At some point after it opened in the fall of 2012, Harbor East's Fleet Street Kitchen realized its necktie was pulled a bit too tight. The stylish farm-to-table restaurant with the four-course tasting menu had earned a flattering reputation for its food, but it was not a place to stop in on a whim for a drink.
Enter The Tavern Room, the more casual side of Fleet Street Kitchen that debuted at the beginning of this month. Instead of completely breaking down the sophisticated environment they had cultivated, owners the Bagby Restaurant Group split the room in half, leaving the upper dining room the same, while attempting to make the front area more approachable.
The idea is smart, since my friends and I have always considered Fleet Street Kitchen a fancier dinner spot that requires a reservation. Now, the introduction of The Tavern Room signals a concerted attempt to house two different areas under the same roof.
On a recent Friday night, the transformation fell somewhere between incomplete and underwhelming. That's because The Tavern Room looks a lot like the old Fleet Street Kitchen, minus only the white tablecloths. The linen's removal is as symbolic as it is purely aesthetic, but it was not enough of a change to warrant the area's new name. The majority of bars in Baltimore already lack white tablecloths, so in essence, The Tavern Room is attempting to become another option for casual drinks in a city filled with them.
The drinks, though, were excellent, which at this point is no surprise. Tim Riley, the beverage director of Bagby Restaurant Group, has shown time and time again — from his cocktails at Ten Ten and more recently Cunningham's in Towson — the Baltimorean has a wonderful knack for combining spirits and flavors. On Friday, our cocktails, which are served both in The Tavern Room and Fleet Street Kitchen's main dining room, were no exceptions. It seemed like after each sip, we had a new glowing remark to add.
Shirts vs. Blouses ($10), named after a grin-inducing “Chappelle's Show” reference, was a dangerously smooth — but thankfully not too sweet — mix of El Ultimo Agave tequila, Pimm's No. 1 Cup liqueur, the blackcurrant-based liqueur crème de cassis and lime. The Colonel Baldwin's Punch ($12) was another easy-to-sip drink made of 8-year-old Haitian Barbancourt rum, Gilles Brisson cognac, Madeira wine, Cherry Heering liqueur and lemon. In both cases, the alcohol was upfront and present, with the other ingredients acting as balanced complements.
Best of all was the Kazem's Mule ($12), the bar's take on a Moscow Mule made with El Dorado 12-year rum, black lime and house-made ginger beer (our bartender said she was shocked how easy it was to make). The key ingredient that separated this Mule from others was its use of fragrant allspice, whose inclusion excited my friend enough to declare it one of the best Mules she had ever tasted. I did not disagree.
The other aspect separating The Tavern Room from its classier older brother is its own food menu. There are still dinner entrees available here, but The Tavern Room encourages patrons to share small plates. Again, the aim is to casual-ize the room, and in this sense, it works. It would have been nice to see a separate drinks menu to further separate the two spaces, but it is hard to complain when the current cocktails are made so well.
Still, The Tavern Room feels like a head-scratching rebranding without the transformation, and the staff seemed slightly bemused by it as well. When we asked a bartender — who, along with her equally impressive colleague, was the right balance between conversational and knowledgeable — what the main difference was before and after, her answer was not much. Both discussed the new concept's aim to be more casual, but the description did not match reality. If we compared The Tavern Room to, say, its sharply designed but laidback neighbor Oliver Speck's, the latter seems much more approachable. It is hard to undo fancy.
As a new bar, The Tavern Room would improve by finding a way — either through decor, drink menu or both — to distinguish itself from its fine-dining half. A message on the bar's website states the problem with its ambiguous identity, perhaps without realizing it: “While reservations are encouraged, we gladly accept anyone just stopping for a bite.” What is this place again?
The Tavern Room
Back story: Opened on March 1, The Tavern Room is Fleet Street Kitchen's attempt at a more casual dining and drinks option. While the main dining room is still considered Fleet Street Kitchen, the bar area where patrons enter is now the tablecloth-less Tavern Room. The food menu is more small-plates centric, but the drink options are the same across both rooms.
Parking: Free and metered on nearby streets
Signature drink: While all of the cocktails are made with the high-quality, harder-to-find spirits the Bagby Restaurant Group's restaurants are known for, we were particularly impressed by the Kazem's Mule ($12). The fragrant, slightly spicy kick in it is allspice, and the complexity it adds is delicious.
Where: 1012 Fleet St., Harbor East (The Tavern Room is the front half of Fleet Street Kitchen.)
Contact: 410-244-5830, fleetstreetkitchen.com
Open: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday