Rye is the kind of bar every neighborhood wishes for — creative takes on classic drinks, friendly service, warm atmosphere and, as a bonus, talent in the kitchen.
It might be a bar, first and foremost, but thanks to chef Benjamin Polson, Rye is also a surprisingly good restaurant.
Owner Ryan Perlberg, whose family also owns the nearby upscale hot dog joint Stuggy's, didn't plan to open a restaurant, but he realized that when people go out for a drink, they also need to eat.
Atmospherically, Rye feels like a bar, with friendly service and more cocktails than entrees. But the drinks are something special, and the food is much better than standard bar fare.
Perlberg and company are committed to using local products and making their own ingredients, both for the bar and for the food. Polson squeezes the juices for drinks and hand-cuts the french fries, and his extra effort pays off.
Located in Fells Point in the former home of the Whistling Oyster, Rye is all old wood and exposed brick. It radiates the character that old pubs seem to have in spades. A long bar stretches the length of the narrow front room, and three large booths offer some privacy in the back. The backroom setup is good for groups, but our table was the same height as the banquette — fine for drinking and chatting, but awkward for eating.
Around 7:30 on a Thursday night, the bar was quiet — a lull between happy hour and bona fide going-out hour. As we sat, it steadily filled with revelers in their 20s, most of them paying more attention to their drinks than to Rye's food. The drinks are solid, but it would be a shame to visit Rye without ordering something off the very booze-friendly food menu.
We started with cocktails: the Copperhead ($9), a blood orange juice and rye drink that's nicely balanced and citrusy, and the Bee's Knees ($10), a sweet, easy-to-drink combination of gin, honey liqueur, lemon juice and local honey. Served in old-fashioned champagne coupes, the drinks, like everything else at Rye, blended traditional charm with a modern focus on fresh and local.
We sopped up that round with poutine, the French-Canadian comfort food. Thanks to its French name, poutine sounds fancy, but it's actually a simple dish of fries topped with gravy and cheese curd. Rye's fries, cut about half an inch thick, tasted good on their own but made an even better canvas for salty cheddar cheese curds and savory gravy, which had a kick from a liberal dose of black pepper. It wasn't a subtle dish, but it was a good one, full of intense flavor and satisfying carbs.
When she brought us the fries, the bartender told us the chef had a last-minute supplier meeting that would last half an hour. He was alone in the kitchen, so we took our time with our drinks, waiting until he returned to order entrees. In a restaurant, this would be a problem, but since Rye is first and foremost a bar, it was no big deal — especially since he made it back in 15 minutes.
Same goes for the service. Working alone, the bartender handled customers at the bar, plus those of us at tables. She was friendly and efficient, but busy. A few times, we made our way up to the bar to ask for something, rather than waiting for her to check with us. When we did, she got us what we needed quickly.
Main courses at Rye include hot dogs (from Stuggy's, of course), and pancakes and flatbreads topped with everything from veggies to meats. The chorizo burgers ($15), a pair of burgers made with Creekstone Farms ground chuck mixed with house-made chorizo, topped with basil and brie, were large and impressively flavorful — with just enough spice. Curried mustard paired nicely with the creamy brie and made a tasty dipping sauce for accompanying fries.
We also tried the charcuterie flatbread ($16), topped with mozzarella cheese curd, Genoa salami, capicola and a savory roasted tomato sauce. The handmade dough — chewy, crispy and salty — was a highlight. Unfortunately, since the meat was hidden under the cheese, the flavors all blended together. The flatbread tasted good but left us wishing we'd been able to better distinguish between the individual ingredients.
Though they're not usually considered "drinking food," a few desserts are offered. Like the rest of Rye's fare, they're made from scratch. Our brownie ($7) arrived warm and chocolatey, at the bottom of a glass mug topped with lightly whipped cream. As the cream melted, the brownie softened, and each bite was a satisfying combination of warm, cold, nutty and sweet.
On our way out, we chatted with the bartender about Rye's upcoming slate of events, from Meat Mondays (a carnivorous alternative to the nationally promoted Meatless Mondays) to tastings and classes.
The focus of the events is mostly on the drinks. But Perlberg and chef Polson understand that cocktails are better on a full stomach, so the food is never far behind.
Back story: Rye is a Fells Point bar specializing in classic and specialty cocktails and good bar food, both made with locally sourced and house-made ingredients.
Parking: On-street metered parking is available on Broadway
Signature dish: Try the chorizo burgers ($15), a pair of burgers made with Creekstone Farms ground chuck mixed with house-made chorizo, and topped with basil and brie. They're large and flavorful, with just enough spice.
Where: 807 S. Broadway, Baltimore
Contact: 443-438-3296, ryebaltimore.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Fridays, noon-2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays. The kitchen is open Monday-Saturday until 1:30 a.m.
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]