Hamilton Tavern, on the corner of Harford Road and Wisteria Avenue, is a rare thing — a true neighborhood tavern with citywide appeal. The official city-designated neighborhood for this address is Glenham-Belhar, but as Tom Creegan, the Brewer's Art partner who runs Hamilton Tavern, noted, everybody up there calls this neighborhood just plain Hamilton.
I know folks from all over Baltimore who have adopted Hamilton Tavern as their own, and the nice folks who run the place and the Hamilton residents that frequent it have been more than decent about sharing it with the city at large.
I like Hamilton Tavern so much because it has always known exactly what its guests are looking for in their neighborhood tavern. They want a place where they can come a couple times a week and depend on running into friends. It should have a homey feel, and Hamilton Tavern does. The tables and chairs look like furniture that once were in someone's home. But don't get the idea that they're delightfully mismatched, or that Hamilton Tavern is, Lord help us, "funky," because it's not like that at all.
It's just a nice, pleasantly dark place. I love the curtain at the entrance that keeps out the heat in the summer and the cold in the winter. With 15 seats at the bar and another 32 at tables, most them on the main floor but a few on a raised platform in the back, the arrangement keeps the tavern from feeling cramped or claustrophobic. There are another 14 seats outside on the Wisteria Avenue sidewalk.
Decorated with personal touches like framed photographs, Hamilton Tavern is obviously well cared for, and the staff, a few of whom have been there since the first day, clearly take a lot of pride in what they do. Among these veterans is chef Sarah Dudeck, who puts out what might just be the perfect Baltimore tavern menu. It doesn't take itself too seriously — a ginger-and-honey roasted duck sandwich is as fancy as it gets — but the food is made from very good ingredients, and it's cooked and presented with care and precision.
Hamilton Tavern's calling card is its Crosstown Burger, which is made with beef from Monkton's Roseda Farm and topped with horseradish cheddar, onion and shredded iceberg lettuce — the only kind of lettuce worth putting on a burger. Optional add-ons are a fried egg and sticky bacon, except I don't consider them optional at all. It's a tremendously satisfying burger, seasoned liberally with salt and pepper. And the kitchen always, always remembers to toast the bun.
There are other terrific things on the regular menu, like the disco fries, a plateful of hand-cut fries smothered with cheddar cheese and a smoked duck gravy; the steamed mussels, which are served in a rich garlic, sherry and white wine sauce, given a fiery boost with a liberal dose of banana pepper, and finished, memorably, with a sprinkling of crispy prosciutto; and the sweet and smoky beer-braised pulled pork sandwich — worth ordering for its cheddar-jalapeno drop biscuit alone.
On any given night, there are one or two specials from the kitchen, and certainly you wish there were more, although maybe keeping things simple is how Hamilton Tavern keeps things good. And there's something to be said, too, for keeping diners in a tantalized state, which is what Dudeck did with a thoroughly engaging Saturday night special, a halibut fillet served with sauteed red potatoes and pancetta, green beans and a luscious creamed corn sauce — every bite of it good.
Maybe you'd want a bigger dessert list. Hamilton Tavern had three choices when we were there — a sea-salted caramel cupcake with sticky spicy bacon, a lemon cheesecake with blueberry compote and a brownie sundae. And they're OK, but they seem like something the restaurant offers for people who have to have dessert.
What else makes a great tavern? A good selection of local craft beers helps, but there'll be times when a $2 can of National Bohemian will do. Hamilton Tavern has both — it's not a fussy place.
One of the nicest things about Hamilton Tavern is that it doesn't have a television set. The people who come here are comfortable just hanging out, enjoying each other's company, and eating some terrific food in a great neighborhood spot.
Where: 5517 Harford Road, Hamilton
Contact: 410-426-1930, hamiltontavern.com
Open: 4:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sundays through Wednesdays; 4:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays
Prices: Appetizers: $6-$13; entrees and sandwiches: $11-$18
Food: Regional tavern fare
Service: Friendly, professional and fast
Parking: Parking is on-street at metered spots. Meters are in effect until 6 p.m.
Children: A small children's menu is available on request.
Noise level/televisions: Normal conversation is fine in most dining areas. There are no televisions at Hamilton Tavern
[Star key: Superlative:4; Excellent: 4; Very Good:3; Good: 2; Promising: 1]