully research their selections from local micro- and imported hard-to-find brews, and then make sure to serve them in the proper glass. A firkin is tapped every Thursday at 7 p.m.
If you're in need of yet more Guinness, Mick O'Shea's (328 N. Charles St.,  539-7504) serves up the hefty brown brew along with all the Celtic chow the Irish-pub police require. Heck, at Mick's you can even order shrimp steamed in Guinness. Shepherd's pie, fish and chips, and corned beef and cabbage--year round, not just for St. Patrick's day!--are the things to try, though chicken tenders, crab dip, and wings will comfort those who prefer more traditional American bar fare. Live bands on weekends bring the music of the Emerald Isle to downtown Baltimore, and daily deals--like a $9.95 16-ounce T-bone steak on Thursdays--make Mick O'Shea's home to one of the city's most affordable nights out.
The best thing about Porter's Pub (1032 Riverside Ave.,  539-1999) is half-price burger night on Mondays, when the outstanding, already well-priced burgers ($6.95) become unbelievably cheap. Fat, fresh patties grilled just how you like 'em are accompanied by Old Bay-dusted fries and perky homemade coleslaw. The kitchen likes to mess around with upscale efforts--jerk-spiced seafood, linguine Alfredo--but do as the knowledgeable locals do and stick to the solid standards like wings (fiery but succulent) and the crab cake sandwich (large and lumpy).
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201