The Swallow at the Hollow might be a dive bar, but don't let that scare you away from the menu. It's worth a try.
The north Baltimore bar's history stretches back to the '40s, when it was a combo barber shop and bar. In recent years it has been a popular hangout for Loyola students and for a crew of regulars that keep the place lively, especially during Orioles' and Ravens' games.
Under the ownership of Aaron Reinhart, who bought the Swallow in 2011, it's also blossomed into a good place for a casual bite to eat.
Scene & Decor The inside of the Swallow is nothing to write home about - well-worn bar stools and neon liquor signs dominate the decor. But the people on those stools contribute more to the vibe than what's on the walls.
On a recent Monday night, regulars lined the bar, chatting with each other as they waited for the O's game to start, and a handful of couples found tables in the Swallow's small dining area. Patrons wandered in and out, a diverse crew greeting each other with genuine pleasure. These people liked each other; we could feel it.
Drinks We started with a couple beers, chosen from the list displayed on a chalkboard behind the bar. The Swallow feels like a traditional (and cheap) beer bar - a Yuengling draft ($2.25 during happy hour; $2.75 otherwise) and a Miller High Life bottle ($3) seemed appropriate.
After the High Life (aka "the Champagne of Beers"), we switched to a Lowenbrau ($2), just because we were happy to see the old school beer on the menu.
Appetizer Dive bars are often known for their reliance on the fryer, so when we ordered the crab ball appetizer ($11.95), we expected a couple overly fried "crab" balls tossed on a plate. Instead, we were treated to several small but lovely crab cakes - gently broiled and served with creamy tartar sauce and appealingly spicy cocktail sauce.
The cakes had a lemony flavor that enhanced the delicate crab. They were arranged on the plate without much ceremony - and thanks to the lack of filler, they fell apart when we tried to pick them up - but flavor-wise, their quality exceeded our expectations.
Entrees The majority of the Swallow's menu falls in sandwich territory. The Reuben ($8.25) was classic and hearty, with warm corned beef stacked high on rye bread, topped with tangy sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing.
It held no surprises — and neither did a side order of crispy curly fries — but the grilled sandwich's flavors hit the spot.
The Swallow's burger ($7.25; toppings $0.50 each) was just as satisfying. The patty was hand-formed with well-seasoned ground beef then cooked to a juicy medium rare. We added cheddar cheese and crispy bacon to ours. Piled on a soft bun, the classic was a crowd-pleaser. (According to Reinhart, on Wednesday nights, half-price burger night draws a serious crowd.)
On the side, fries were cut and cooked in the Thrasher's mold - long and skinny with crispy ends, but floppy in the middle. They were great and just salty enough (though they would've been better with a sprinkle of vinegar).
Service During our visit, one bartender handled everyone at the bar, plus the few filled tables. He did so with surprising ease, never seeming rushed, but also delivering drinks and dinner in a timely fashion.
He made a few good jokes, too; we like that in a bartender/waiter.
Dessert One of those jokes came when we ordered a slice of apple pie for dessert. "Maybe it's available," he said, drawing out the first word. We laughed; admittedly, the Swallow is not the kind of place people usually order dessert.
Even so, the pie was warm and sweet, with crisp apples and undertones of cinnamon. With a scoop of ice cream, it was a pleasant way to end the meal.
Bottom Line You don't have to be a regular to appreciate the charms of The Swallow at the Hollow. Just find a stool with a good view of the game, order a beer and dig into a burger.
It might not be the fanciest meal in town, but it's a good one.
Swallow at the Hollow
Back story: According to local lore, The Swallow at the Hollow has been in its York Road location since 1947, when it was half barber shop, half bar. When current owner Aaron Reinhart bought the Swallow in 2011, he did little to upset its dive bar charm - though the Swallow's food, while casual, is worthy of any dining establishment.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: The Swallow's burger - a hand-formed patty of well-seasoned beef served on a soft bun - is top-notch. Cooked to medium rare and topped with bacon and melted cheddar, the burger is juicy and satisfying. A side order of skinny fries will have you dreaming of the beach.
Where: 5921 York Road, Baltimore, MD 21212
Contact: 410-532-7542; http://www.thehollowbar.com
Open: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Daily
Credit Cards: All major
Rating: 2.5 stars
Reservations: Not accepted
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star ]