When driving down Baltimore National Pike in Ellicott City, it's easy for eyes to wander. The myriad restaurants and shops all fight for attention with colorful signs and promises of limited-time deals. It's enough to give you a headache.
But tucked away in the Enchanted Forest Shopping Center — behind the defunct theme park, around the corner from a grocery store and out of view from the pike — is a bar and restaurant that is clearly interested in providing an experience not typically expected at a strip mall.
The White Oak Tavern, which opened in January, takes beer seriously, and the proof is in its frequently changing tap list of 30 craft selections. It's an approach we applaud bars in the city for taking, and the fact that White Oak Tavern pulls it off rather inconspicuously (you could direct a lost friend by saying, “It's a few spots down from the orthodontist's office”) makes it all the more charming.
We took two seats at the horseshoe-shaped bar on a recent Friday evening and were handed a beer list, which recalled the draft menu at another underrated bar for beer: Canton's Hudson Street Stackhouse. There were no pictures or eye-catching colors on the page, just text describing a beer's history and taste. For craft beer novices, it has the potential for information overload, but our bartender was quick to ask questions about our preferences and make recommendations. It never felt like our hands were being held, but we knew guidance was never far away.
The first pour was Crown Valley Brewing's Aged Big Bison Ale, a Belgian-style Dubbel from Missouri with a pretty red hue. (All drafts are regularly priced $6.42, and become $4 16-ounce pours during happy hour, 3 p.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday. A cocktail menu is available as well). The robust flavor — a pleasant mix of fruit notes and earthy malt — matched the beer's striking appearance and set a high standard going forward.
The menu also stated the alcohol by volume content of all beers — Big Bison's is 6.9 percent — which should be a requirement at all craft beer bars. Deceptively strong beers, such as this one, can catch up with you quickly. Patrons should know what to expect.
It was then too tempting to pass on a pint from Burley Oak, one of Maryland's best breweries. Fat Kid, a bold Doppelbock lager, was the color of molasses but finished lighter than expected. It was a surprisingly refreshing and rich lager through and through.
We went lighter for the second round. As my friend studied the menu, a bartender came over to assist. “What are you into?” he asked. My buddy identified himself as a lager fan and complimented the Aged Big Bison he had just finished.
The barkeep did not miss a beat and recommended the Rogue Beard Beer. It did not pack the flavor punch of the Big Bison, but the brew's smooth finish and citrus notes made it another new beer we were happy to try. (Further exploring online later revealed the Oregon brewery used wild yeast made from a brewmaster's actual 34-year-old beard in the recipe. The revelation was fascinating, repulsive and a reminder that craft beer enthusiasts will try just about anything.)
Finally came the Lonerider Shotgun Betty, a Hefeweizen from Raleigh, N.C., that intrigued because the menu said it contained notes of banana. The pint was delivered with a free logo sticker, which was a nice touch. The pale ale's easy drinkability appealed more than its flavor, which felt a bit muted, especially in comparison to the other beers we tried that night. For those merely dipping a toe into the craft beer pool, the Shotgun Betty could make an easy entry point.
As we drank and watched the Orioles (shown on two large flatscreens above the bar), a steady dinner crowd continued to find seats at and by the bar. A local musician with an acoustic guitar set up near the entrance. All the while, craft beers from all over the country (including Baltimore, as the Brewer's Art was represented with two types on tap) poured from a sleek, uniformly designed tap system.
Chances are White Oak Tavern could get by with a less discerning beer list , but what's the fun in that? The bar succeeds because it goes above and beyond — both in service and in draft selection — not out of necessity, but because that's how a good beer bar operates.