The bar quarters at Hampden's Birroteca are close, so it's easy to make new friends.
Between bites of calamari, a new acquaintance said this new pizza joint and bar was a major improvement over the last resident, the short-lived Mill Steakhouse and Tavern. Looking around the packed room, abuzz on a Friday night, it wasn't hard to believe.
Asked if it's been this busy on the other weekends the Hampden resident has been here, he chuckled.
"Honestly, it's like this whether you're here on a Wednesday or a weekend," he said.
Judging from the happy crowd, empty plates and unrelenting drink orders coming to the bar, owner Robbin Haas has a winner with Birroteca. It works because it knows when to take itself seriously and when to dial it back.
The former is obvious after one scan of the drink list. Wines are offered by the glass and bottle, and range from Sicilian red blends to Malbec Rose from Argentina. After weighing some options in the craft cocktail section, I ordered an Old Shanghai ($10), a simple mixture of Bulldog gin, St. Germain liqueur, sage and lemon. It was refreshingly bright, but it would have benefitted from a heavier pour, given the cost. Some might think the fruity concoction would work better in July rather than December, but it's tasty any time of the year.
That said, I recommend skipping the cocktails and sticking to beer. Birroteca's most attractive asset is its smart, on-the-nose beer list, which on this night offered 24 types on tap, 10 "large format" beers and 10 "small beers" served in bottles and cans. The list looks similar to the one at Canton's Of Love and Regret, without the naturally heavy leaning on Stillwater Ales (the house brand). There are wide-ranging styles (stout, IPA, pilsener and more) and many locally brewed options. Union Craft Brewing, practically Birroteca's neighbor, has four of its beers on tap, all reasonably priced ($6-$7.50). If you must, a Natty Boh draft costs $3.
Any bar looking to elevate the experience it offers should adopt Birroteca's approach: Let the party bars serve the pitchers and towers of watered-down brews, and instead, concentrate on compiling a more adventurous selection for more discerning customers. Pair that with exciting but approachable food, as Birroteca does, and the dinner crowd will likely stay well beyond the last bite, as I saw plenty of times on this night.
While it takes the products it serves seriously, Birotecca has a loose, almost playful environment. Plaid seems to be the required employee uniform, and chalkboard walls are filled with colorful writing that details the beers, cheeses and charcuterie offered that night. Two flat-screen TVs (the perfect amount for this modest space) played some sporting events, but I could not find one patron paying attention to them.
Birroteca could be Hampden's most promising new spot for dinner, drinks or both. It seems ideal for medium-size groups to enjoy each other's company, while sharing plates, pints and stories in equal measure. Just remember to reserve a table or be prepared to wait for open seats — there's a good chance it'll be a busy night.
Back story: Formerly the Mill Steakhouse and Tavern (and Kolper's before it), Birroteca opened this fall. Executive chef Cyrus Keefer handles Italian standbys, while the bar serves a variety of craft cocktails, craft beers and wines. If pizza and beer sound like a solid Friday night, but cardboard pies and Bud Light pitchers won't cut it, Birroteca is the solution.
Where: 1520 Clipper Road, Hampden
Signature drink: The Old Shanghai ($10) cocktail was refreshing, but this is a place where beer reigns. An award-winning Union Craft Brewing Balt Altbier ($6) is not a bad place to start.
Parking: There's a makeshift lot in the back.
Contact: 443-708-1934, bmorebirroteca.com
Open: 5 p.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday, noon-midnight Saturday and Sunday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun