With high-end shopping, award-winning fine dining and a luxury hotel that can count One Direction members as recent customers, Harbor East can safely be called Baltimore's most glamorous neighborhood. When the attractive wine bar Vino Rosina came to Harbor East's Bagby building in May 2010, it seemed like a fine fit.
But success isn't guaranteed just because a bar looks the part in an elegant neighborhood, and in July, Vino Rosina smartly hit the restart button. Ownership remains the same, but in its place is now Oliver Speck's, a restaurant focusing on Southern barbecue.
The shift to a more informal menu isn't limited to the food, as Oliver Speck's bar program now emphasizes craft cocktails, beer and bourbon over wine.
Oliver Speck's looks sophisticated enough to feel at home in Harbor East, but it is also a fitting scene for any patron looking for a National Bohemian ($2.50), bar snacks (say, crackers served with pimento cheese for $4) and a clear view of the game.
On a recent Saturday evening, I had a similar agenda. After a beautiful day of bocce in Little Italy, a group of us strolled over to Oliver Speck's. There were roughly 25 patrons in the restaurant total, and most were seated in the dining room. As the Orioles hosted the Red Sox for the second-to-last game of the season, we took a handful of the available seats at the main square bar. Alec, our ponytailed bartender, quickly introduced himself and handed over a single-page menu that had drinks on one side and food on the other.
First came the relief of not feeling overwhelmed by choices. The house cocktail menu had eight choices with whimsical names such as “Over the Hill & Far Away” and “Smoke 'Em If You Got 'Em.” I settled on the Johnny Cha-Cha ($10), a simple combination of Johnny Drum bourbon and pumpkin syrup. Just looking at the creamy concoction made a molar ache, but it proved not to be overbearingly sweet. Whereas pumpkin syrup can often overwhelm a base such as coffee, the Johnny Cha-Cha smoothed out the bourbon, creating an ideal cocktail for a crisp night. The garnish — a sliver of homemade pumpkin seed brittle — was a fun final touch.
The beer selection is not vast, but it is smart. There are only four taps, and Oliver Speck's does not let them go to waste. On this night, three options were brewed in state: Union Craft Brewing Duckpin Pale Ale ($5), Burley Oak Rude Boy ($7) and Stillwater Artisanal Ales Folklore ($8). The fourth beer was Goose Island's spicy Belgian style Pale Ale, Matilda ($6). Bars with limited taps could do worse than molding their beer program after the Harbor East bar, because Oliver Speck's understands that when it comes to craft beer, local is better.
There were also 17 different bottles and cans offered, ranging from a miniature Miller High Life ($2 for seven ounces) to Brewer's Art favorites Resurrection and Ozzy (both $5). We overheard Alec describing the bourbon and whiskey choices, too, which are on display in the middle of the bar. He ably described the subtle flavor differences between Woodford Reserve and the less common Elijah Craig 12. Throughout our visit, Alec was quick to check on us and refill a drink, without ever seeming like he was interrupting a conversation or key play in the game.
Oliver Speck's feels more like a restaurant than a bar, thanks in large part to its clean, well-lit interior. But the bar aims to be a draw for casual diners and drinkers alike, and so far, it has succeeded. With the memory of Vino Rosina completely scrubbed cleaned and Oliver Speck's now in its place, Harbor East has become slightly less uptight and bit more comfortable. That has to be a good thing.
Back story: In July, the team behind Vino Rosina — executive chef Jesse Sandlin and owner Jim Lancaster — closed for a few weeks. The new spot opened as Oliver Speck's, a Southern barbecue restaurant with a smart bar program. Sandlin's food is still the main draw, but the bar is well crafted and staffed with knowledgeable bartenders.
Parking: On-street metered parking and nearby lots
Signature drink: The Johnny Cha-Cha ($10), a mixture of Johnny Drum bourbon and pumpkin syrup, makes for an ideal fall cocktail.
Where: 507 S. Exeter St., Harbor East
Contact: 410-528-8600, oliverspecks.com
Open: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday