Harbor East's Lancaster Street has seen some welcome additions recently. Ouzo Bay's seafood program has impressed many Baltimore diners. Townhouse Kitchen and Bar has settled in as an upscale sports bar with a notable selection of beer. Both of these new restaurants have filled voids in the flashy neighborhood.
So what does latest newcomer Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant add?
It was a question I kept circling back to during a recent happy-hour trip, with no clear answer. The atmosphere was amiable, our servers were attentive and the beer selection was adequate. But as with many chains, Gordon Biersch felt bland and outdated, and lacked personality.
To write off Gordon Biersch solely because it's a chain misses the point. Ra Sushi, another chain in Harbor East, proves a strong concept can consistently draw an excited crowd. Whether you enjoy it or not, Ra — which boasts one of the best happy-hour deals around — at least offers an experience uncommon to the area.
The same cannot be said for Gordon Biersch. On a recent Thursday, our party found seats at the almost-busy bar. For a Gordon Biersch first-timer, it seemed right to try the beer sampler ($5.75). It's a quick way to familiarize yourself with six of Gordon Biersch's beers, all of which are brewed in small batches on-site.
The four-ounce samples are served on a placemat full of details, such as the ingredients used and percentage of alcohol in each. The top of the placemat reads, "Award winning beer brewed right here," in all caps.
Despite a presentation that aimed to impress, Gordon Biersch's beers were underwhelming. The lightest lager, Golden Export, tasted like a Budweiser. The Hefeweizen's aroma was similar to French toast, but it smelled better than it tasted. The Czech Pilsner had a spicy, hoppy finish, but lacked body.
The Marzen, Gordon Biersch's most popular beer, tasted best. There's a hint of sweetness to its finish, and overall, it went down smoothest. The sampler's darkest lager, the surprisingly clean Schwarzbier, was second-best because of its coffee notes. The seasonal beer failed to make much of an impression.
For a bar brewing its own beer on-site, the variety just wasn't memorable. Next time, I'd pass on the Gordon Biersch beers and instead choose a "guest" beer. The smartly chosen selection features Brewer's Art Resurrection, Heavy Seas Loose Cannon, Flying Dog Winter Ale and Union Craft Brewing's Duckpin Pale Ale. Any of those choices would have easily eclipsed the Gordon Biersch brews we tried.
Appetizers, also on special for $7 each during happy hour, disappointed as well. The blue crab and artichoke dip tasted mostly like sour cream, and lacked any hint of seasoning. Our chicken and shrimp potstickers were only marginally better, thanks to a generous helping of garlic-based sauces. Neither offerings gave us reason to return.
The best aspects of our happy hour were a bright, heavily carbonated Dragon Fruit Strawberry Mojito (normally $9 but on sale for $6) and our bartenders, who were knowledgeable, casual and quick to remove a plate or refill a glass.
While Gordon Biersch's food and drinks ultimately fell short of even measured expectations, its staff impressed with professionalism. At one point, a bartender handed my friend a full Hefeweizen, after pouring one too many for another customer.
The on-the-house beer helped us overlook the so-so beer and flavorless crab dip, further proving that good service, whether at a chain or not, always goes a long way.
Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant
Back story: A chain based in Chattanooga, Tenn., with more than 30 establishments nationwide, Gordon Biersch opened in October. Chris Cashell, a former Brewer's Art head brewer, oversees the beer brewed on-site.
Where: 1000 Lancaster St., Harbor East
Signature drink: Gordon Biersch prides itself on its beers, but its selection of "guest" beers — including the Brewer's Art's Resurrection and Union Craft Brewing's Duckpin Pale Ale — boasts much more flavor. For those interested in the beers brewed on location, try the beer sampler ($5.75).
Parking: Metered on the street, with lots in walking distance.
Contact: 410-230-9501, gordonbiersch.com
Open: 11 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun