It's been open for less than a month, but The Nickel Taphouse has already established itself as a North Baltimore favorite.
People have really taken to the new joint from Robbin Haas, whose Birroteca, which opened last fall, was a similar instant hit.
The two places don't have much in common as far as cuisine. Birroteca serves rustic Italian food, while The Nickel Taphouse offers tavern fare. But the attitude is the same, and so is the extraordinary confidence governing every aspect of the restaurants' operations, starting with their physical design.
For Birroteca, it was a matter of peeling the dreck away from the stone walls to reveal the built-in atmosphere. The Nickel Taphouse, on the other hand, presented more of a blank canvas, and Haas has created a space that feels, at first glance, reassuringly familiar, a Cheers-like place you'd be thrilled to have within walking distance of your home.
But look closer, and you'll see how seriously The Nickel Taphouse takes informality. Look above the bar at the lighting fixture, a 40-foot long, 110-candle steel candelabrum, designed by Haas, who meant it to be a finishing touch, and a bit of statement maker, too. To me, it says, "The Nickel Taphouse is going to be here for a while."
I find that confidence very appealing. I could eat it with a spoon.
Haas has said The Nickel Taphouse was inspired by the blue-collar taverns of his native Buffalo, places where the bartenders would pull double-duty by also preparing food — simple things mostly like the beloved "beef on Weck," a pile of roast beef on a caraway-seed roll known in western New York state as the kummelweck.
Sure enough, the "beef on Weck" is on the menu at The Nickel Taphouse, and you can see the bartenders — or at least people behind the bar — slicing the beautiful roast beef to order. It's as good as bar food gets.
But The Nickel Taphouse doesn't wallow in blue-collar kitsch. The wine list is full of affordable options, and the beer selection is a rock-solid lineup of craft finds, 20 of which are on tap. The food isn't trying to persuade you of anything, or to teach you anything new. It's just good, solid tavern fare.
For starters, there are roasted oysters, which you can get prepared in seven different ways, including casino and Rockefeller style; and Prince Edward Isle mussels, which come in five different preparations, including Thai curry, Dijon mustard and classic wine, garlic and butter. For snacks, there are spreads, like chopped liver, beet hummus and smoked whitefish. All of these things are carefully prepared, handsomely presented and simple.
The juicy, Roseda-beef hamburgers come in two sizes, the nickel, for one 5-ounce patty, and the dime, for two 5-ounce patties on a double-decker roll. (There are a turkey burger and lentil-mushroom burger, too). Saying they're hard to eat is stating the obvious. You'll have to agree to let it fall apart.
Within the first few weeks, a section of entrees was added to the menu of sandwiches, salads, burgers and steamed seafood. Apparently, diners had been asking for more substantial dinnertime options.
So, in came a handful of comfort plates, things like pork schnitzel, braised beef brisket and chicken and dumplings. All of these big plates are portioned and priced for two people. I'm not sure about this forced sharing, especially when it's the only entree option, and at least one person in my party absolutely hated it. And neither the beef brisket nor the schnitzel struck me as things that divide up nicely. Of the two, the golden-crusted schnitzel, topped with a fresh arugula salad and served with a fresh-tasting lemon-caper-butter sauce, is the winner.
Of the desserts we ordered, a parfait-style chocolate and peanut butter creation was tricky to eat for one person — it had too much whipped cream on top — and was nearly impossible to share neatly. The disappointing black cherry ice cream sandwich had the pasty texture of Neapolitan ice cream.
If you can handle it, get a "boozy shake" — right now, there's a White Fog Egg Nog, with rum, chai liqueur and butter pecan ice cream — which are fun to share, and delicious.
How much The Nickel Taphouse, at any given moment, is a bar that serves good food, or a restaurant with a dandy bar inside it, is an open question. For now, people just seem thrilled to have a new place to go.
On three visits, The Nickel Taphouse was variously bursting at the seams, packed to the rafters or just respectably very crowded with drinkers and diners.
OK, it's loud, sometimes very loud, in that electric, buzzy way that makes some people feel like they've arrived at the right spot but that can be unsettling, even unpleasant, to others. Reservations, by the way, are strongly advised.
The Nickel Taphouse
Rating: 3 stars
Where: 1604 Kelly Ave., Mount Washington
Contact: 410-869-6240, facebook.com/nickeltaphouse
Open: Lunch and dinner daily
Prices: Appetizers: $9-$17; Entrees (which are meant to be shared): $26-$31
Food: Accessible and familiar pub fare
Service: Informed and on-point
Parking/accessibility: On-street parking, with $5 valet parking
Children: A children's menu is brought to tables with children.
Noise level/televisions: It's absolutely a loud place, but it's less loud in certain areas, like up near the front windows. The televisions at the bar are set with their volume off.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]