Club Charles

The black bean and rice burrito at Club Charles features sauteed black beans wrapped in flour with tomatoes, salsa, cheddar cheese and sour cream. (COLBY WARE, BALTIMORE SUN / May 17, 2011)

If you've never heard that Club Charles serves food, you're not alone. It's hard to imagine that a bar known for being a hangout of the tragically hip would do something as normal as serve food. But Club Charles does, and it's good.

With its 1920s art deco meets "The Shining" vibe, Club Charles feels more like the backdrop to a spy movie than a place to get a pre-movie dinner. Dark and mysterious, it is, strangely, a great place for a romantic date. The downstairs gets crowded quickly after 9 p.m., so either eat early or head upstairs to enjoy a little more space. The bartenders, who are also the servers, are helpful, pleasant and attentive — but there is a caveat. After the crowd starts to come in, it gets harder for them to be as attentive.

Club Charles has taken over the kitchen of the old Zodiac restaurant next door — in fact, the name Zodiac still adorns the menus. The Zodiac, which closed in 2008 and morphed into a space for private events soon after, is currently home to a monthly comedy night for the Wham City arts collective. With menu headings such as "sandwiches," "pizza" and "not so small", it's easy to figure out that the fare is strictly bar food. But also included in this club grub are 15 vegetarian-friendly dishes, 10 of which are even vegan-friendly. It is refreshing to see a menu that offers such varied chow.

Beer and cocktails are the norm at Club Charles, with drink specials Monday through Thursday. I enjoyed a Sierra Nevada pale ale, whose hoppiness punched though the heavier dishes. My companion had a gin and tonic that was poured with a delightfully heavy hand.

As starters go, the loaded nachos ($10.95) are enormous: Crunchy, cheesy, studded with pickled jalapenos and piled with spiced ground beef and beans. Easily enough to feed three, the nachos could have used more salsa on the side. The vegan crab cake ($9.95) could never pass for a real crab cake, but was tasty all the same. A patty made from zucchini and squash; it was fried crispy on the outside but was soft and creamy inside. It tasted slightly of Old Bay, and when combined with the sides of spicy pepper pot salad and vegan tartar sauce, it made for a well-rounded bite.

Out of the five sandwiches offered, the Oklahoma hot beef ($9.95) seemed the most intriguing. Served open-faced with a side of crispy fries, it was tender and moist almost to a fault. The pumpernickel bread, which rounded out the piquant mustard seed sauce, was a bit soggy to begin with — even before we added a splash of au jus.

Fish and chips (12.95) were highlighted under the "not so small" portion of the menu. While it was not so small, it wasn't overly large either. It would have fed one person thoroughly. The three pieces of fish were extremely crisp and able to hold the trio of dipping sauces (malt vinegar, ketchup and tartar sauce) without getting soft. The ample amount of fries benefited from these sauces as well.

The pizza section claims that the Zodiac pizza ($13.95) is Club Charles' signature dish, and it represents well. Smoky and sweet, the pizza was topped with generous amounts of chicken and accented with andouille, caramelized onions, smoked mozzarella and fresh basil. By itself, the pizza was full of flavor. With a little salt, it was deliciously complex, and could have comfortably fed three people. Taken home and reheated the next morning, it makes for great breakfast pizza.

Club Charles has one dessert item on the menu, and it's a comforting one. The Turkish apple ($7.95) consisted of cooked spiced apples poured onto a crispy baked pita and then topped with vanilla ice cream. Although it was a fine end to a meal, the confection could be great with higher quality ice cream. The combination of warm, cold, sweet and spicy was a crowd pleaser.

Club Charles' food is very straightforward. They do what they do and they do it well. As an alternative to the other, more populated restaurants in and around Station North, Club Charles is a great choice. You might not have a fancy meal, but you could have a delicious one and be in and out with a full stomach and a sated thirst just in time for the start of a show.

Have you been to Club Charles? Write your own review.

Club Charles

Where: 1724 N. Charles St.

Contact: 410-727-8815

Open: 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. daily

Dinner: Tuesday-Sunday

Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard

Appetizers: $4.95-$14.95

Entrees: $7.95-$15

Food: ✭✭✭

Service: ✭✭✭

Atmosphere: ✭✭✭