Since its founding in 2011, the local Bagby Restaurant Group has quickly become a name patrons can trust, both in the dining room and at the bar. Its Harbor East operations — particularly Ten Ten and Fleet Street Kitchen — are examples of finely tuned and thoughtful restaurants with bar programs that match.
In November, the group opened its first restaurant, Cunningham's, away from the city. The zip code may be different, but Bagby's hallmarks — fine execution, attention to detail, a stellar selection at the bar — were evident on a recent Saturday night in Towson City Center's newest restaurant.
It was Baltimore County Restaurant Week, so at around 8 p.m., the bar — rectangular-shaped and annexed from the larger dining room — bustled loudly with the last of the dinner crowd. Seats at the bar were full, so we took a high-top table nearby. The two TVs in the room played the same college basketball game on mute, seemingly sending the message, "You could watch a game here but why would you?" It's not that type of setting.
That's a good thing, because Towson — an area known more for its surplus of chain restaurants than fine dining — needed an elegant spot like Cunningham's. It was difficult to tell if the bar and dining room were full because of the discounted Restaurant Week specials or if it was the community quenching its thirst for a sophisticated date spot. Either way, it was encouraging to see both areas busy.
So far, the food has garnered much of the attention, but the bar program — developed by Bagby beverage director Tim Riley — deserves recognition. The cocktails, which use in-house ingredients and fresh juices like other Bagby bars, tasted great on a chilly night, with just the right amount of booze for warmth. Of the 10 cocktail choices, we first ordered a Lutherville ($11), a pleasing concoction of Riverboat Rye Whiskey, Dolin sweet vermouth, Fernet Branca, Lustau sherry and the Cognac-based liqueur Benedictine. For a cocktail with five components, the Lutherville surprised and impressed with its sophisticated balance.
Even better was the Brooklynite ($8). The ambitious cocktail mixes three different kinds of rum — equal parts Gosling's and El Dorado Rum, along with shorter pour of the extremely powerful Smith & Cross Jamaica Rum. It's finished with honey, lime and angostura bitters. At 114 proof, the Smith & Cross Rum is strong enough to ruin cocktails made in the wrong hands. But at Cunningham's, the Brooklynite was remarkably smooth and not nearly as sweet as I feared.
In terms of beer, Riley had to be clever and discerning with his six draft choices. He smartly selected four local brews (Stillwater Artisanal Ales' Stateside Saison, Union Craft Brewing's Duckpin Pale Ale, Brewer's Art's Ozzy and the Union/Brewer's Art collaboration Hampden on Rye) and two types not from Maryland (Yards' Love Stout and Sixpoint's The Crisp). There was no resisting a Hampden on Rye ($7), the deliciously spicy collaboration between two of Baltimore's most trusted names in beer. It is not the most common local beer to find on tap, and it's foolish to pass on once found.
As our night wound down, so did the foot traffic around the bar, which made it easier to appreciate the beautiful design of Cunningham's. The white stone bar looked pristine, and the handsome antique pots arranged above the bar kept it from feeling sterile. The glass walls are nice but bittersweet, since most views surrounding Towson City Center simply lack.
Our server was quick with refills and just about everything else. Perhaps it was the rush of Restaurant Week, but he seemed preoccupied with his every next move, and never seemed to connect with us as patrons. Working fast is part of a server's job, but so is making a customer feel comfortable and guiding him through a menu. Cunningham's is a young operation, and I expect, with time, the adequate service to improve.
Those around Towson have plenty to celebrate with the opening of Cunningham's, from its contemporarily lush design to its above-average bar program. And with it, the Bagby Restaurant Group has taken a significant step in expanding its reliable touch beyond city limits.
Back story: Bagby Restaurant Group, responsible for Harbor East's Ten Ten and Fleet Street Kitchen, opened its first restaurant, Cunningham's, outside of the city in late November. The restaurant, along with its striking bar, is set in the renovated Towson City Center's plaza level.
Parking: Complimentary valet in an adjacent garage.
Signature drink: The Brooklynite ($8) is made with three types of rum, honey, lime and angostura bitters.
Where: 1 Olympic Place, Towson
Contact: 410-339-7730, cunninghamstowson.com
Open: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday