Whether you want to hear a good cover band in the crowded downstairs bar or chill in the comfortable upstairs lounge, the Waterfront Hotel has long been a place to have a night on the town. The food was better than average, but nothing to write home about.
In February, new management — and a new executive chef — revamped the Waterfront's menu, along with the interior of the downstairs bar. So far, the move is paying off: The food borders on phenomenal, and the bare-bones look fits the space.
The downstairs bar's new look is more industrial; the walls have been stripped down to the plaster, and in some spots, all the way to the wooden lathe work. The booths, which once took up so much prime floor space, are gone, replaced by space-saving yet thick and sturdy tables and chairs. It's a huge improvement and, I hope, will help spread out the crowds that gather on Friday and Saturday nights.
The bare walls lend a rustic charm and make for a great counterpoint to the sleek, upscale decor and atmosphere of the upstairs bar and dining room (which will be remodeled in January).
While perusing chef Steve Carey's new menu and discussing what was good to order with our attentive and fleet-footed server, I ordered a New Belgian Fat Tire amber ale ($5.73). This malty and sweet beer has lots of flavor but won't get in the way of enjoying your food; in fact, it went really nicely with our order of grilled mini-pork shanks ($12). These terrific little pork drumettes are glazed in a Saranac Root Beer glaze and served with a tangy ranch dressing. The braised meat came off the little shanks easily and wasn't overly sweet. We could have eaten just two more orders of this dish, and the night would have been a success. It will be hard going back to chicken wings after trying these porky little lollipops.
Not as well executed was the butcher's plate ($13), a valiant effort consisting of house-made sausage, pork terrine, root beer pork jam and green chili mustard. The sausage was smoky and matched well with the tasty mustard, but the pork terrine had no seasoning and had the aroma of bland, boiled pork. The root beer pork jam, overly sweet and grainy with the flavor of powdered candy, was a head-scratcher. Why would you want to make jam from pork? Fortunately, this was the only problem that presented itself while at the Waterfront.
The pork belly tacos ($10) were meaty, topped with a mango barbecue sauce that lent sweetness and spice. The crispy fried onions and lettuce gave a much-needed crunch. Served with a choice of fries (garlic-herbed or barbecue), these tacos were a hit.
When my companion ordered the blackened chicken sandwich ($9), I groaned that it was a pedestrian choice with so much other, more interesting items on the menu — but I was flat wrong. The chicken was cooked impeccably with a seasoning that offered a spice note to match the spicy citrus sauce and pepper jack served with it. It was cooled off by ripe avocado, lettuce and tomato. The bun wasn't toasted enough to keep it from getting soggy, but it was still one of the best chicken sandwiches I've ever had.
The burger ($13) also turned out to be much better than average bar fare. The addition of more pork belly and jalapeno bacon contributed instead of overwhelmed the fantastically medium-rare burger. It was another pleasant surprise, but it wouldn't be the last.
The desserts at Waterfront are whimsical, and the s'mores ($5) certainly brought out the kid in us. More sophisticated than we are used to, these dark-chocolate lovelies were a crispy and gooey combination of graham cracker and toasted marshmallow. They could have used a little less powdered sugar, but otherwise were just right.
Also appealing to the kid in us (but also the drinker) was the root beer float ($5). Available by itself or with alcohol, it was a fun twist on a classic. We got Jameson's Irish whiskey in ours — a good choice.
The Waterfront has really stepped its game up in the food area. They seem to want to do a more sophisticated fare than just regular bar food. There might be some bumps along the road, but becoming great always has its pitfalls. It will be interesting to see where they're going with the interior, but for now their food is really good, and that's all that matters to me.
Back story: With new management and a new chef, the Waterfront Hotel has made over its downstairs bar as well as its menu. The new culinary approach keeps it simple, with tacos, burgers and sandwiches making up the bulk of the Waterfront's fare. It's much better food than you'd expect.
Parking: Parking in Fells Point is always a pain, but keep trying and you will eventually find a spot — either at a meter on Thames Street or another spot deeper in the neighborhood.
Signature dish: The grilled mini-pork shanks are glazed in Saranac Root Beer and served with a tangy ranch dressing. We could have made a meal out of a couple orders of them.
Where: 1710 Thames St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-537-5055, waterfronthotel.us
Open: Food is served 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Credit Cards: Visa, MasterCard, AMEX, Discover
[Key: Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭✭; Uneven: ✭✭; Poor: ✭]