It's Wednesday night in Upper Fells Point and I'm sitting at the bar of the restaurant Salt.
The restaurant has entered its chilled-out mode; dinner service ends in a half-hour at 10:30 p.m. A jazzy score — Charles Mingus and Roy Hargrove — murmurs in the background, and a mute TV is ignored in a far corner. A dozen or so green-colored lamps that look like a squadron of flying saucers give the bar a cool, moody glow. Though the atmosphere is serene, the bar, which seats about 12, is full.
This is a typical night at Salt. The restaurant, which opened about six years ago, has long been popular, thanks to Jason Ambrose's excellent and frequently updated menu. But to my surprise, it is also catering to a late-night crowd with its bar, which stays open until midnight most days, and has a solid cocktail menu and six craft beers on draft, including, commendably, a couple of Belgians.
What I found on a visit last week is that Salt, the bar, is a classy and understated alternative in the Baltimore nightlife scene. For Upper Fells, it's an above-average neighborhood bar. And for everyone else, it's an especially suitable destination for dates or quiet nights away from home, if you're willing to brave the parking situation.
Salt's bar first caught my attention in January. It was Baltimore Restaurant Week, and while gorging on an amazing wild boar pasta, I noticed the bar was also crowded. I assumed it was spillover from the restaurant, but when I returned last week, I realized the bar had its own amenities that have won it its own clientele.
Located on the side of the restaurant closer to Pratt Street, the bar shares space with some dining tables, but it is big enough to feel like its own space. And the combination of the black counter and the neon-colored lamps makes for a smart-looking scene.
At Salt, everything seems to be within easy reach. On one end of the bar, where I sat, there's a Grey Goose vodka-branded bowl holding a handful of wine bottles. And right next to me, all the cocktails are listed in a black chalkboard with colorful penmanship.
I order a Honey Moon cocktail, shaken, and since I got in just in time to sneak in a dinner order, a goat shoulder ragout as well. Both exceeded my expectations. Served on a bed of gnocchi, the ragout was light and, thanks to sprinklings of scallions, refreshing.
The Honey Moon — brandy, Cointreau, lemon juice and lavender-infused honey — is inspired ($9). It's an extremely aromatic and well balanced cocktail that feels as light as the sax solo in the background. The lipstick-red cherry at the bottom of the drink was a nice touch.
The Charlie Brown — cinnamon-infused bourbon, sweet vermouth and brandied cherry — was more potent, a cocktail dominated by the strong flavors of the bitters and the bourbon (also $9). These two are part of a menu of six drinks that spread over a wide variety of flavors and cover several spirits.
Salt has also done well by its beer. Though it has only one regional on draft, the full-bodied Lucky 7 ($6) from Evolution Brewing — now in Delaware, and soon to be based in Maryland - it also wisely has two Germans (Bitburger and Kostritzer) and two Belgians. The Belgians are the Corsendonk brown ale and the spicy Chimay tripel — misspelled as "triple" on the menu (tripel is a term used to describe a kind of Belgian pale ale). Salt has 11 beers by the bottle, including both heavy and light beers, like the Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse ($7). All drinks are under $9.
On both my visits, service has set the tone for my night. On my first visit, the hostess, a Linda Ellerbee-type with closely cropped hair, offered to get me parking near the restaurant after a few unsuccessful drive-arounds. Last Wednesday, as it poured outside, she took my drenched jacket as soon as I walked in. My bartender checked in with me several times but truly surprised when, as I was leaving, he refused to charge me for my drink since it was only half finished.
During my visit last week, I noticed only one misstep: After dinner service ended, staff started stacking chairs and cleaning tables, and the bartender covered the wine bottles and syrups in Saran wrap. It might have been a practical gesture, but it made those of us who wanted to stay longer feel like we had overstayed our welcome.
In Fells Point, Bond Street Social exudes bravado and Rye is young and hip. Salt is an alternative to that, as tasteful and restrained as one of Linda Ellerbee's cardigans. It is an ideal spot to go wind down, or, if you live in the neighborhood, a pit stop between walking the dog and a late-night episode of "Top Chef."
Back story: Salt replaced a bar called Fran's about six years ago. Owner-chef Jason Ambrose has described it as a "neo-American tavern." In Fells Point, it works as an understated alternative to more animated bars like Rye and Bond Street Social.
Parking: Challenging; the closest I've gotten is five blocks away. The hostess will sometimes assist with parking.
Signature drink: The Honey Moon, a brandy-based cocktail topped with lavender-infused honey. It's one of six cocktails, all $9. There are six brands on draft, including two Belgians and one German (Kostritzer), all under $8. Salt also has 11 beers by the bottle, all under $8.50, and 16 wines by the glass, all under $10.
Where: 2127 E. Pratt St., Baltimore
Contact: 410-276-5480, salttavern.com
Open: 5 p.m.-11:30 p.m. Tuesday, until midnight Wednesdays and Thursdays, until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. 4:30 p.m. - 10 p.m. Sundays. Salt is closed Mondays. Dining service typically ends at 10:30 p.mCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun