Federal Hill's Pub Dog, formerly known as the Thirsty Dog, does a few things reasonably well, and that's been its formula for success since 2001 in a very crowded neighborhood marketplace - successful enough to add a second location two years ago in Columbia.
The basics here are decent pizzas and good home-brewed beers, and the background for enjoying them is the kind of friendly English-style pub that feels comfortable in any season.
Like a lot of spots in Federal Hill, the Pub Dog gets good and crowded on weekend nights, and parking is notoriously tough around Cross Street. We showed up about 6 p.m. on a Tuesday and had our pick of tables. There is table service on both the first floor, beyond the entrance bar, and on the second floor. Most seating is at wooden booths, and all of the tables have paw-print designs worked into the wood.
An even better reason to show up early, at least before 7 p.m., is happy hour, which features $5 appetizers and $3 dog pairs, which are the restaurant's signature serving of its house beers in two 8-ounce glasses at the same time.
There's a good range of beers to choose from, from light wheats to heavy stouts, and warm-weather-friendly blueberry, strawberry and peach flavors, too. A few of the house brews have made their way into local stores, where they're sold in bottles, usually a good sign that they've earned a good reputation. The beer menu also promotes blends of the house brews - concoctions like the Boxer, a blend of the English-style stout and blueberry, or the Dirty Dog, a blend of English-style and nut-brown ales.
The menu includes just three appetizers, all of which seem kind of redundant to the big pizza menu: a soft pretzel, served with salt and mustard on the side; garlic sticks; and fresh mozzarella served with cherry tomatoes. You're better off starting with one of the salads, and Hearts Afire salad is my choice. Filled with crisp and cool hearts of palm, with kalamata olives, tomatoes, cherry-shaped mozzarella and basil, it's very refreshing, a nice palate arouser.
There are about two dozen variations on The Dog's basic thin-crust pizzas, all of which are served in the same 10-inch personal size. My only real misgiving about the pizzas we tried was the crust, which I prefer to be a lot crispier. I thought the same thing about the pretzel appetizer; the chicken strips that topped several of our pizzas seemed that way, too. When I mentioned this to a friend, who lives in the neighborhood and drops into The Dog fairly regularly, he told me that he always orders his pizzas well-done. That's a great idea I wish I'd known about sooner.
The topping choices are plentiful but not really exotic. This is not a place that's trying to impress foodies but to please casual diners instead. Chicken shows up as a topping in different preparations, prepared with a Dijon coating on the Froggy Style pizza, lime-marinated on the Baja Chihuahua, peanut-marinated on a Thai version and Cajun-spiced on the Cajun pizza.
The most unusual combination we tried was also our favorite, the Wing Dog pizza, with strips of marinated chicken, Buffalo wing sauce, mozzarella, smoked gouda and green onions. This one comes with a ranch dressing for dipping. It shouldn't work, but it does.
The other pizzas we tried were satisfying, but you just want everything to have more flavor. They're good enough, though, for how I think most people would use The Dog, which is a fun gathering spot where gourmet food is a secondary thought.
It's worth repeating that the atmosphere, by all accounts, is much different on weeknights and weekends, when this bar's smart formula and hard work draw in big crowds.
The Pub Dog Where: 20 E. Cross St.
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. daily
on the menu •garlic sticks – $7.50
•hot soft pretzel – $7
•Hearts Afire salad – $8.50
•"The Original" Wing Dog pizza – $9.25
•Dog Pound pizza – $9.50
•Fox & the Hound Pizza – $9
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