Restaurants have come and gone in the Hampden space that once housed Le Garage and Dogwood, but Avenue Kitchen & Bar, which opened in July, may have the winning formula.
On a recent weeknight, the 36th Street restaurant was bustling with customers, including former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and local personality “Downtown Diane” Macklin. The buoyant ambiance was contagious, whether you were sitting in the dining area or at the bar, where drinks were poured with efficiency.
Trendy cocktails had names like “spiritual awakening” and “social butterfly.” Beers included regional drafts, and the wine list was succinct and interesting.
We enjoyed a red-wine flight ($10), which featured a lemberger (our favorite), malbec and sangiovese.
The minimalist, hipster decor in the low-lit cavern fit the mood with concrete floors, brick walls, lacquered black tables and shelves glowing with candle-lit vases.
New owners Bill Irvin and Patrick Dahlgren* offer a seasonal menu with enough variety to encourage repeat visits.
“We wanted to offer traditional items that you will love year after year,” Irvin said. “We’re a mixed culture, so we wanted to have American food with Continental influences.”
Chef Audiel Vera, who was the executive chef and co-owner at the now-closed BMore Cocina in Upper Fells Point, is leading the kitchen and composing beautifully plated dishes.
A small cafe called Sidebar is housed upstairs in the sidewalk level of the restaurant. It has a menu similar to the downstairs restaurant’s, but without the entrees.
We were seated in the lower level and got off to a good start with the Falafelicious falafel sliders. We appreciated the thin bread buns, which didn’t overpower the chickpea croquettes.
Irvin has re-created the delicious fritters that he served at his now-shuttered Falafelicious restaurant in Canton along with its flavorful hummus.
The Buffalo fried oysters, coddled in their shells like rotund, napping babies, were also satisfying. A zesty sauce complimented the juicy bivalves.
We were disappointed with the “heavenly” biscuits, which were tasteless and dry. We ordered one biscuit, which was big enough to share among three people. The honey butter helped, but not enough to turn it celestial.
We were really happy with our single-pattie Avenue burger on a golden brioche roll (there is a double-patty option). The Creekstone Farms beef shone with “hon” sauce (a mayonnaise-Old Bay mix, our server said), caramelized onions and American cheese. It came with fries or a quinoa salad. We weren’t surprised that the teenager in our group decided on the fries.
His presence also explains the order of the flaming hot Cheetos mac and cheese. Despite the gimmick, the side dish was creamy and fulfilling. It was topped with the crushed orange snack food, which Irvin said he buys at a nearby Royal Farms.
Our other entrees were also admirable. The cast-iron New York strip steak, weighing in at 14 ounces, was a lovely hunk of meat. The accompanying thicket of wild mushrooms, duck-fat potatoes and rosemary-garlic butter was superb.
The crispy-skin salmon was a terrific stack of seared fish atop Swiss chard and corn polenta. As with several dishes, the food was sprinkled with appealing micro greens and darling, edible baby marigolds.
Desserts also were adorned with the tiny orange flowers, creating a pretty tableau.
A rustic fruit tart with summer berries was a fine ending, especially with the addition of Taharka Brothers peach ice cream. We also devoured an elegant almond flourless chocolate cake crowned with a divine chocolate ganache.
Even though I admired the endeavors at Dogwood and Le Garage, I think Irvin and Dahlgren have a plan that will keep diners coming to Avenue Kitchen & Bar for years to come. It complements Hampden’s growing restaurant scene.
Avenue Kitchen & Bar
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 911 W. 36th St., Hampden
Contact: 443-961-8515, avenuekitchenbar.com
Downstairs restaurant hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, noon to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Sidebar hours: Noon to 11 p.m. or midnight daily.
Prices: “Shared for the table,” $3-$18; sandwiches, $10-$18; entrees, $13-$32.
Food: New American
Noise/TVs: We liked the boisterous, party-like atmosphere; three TVs .
Service: Our wait staff was efficient and polite.
Parking: Street parking and a back parking lot, a rarity in Hampden.
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]
*Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of Avenue Kitchen & Bar owner Patrick Dahlgren. The Sun regrets the error.