Welcoming bars are nothing new in downtown Annapolis, and restaurants that celebrate southern food and Prohibition's repeal are nothing new anywhere anymore.
But Dry 85, which opened on Main Street on the first day of 2014, combines all those things, creating something that is fun and surprisingly fresh. With a smart drinks list and food that is, for the most part, very good, it's a welcome addition the street.
Scene & Decor The name Dry 85 refers to Washington D.C.'s 85 booze-free days between the repeal of Prohibition and the repeal of the Sheppard Act, which outlawed alcoholic beverages in the capital.
Thankfully, Dry 85's decor doesn't hit patrons over the head with the Prohibition theme (though we did enjoy reading the government letter, penned in the mid-1930s, hanging above our booth). The space is cozy and comfortable, with a soothing gray and brown palette and lots of tables in addition to a long, central bar.
Even on a rainy Sunday evening, when most of downtown Annapolis was empty, Dry 85 housed a lively group. Seated in an enormous booth at the front of the restaurant, we settled in and could've stayed for hours.
Drinks Dry 85's drinks menu is creative and bourbon-heavy. Though tempted, we passed over the hundred-dollar Pappy Van Winkle bourbon flight in favor of a couple cocktails — all well-balanced with good flavor.
Our favorites were the Grapefruit Gingerita ($12), a spicy spin on the margarita, and the Bourbon Jam ($11), a fruity but not overly sweet bourbon drink. Dry 85 also offers four wines on tap, and we were happy that the Diseno Old Vine Malbec ($8) was just as fruity and food-friendly as if it had been poured from a freshly uncorked bottle.
Appetizers Dry 85's food is uniformly alcohol-friendly — upscale takes on bar food that pairs well with whatever you're drinking.
We started with the Dry 85 Drums ($13), chicken drumettes tossed in a sticky and sweet bourbon-based barbecue sauce and served with a small salad of cucumber, red onion and roasted shallots. They tasted great, and were probably the fanciest chicken wings we've ever tried.
Entrees Though the food at Dry 85 has a vaguely southern edge, with lots of pulled pork and southern flavors, the preparations seem modern.
A well-constructed oyster po' boy ($14) came in slider form — oysters, battered and fried, served on cute round buns. With a dollop of tartar sauce on each, the sandwiches were warm and hearty.
Our only complaint were the chips. Made in-house, they were probably fantastic fresh from the fryer. But by the time they made it to our plate they were room temperature and a little soggy. Homemade chips are great, but unless they're frying to order, we wish restaurants would stick with Utz.
Pork osso bucco ($19) arrived in a cast-iron pan, dressed with barbecue sauce, giving the dish the flavor of pulled pork. Though we liked the southern twist, the pork was just a little overcooked, turning it slightly mushy.
Nicely cooked shrimp and grits ($23) was buttery and bacony, with mushrooms adding additional flavor. The dish is a southern classic and Dry 85's kitchen didn't try to reinvent the wheel, but the creamy dish felt more sophisticated than down-home.
The most surprising entree was a salad of greens, fried goat cheese, roasted shallots, warm tomatoes and sliced skirt steak layered with quinoa ($16). The steak, cooked just to medium rare, was well-seasoned and flavorful, thanks to a salty, tasty marinade, and the quinoa added interesting texture and gave the dish more heft than salad usually has.
Service Low-key but friendly and quick, especially with wine refills, the staff at Dry 85 was very likable. Some of the cocktails took a few minutes to prepare but we never felt forgotten.
Dessert Dry 85's desserts are supplied by the reliable Baltimore favorite, Sasscer's Cheesecakes. Though our first choice of cheesecake topped with bumbleberry sauce wasn't available, we more than made do with a big slice of black-bottomed cheesecake ($9). Sweet, tart and a little crumbly, the cake helped us end our evening on a sweet note.
We couldn't resist, though, one more glass of post-dessert Malbec. And maybe next time we'll even go for that Pappy.