Just a few years ago, most conversations about the Annapolis food scene were full of sad lamentations that such a fantastic town was so lacking in great restaurants. Was it true, people wondered, that the quality of a restaurant's food is inversely proportional to the view? At most Naptown spots, that certainly seemed to be the case.
But that's changed. Today, Annapolis chefs are the most creative they've ever been. The town has become a place where even the bar food is good, and a great meal can involve something edgier than crab cakes.
Fox's Den is part of that revolution. The restaurant and bar, which opened in on Main Street in June, bills itself as "the premier gastropub in Annapolis." With interesting, well-executed food, great drinks and smart, engaged service, that description fits.
The team behind Fox's Den also owns and operates Level, the highly acclaimed small-plates spot on West Street, and Vida Taco Bar, a newer street-taco place on Main Street. Each of the three has a distinct atmosphere, but they share a commitment to high-quality ingredients and creative thinking in the kitchen.
At Fox's Den, the vibe is driven by the restaurant's basement location. Wood and brick walls, neutral colors and rustic Americana artwork give the space a cozy feel.
Though our table was tucked in a corner, it might have been the best seat in the house. On one side, we had a great view of the open kitchen and pizza oven; on the other, we gazed through a large window separating the inside of the restaurant from the steps leading up to Main Street. Our little corner of the Fox's Den basement got plenty of natural light.
Our vantage point also gave us a good view of would-be diners who made the trek down the steps, only to reach the hostess stand and learn that no tables were available. When we arrived, on a Saturday, just before the restaurant's 5 p.m. opening time, a short line had already formed outside the door. We got lucky.
That kind of busy buzz is fun for a new restaurant, but knowing how popular the place was also meant our expectations were high. Fortunately, from the first bite, they were met.
The menu is brief, focused and casual, including a handful of interesting snacks, a few salads and sandwiches, mussels served in a choice of sauces and several types of pizza.
We started with a plate of tater tots served over sour cream and chives and topped with a sprinkle of caviar. We loved the mix of high end and downscale elements; their flavors and textures played nicely together.
Even on a plate with an ingredient as luxurious as caviar, the tots themselves were our favorite part of the dish. Super-crispy and well-seasoned, the little potato puffs were terrific.
Mussels, plump and plentiful, were also cooked nicely, and we loved their sauce. Called "beer cheesy," it was a slightly yeasty, spicy and tangy combination of beer and cheddar cheese, spiked with red pepper, bits of savory pork belly and scallions for crunch.
When we ordered the clam pizza, our chatty and knowledgeable waiter let slip that he thought it was the most underrated item on the menu. Not too many people were ordering it, he said -- they were sticking to the more meat-heavy options — but he liked it a lot.
We did, too, though eating it, as we did, after the intensely flavorful mussels, we wished the pizza was a little more assertive. Its charred, chewy crust was great and we enjoyed the creamy garlic sauce and meaty clams, but the pizza might have been more of a standout with a little black pepper, or a sprinkle of cayenne.
Dessert, named the "Truffle Shuffle," was also a bit of a letdown. The brownie, graham cracker and peanut combination was pleasant enough, but crushed pretzels, promised on the menu, were conspicuously absent from the final product. We missed them.
Instead of dessert, diners might be more satisfied with a post-dinner round of drinks; Fox's Den's bartenders know what they are doing.
In addition to an impressive list of local beers, the bar offers seven different cocktails that are barrel aged in-house. Our favorite, the Corn n' Oil, was a surprising and fabulous combination of rum, lime, bitters and falernum, a sweet, spiced mixer that is a new favorite on cocktail menus all over the country.
That drink, followed by a tart, sweet and spicy dark and stormy made with the restaurant's house-brewed ginger beer, was all the dessert we needed.
Where: 179B Main Street, Annapolis
Contact: 443-808-8991; foxsden.com
Open: Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. to 12 a.m.; this fall, Fox's Den will add weekend lunch service
Prices: Appetizers, $7-13; Pizzas, salads and mussels, $12-16
Food: Interesting and well-executed pizzas, mussels and pub fare
Noise/TVs: Moderately loud with two televisions covered by maps but uncovered and turned on for football games
Service: Personable and extremely knowledgeable
Parking: Street parking and garage
Special diets: The kitchen will accommodate dietary restrictions and allergies
Reservation policy: Reservations are accepted
Nearby reviews: Dish Baltimore - Anne Arundel