"Downtown restaurant" and "kid-friendly" are not two concepts that naturally go together. In most cases, they shouldn't go together. But at Sweet Caroline's, they do.
The Locust Point restaurant, which opened in August in the former home of Pazza Luna, caters to both families and kid-free adults looking for a good place for dinner and drinks by keeping the menu and decor simple and the service friendly.
For the most part, that approach works. Occasionally, though, Sweet Caroline's food seems a little too basic for its downtown location.
Scene & Decor When owners Ashley Fowler and John "Jay" Ferrari took over the corner building, it was in bare bones condition. With new floors and fixtures, a couple funky sofas and a few coats of gray paint, they transformed the space into a cool spot for drinks or dinner.
When we arrived, just before seven on a gorgeous Friday night, a young family sat at a table just outside Sweet Caroline's door. Inside, on the first floor, a handful of twenty-somethings hung out at the bar and the upstairs dining room was populated with a mix of friends and families. (Mercifully, every child we saw was happily occupied with crayons and was well-behaved.)
Drinks Sweet Caroline's had a fun, seasonally driven cocktail menu; we loved the basil margarita ($10) for its herbaceous flavor and bracing acidity.
The wine list was somewhat less impressive. We don't mind a brief list, especially in a neighborhood restaurant, and by the bottle, Sweet Caroline's covered most of the bases. However, we wished there were more by-the-glass options, especially among the white wines.
The full-bodied Trapiche Malbec ($8) was exactly what we wanted, but though the Sycamore Lane Pinot Grigio ($6) was easy to drink, we would have preferred Sauvignon Blanc.
Appetizer A martini glass filled with shrimp ceviche ($11), served with plenty of sturdy tortilla chips, was pleasantly fresh and bright, though it could have used a little more heat or acidity (or both).
The shrimp was springy and sweet and the finely chopped peppers and onions were crisp, but a bit of jalapeno and an extra squeeze of lime would have given the dish more zing.
Entrees Our entrees suffered from similar problems. Though well-conceived and technically correct, they were just on the boring side of safe.
A slab of prime rib ($27), the week's steak special, was juicy and cooked to a neat medium rare, as requested. On the side, broccoli and roasted potatoes were also cooked nicely. But the steak and sides were all slightly under-seasoned and the steak, advertised as having a honey-Dijon marinade, just tasted like steak. Steak flavor is a good thing — no cause for complaint — except if you are expecting something more exciting.
The chicken strawberry caprese ($14) was an appealing twist on traditional caprese, with slices of ripe strawberry taking the place of tomato. The combination of strawberry, chicken and soft cubes of mozzarella was a good one but once again, we yearned for a little more acid. Its sprinkle of balsamic vinegar just wasn't enough.
Dessert Fortunately, dessert was more of an unqualified win. "Bun cake" ($9), with a glossy sweet top and a bread-like interior, reminded us of our favorite sort of breakfast. With a scoop of sweet and slightly spicy cinnamon ice cream, the cake turned into a sophisticated, deconstructed cinnamon bun. We loved it.
Service We also loved our waitress, a knowledgeable and friendly young woman who knew exactly when to give us more time and when to bring us a drink.
Good service didn't stop with our waitress, either. From the hostess to the bartender, every employee whose path we crossed was approachable and welcoming.
By the time we wrapped up our meal, the vibe had shifted, gently, from crayon to cocktail. Most of the families with kids had gone home, presumably to bed, and the tables were filling with a younger crowd.
With such friendly service and approachable food, Sweet Caroline's is sure to be the new favorite neighborhood spot for Locust Point residents of all ages. And if the kitchen tweaks the recipes just a bit — amping up the flavor — the rest of the city could fall in love with it, too.
Back story: Husband and wife team Ashley Fowler and Jay Ferrari opened Sweet Caroline's in Locust Point in August 2013. The restaurant, named after the daughter of a friend, aims to be a family-friendly, fun addition to the vibrant neighborhood.
Parking: Street parking
Signature dish: Try the ceviche, a bright dish of peppers, onions and fish (during our visit, shrimp) marinated in citrus and served with thick chips for scooping. The appetizer, served in a martini glass, is easy to share and a great match for the basil margarita.
Where: 1401 East Clement Street, Baltimore
Open: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. (bar stays open later), Monday-Saturday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday
Credit Cards: All major
Bottom line: Great service and uncomplicated, but well-executed food in a Locust Point spot catering to both families and kid-free adults