As my colleague Wesley Case reported last fall, several Federal Hill restaurants and bars have undergone makeovers in recent years “to better reflect customer trends and appeal to patrons in search of new experiences. In some cases … that has meant an emphasis on dining rather than the party atmosphere the neighborhood is known for.”
One of those cases is a former sports bar strikingly redesigned and rebranded as The Charles, which, in addition to providing plenty of imbibing options, offers a sophisticated, small-plate menu that encompasses influences from a variety of cuisines.
SCENE & DECOR: This century-old bank building still maintains its very serious demeanor on the outside, but inside the space is quite airy and inviting, with a 20-foot ceiling and a row of elegantly designed booths tucked beneath a mezzanine.
A certain energy emanates from the bar, with its two-story exposed-brick wall holding a bank of TV sets artfully arrayed amid shelves of bottles, books and bric-a-brac. (How cool it would be to see some bright young artist’s video installation filling those television screens, rather than the usual sports channels.)
On the weekday evening we stopped by, we raised the median age of the customers a bit, but still felt very welcome in a space with a low-key vibe and a modest-volume pop music soundtrack.
APPETIZERS: Nashville hot sauce, containing cayenne pepper and brown sugar, among other things, is best known for use with fried chicken. The Charles applies it to something else entirely. The tempura-fried Nashville hot avocado ($8), accompanied by bread-and-butter zucchini pickles, impressed with its texture and not-too-aggressively-spiced personality.
If you catch happy hour (4 p.m. to 7 p.m. weekdays, with drink specials all night Thursdays), consider the food featured for that time slot. We loved the smoked Gouda croquettes ($6), so light and moist, and were nearly as enthusiastic about the BLT biscuits ($8) — a piquant filling of pork belly, arugula and tomato jam tucked in a very crusty biscuit. A pretzel waffle ($7) arrived undercooked.
ENTREES: The hanger steak ($22) was a hearty portion cooked exactly to medium rare and boasting admirable tenderness. On top lay a lively spread of chimichurri sauce. Not nearly as lively were the accompanying potatoes and tomatoes.
Any bar worth its salt delivers a good burger. Salt was almost all we could taste in the one here ($16). A pity, really, since it had everything else going for it — a thick, decadently juicy patty with fully melted cheese; tangy pickles; a nifty house-made French onion mayo; quality bun; and a mound of excellent fries.
The lobster bao bun ($15) lost ground from an overpowering bacon soy glaze.
DESSERT: The finely textured flan ($8), with a Creamsicle-conjuring taste and a caramel topping, would be more appealing if the sweetness were dialed back (the pine nuts on the plate were a great touch, though). Cookie dough fanciers will get their fill with the “spilt milk and cookies” ($6), wryly served stuck to a beater.
DRINKS: Given the classy redo of the place, it seemed odd to see female bartenders wearing adult-club-style outfits, and disappointing to find the drinks they made were a little skimpy on the alcohol.
The house cocktails entertained, nonetheless, especially the “poptail” ($10), a refreshing blend of prosecco and St-Germain liqueur, with a tropical-flavor Popsicle placed in the middle.
The Charles martini ($11) has a little too much going on — honey-inflected Barr Hill gin, grapefruit, lemon, thyme simple syrup, cardamom bitters, club soda, egg white — but the imprint of the restaurant’s logo floating on top of the liquid makes it all go down smoothly.
SERVICE: At every turn, we encountered convivial staffers.
Backstory: What started in 2003 as the boisterous Mad River Bar & Grille closed a year ago for a makeover and reopened last October as The Charles (a name long in use among Baltimoreans as shorthand for the Charles Theatre in Station North).
Signature dish: Nashville hot avocado
TVs: Five behind the bar
Where: 1110 S. Charles St., Federal Hill
Contact: 410-727-2333, thecharlesbaltimore.com
Open: 4 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday; 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Saturday; 10 a.m. to midnight Sunday
Credit cards: All major
Handicap accessible: Yes
Bottom line: The Charles is a friendly, handsome place with an imaginative menu that a little more fine-tuning could make into an even bigger draw.