While the 18th-century brick homes and Belgian-block streets capture Fells Point's earlier days, it's rare to find a restaurant there that looks like it's been plucked from Colonial times — except for Penny Black.
The bar-restaurant at the corner of Thames and Ann streets has a Williamsburg, Va.-style room with a working fireplace, wide-plank floors, oval braided rug and vintage photos. It's a charming throwback.
When you walk into Penny Black through the front entrance, you face the friendly bar area, where you're welcome to sit at tables for your meal. For a quieter experience, ask to be seated in the old-fashioned back room. In warm weather, the covered patio is another option.
The American pub food is uncomplicated and straightforward, from lighter fare to entrees and sandwiches. The succinct menu includes items like wings, a burger, BLT sandwich, New York strip steak, and fish and chips.
With the exception of a few items that would have benefited from a hotter temperature, the kitchen is producing well-prepared, nicely plated dishes.
The restaurant reminds us of the space's previous heyday, when Charles "Chuck" Doering opened the restaurant as John Steven Ltd. in 1977. Familiarly called John Stevens, it changed hands in 2007 and was run by different proprietors until 2014, when Doering took over the operation again.
He reopened the restaurant in 2015 with a name change to give the place a fresh identity. A stamp collector, Doering was drawn to the name Penny Black as a nod to the first adhesive postage stamp.
Doering, his wife, Melissa, and their children, John and Eliza, have made Penny Black a family affair, adding renewed energy and enthusiasm to the business.
It's nice to have the old John Stevens back, even with a different name.
Scene & Décor Eating in the Colonial-style dining room at Penny Black is a lot like eating in a friend's private dining room. It seats about 15 people and offers an intimate experience in a period setting. We really liked the classical music playing on the sound system. The front windows also offer a prized view of the waterfront. On our visit, the fireplace wasn't lit, resulting in a chilly room — which may have explained the temperate food. Still, we enjoyed a quiet, unhurried meal, which isn't often found in Fells Point.
Appetizers The mezze plate ($9.95) is a wonderful starter, featuring well-made hummus, tapenade and tzatziki sauce and served with plenty of soft pita triangles and crisp cucumbers, carrots and celery for dipping. The cream of crab soup (cup, $7.95; bowl, $8.95), redolent with seafood and just enough Old Bay, was a great rendition of a Maryland favorite. We would have liked it served warmer, and we found it was almost thick enough to be classified as a dip. The accompanying crusty bread slices were great for scooping.
Entrees You can test a Baltimore kitchen's mettle with a crabcake. Penny Black's passed the test with flying colors. We ordered the five-ounce, jumbo-lump patty as a sandwich ($14.95); it was served on a toasted brioche role with lettuce and a squiggle of tartar sauce. We were impressed that it was paired with delicious roasted baby fingerling potatoes instead of the usual chips or fries. The Louisiana-style gumbo ($16.95) was a flavorful, spicy stew, chock-full of shrimp, andouille sausage, crab, chicken and okra. An island of fluffy basmati rice sat in the middle of the rich broth. Its only drawback was the temperature — again not hot enough. But that didn't stop us from savoring it.
Drinks Bottle, drafts and cans of beer with an emphasis on local brands; wines by the glass and bottle; and basic mixed drinks.
Service Our waiter was laid-back and pleasant.
Dessert We ended on a happy note with a warm bourbon pecan bread pudding ($6.95) and a stellar lemon bar with a swirl of whipped cream and mint leaves ($3.50).
Backstory: Charles "Chuck" Doering opened John Steven Ltd. in 1977, running the bar until 2007 when different tenants took over the business. When they ran into financial problems, Doering, who owns the building, took over the operation with his wife, Melissa, and children, John and Eliza. They reopened as Penny Black in 2015.
Signature dish: The crabcake sandwich
TVs: One TV in the bar, which is only turned on for local or big national sports events, Melissa Doering said.
Where: 1800 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 410-617-0580, pennyblackbaltimore.com
Open: Kitchen is open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. The bar steams seafood daily until 1:30 a.m.
Credit Cards: All major
Reservations: Does not accept reservations, but will book small parties.
Bottom line: The Doering family has brought the restaurant back to its previous days of success. It's time for a revisit.