Irish pubs should be a few things: cozy, welcoming and convivial. They need a seemingly endless supply of Guinness, Harp and whiskey.
Kelsey's Restaurant, an Ellicott City fixture for almost two decades, fits the bill, turning out pub-friendly food that's fresh and tasty.
Hoping to create a neighborhood gathering spot in the mold of traditional Irish pubs, Chris and Maureen McManus opened Kelsey's in 1994. A few years ago, Mark Mays and Chad Medina bought into the restaurant, creating a four-way partnership.
Kelsey's has a friendly crowd. On a recent Saturday night, as soon as we walked through the door into the dark, wood-lined bar, we got smiles all around and good-natured jokes from the staff.
We sat in the dining room, which was about half-full with a mix of families and couples (the bar was busier). The dining room atmosphere was a touch more staid — no jokes between tables — but comfortable and very Irish, with Guinness posters and Irish flags lining the walls and a fireplace in the back.
In a few spots, Kelsey's was rough around the edges: Our menus were dog-eared and worn, and holes in the battered wooden table were visible, despite a rough fill with putty.
Those details were at odds with linen napkins and pretty, old-fashioned flowered window treatments. But the overall effect was charming and homey.
Our waitress appeared right away, and after taking our drink orders, popped back to tell us that the specialty cocktail we ordered — a wolfberry mojito — was no longer available. We opted for a pint of refreshing Harp lager instead ($5).
Kelsey's takes its role as a pillar of the Ellicott City community seriously, and that extends to its food, which is as locally sourced as possible. That commitment showed up on the plate.
We started with a simple house salad ($3.99). The crisp combination of mixed greens, super-ripe tomato and julienned vegetables, topped with goat cheese, crostini and a tangy champagne vinaigrette, exceeded our expectations. It was fresher and more sophisticated than average pub fare.
Corned beef "poppers" ($9.99) were an equally pleasant surprise. On paper, the appetizer sounded intriguing but odd: corned beef dipped in beer batter and fried. But thanks to the quality of the house-braised corned beef, the lightly crisp fried batter and the sharp bite of an accompanying Guinness mustard sauce, the dish was a success.
From the "specialties" section of the menu, we tried the Chessie Chicken ($11.99), Kelsey's take on the regional favorite Chicken Chesapeake. The chicken breast was cooked nicely, and we enjoyed the fresh spinach mixed into the creamy crab dip topping. But a few bites were overly salty.
The side of coleslaw was crisp, with just the right amount of creamy dressing. But rosemary-flecked fries, while flavorful, were soggy.
The New "Mayswich" sandwich ($10.99) was a hit. The sandwich, named after co-owner Mark Mays, piled thin slices of house-braised roast beef, cooked medium rare, on chewy ciabatta.
Topped with several slices of sharp cheddar, thin beer-battered onion rings, mushrooms, bright greens and spicy black-pepper aioli, the sandwich's flavors were hearty and satisfying.
We wished the beef was seasoned a little more heavily — surprisingly, the cheese and onion rings didn't add much salt to the sandwich. A dash of salt from the shaker took care of that problem.
We wrapped up the meal with a slice of dense peanut butter and chocolate pie ($6.99) that combined the classic flavors and textures of a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, without the candy's sugar shock.
Throughout dinner, our waitress managed something tricky: She was unobtrusive but always there when we needed her. Our glasses stayed filled and the food's appearance at the table was timed well. Plus, she always had a smile, like everyone else in the place.
Walking out the door to a chorus of goodbyes, it was easy to see why those Kelsey's regulars keep coming back — and why some of them, like Mays, turn their patronage into a career.
The smiles and ready pints alone would be enough. But with the added bonus of good food, made in house? Sign us up as regulars, too.
Back story: Kelsey's Restaurant has been a festive and cheery Ellicott City mainstay, serving good pub food alongside Irish beer since 1994.
Parking: Lot in front.
Signature dish: The New "Mayswich" stacks house-braised roast beef with cheddar, fresh greens, beer-battered onion rings and peppery aioli on chewy ciabatta. A sprinkle of salt brings the hearty sandwich's flavors to life.
Where: 8480 Baltimore National Pike, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-418-9076, kelseysrestaurant.com
Open: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Wednesday, 11 a.m.-midnight Thursday to Saturday (11 p.m.-midnight late night menu). On Sundays: 10 a.m.-1 p.m. brunch, 1 p.m.-4 p.m. limited menu, 4 p.m.-10 p.m. full menu
Credit Cards: All major credit cards; No Diners Club
[Key: Excellent: ****; Good: ***; Fair or Uneven: **; Poor: *]Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun