By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun
7:35 AM EDT, September 14, 2012
Wiley Gunter's is an easy place to like.
It has everything a great neighborhood bar needs: super-friendly bartenders, big TVs, walls covered with sports memorabilia and a menu stocked with well-executed takes on familiar bar food.
With all that, it's no surprise that around 7 on a recent Thursday night, the place was packed. Groups of friends wearing matching Kickball League of Baltimore T-shirts filled both of Wiley Gunter's two floors, grabbing beers before heading to games near the bar's Federal Hill-meets-Locust Point location.
We snagged a table on the main floor; a few minutes later, one of the two bartenders on duty came over, bearing menus. Turns out, our waiter was owner Wyatt Mackie.
Mackie officially opened Wiley Gunter's in late July, naming the bar after his great-grandfather, a Cherokee Indian who is also in the Cowboy Hall of Fame. Before then, the bar was Sly Fox Pub.
Mackie was the general manager of Sly Fox, eventually buying out brothers Andrew and Chris Fox (the Foxes still own the Sly Fox Pub in downtown Annapolis). Mackie operated the bar as Sly Fox for about a year and, after a complete renovation of the interior, opened as Wiley Gunter's.
Though newly renovated, Wiley Gunter's didn't have that fresh new-bar feel. On the walls, sports memorabilia — mostly Redskins and Virginia Tech-related — and historic photographs mixed with chalkboards and neon beer signs. The bar and tables already showed a little wear and tear, giving the space the scruffy feel of a much-loved dive bar.
As a bartender-waiter, Mackie was as jovial as they come. He delivered our drinks — a standard but fresh orange crush ($6, $5 during happy hour) and a supremely hoppy pint of Perpetual IPA by Pennsylvania's Troegs Brewing ($5) — in a flash, with a big smile.
We ordered a crab pretzel ($10) then made a seating change. The group of kickballers next to us had outgrown their table, so we volunteered ours, moving to the bar.
The move earned us big thanks all around, from the kickball crew to the bar staff, confirming that Wiley Gunter's is an easy place to make a few new friends.
We settled at the bar, with another crush and an Elysian Immortal IPA (also $5 and slightly less hoppy than the Perpetual), and focused on dinner. Wiley Gunter's menu runs to traditional bar food: wings, burgers, and sandwiches. It's not exotic, but it is well-executed.
The Buffalo chicken wrap ($8) was a capable take on the standard sandwich. The chicken was juicy, fresh and spicy, cooled off by crunchy lettuce and creamy blue cheese.
A side of Old Bay pasta salad was a pleasant surprise. The pasta tasted springy and freshly cooked. Mixed with finely chopped raw vegetables and doused with Old Bay, the salad was spicy and interesting. It would be a hit at any cookout.
The Dill Dip burger ($9) was the most intriguing item on the menu. Created as a tribute to a burger served at The Hokie House, where Mackie worked during his college days at Virginia Tech, the burger was topped with dill dip, lettuce, tomato, American cheese and a thick slice of raw onion.
It sounded peculiar, but the sharp onion played off the creamy dill topping. The combination worked.
Burgers at Wiley Gunter's are all hand-formed, made with a house blend of meats and spices. Ours, cooked to medium rare, as requested, was juicy and savory. The only downside: a soggy bottom bun. But the meat was worth the extra napkins.
Hot, crunchy and spicy hand-cut Old Bay fries rounded out the plate.
Friendly as they were, Mackie and company weren't immune to glitches: Confused by the table switch, and dealing with a crowded bar, they completely forgot about our crab pretzel appetizer.
But all was not lost. After a reminder, Mackie not only brought us the appetizer with apologies, he took it off our bill and comped a couple of our drinks. We appreciated Mackie's above-and-beyond apology, though we would have been satisfied with a simple "Sorry about that."
And though it arrived after we'd polished off most of our sandwiches, the pretzel was tasty enough that we ate the whole thing. The oversize pretzel was chewy on the inside, with a slight snap to each bite. It held up admirably under piles of creamy, cheesy crab dip.
Wiley Gunter's menu doesn't yet include dessert, but Mackie says he's working on adding a few items.
We didn't miss it. With a new crop of kickballers, fresh from a game, behind us, Mackie at the taps and a fresh round of drinks in front of us, we were happy just as we were.
Back story: Wiley Gunter's officially opened in July in the East Fort Avenue location that formerly housed the Sly Fox Pub. With jovial bartenders, tons of TVs and straightforward bar food, it's a great place to grab a burger while watching a game — especially when the game involves the Redskins or Hokies.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The juicy Dill Dip burger, topped with American cheese, dill dip and raw onion, is an interesting and tasty tribute to The Hokie House in Blacksburg, Va.
Where: 823 E. Fort Ave., Baltimore
Contact: 410-637-3699, wileygunters.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday; 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; Weekend brunch is 11 a.m.-2 p.m.
Credit Cards: All major
[Key: Superlative: ✭✭✭✭✭; Excellent: ✭✭✭✭; Very Good: ✭✭✭; Good: ✭✭; Promising: ✭]
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