Review: Rye is one of the year's best new bars
Fells Point watering hole has smart design, ambitious cocktail menu
A look at the front room of Rye, a new bar which replaced the Whistling Oyster in Fells Point. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / November 28, 2011)
Some months earlier, another bar that also serves a tapas-style menu, Rye, opened less than two blocks away, and to much less fanfare. It's ideal for young urban professionals who want smart design, smaller crowds and a cocktail menu that sets itself up as one of the city's most ambitious.
Though we still have one month left, Rye is far and away one of the best new bars of the year, alongside Red House Tavern.
For Fells Point, the opening of both bars is great news, presenting the neighborhood with two handsome lounges that cater to a young but more mature clientele.
Rye opened in August in what used to be the Whistling Oyster; the old bar's manager, Judie Butler, was evicted in April because she was late with the rent.
The Whistling Oyster had a reputation for being quirky. Butler swore it was haunted, and she sometimes felt the presence of ghosts — weird noises, misplaced objects — late at night.
Ryan Perlberg, who runs Rye and the hot dog spot Stuggy's, has transformed the old Oyster, but has kept some of that eccentricity and a flair for celebrating the past with lots of antiques and a retro finish.
The decorating scheme is fitting for a bar in a neighborhood as old as Fells Point, and it also shows Perlberg's sense of history. The building actually dates to 1920.
From the moment you walk in, Rye is striking. Its front is a dimly lit grotto with some inventive high-top tables and unobtrusive, backless stools behind a dark-wood bar. The stools give the best view of the bar's back wall, which consists of scores of fat whiskey and tequila bottles lit from behind for an elegant effect.
The one misstep is a TV above the bar, but we'll forgive this as Rye's concession to mainstream bar-going.
By the door, a list of house rules is posted that telegraphs just what kind of crowd and behavior Rye is going for: "Training wheels discouraged," "No clumsy advances." This is counsel we should all take to heart.
Rye is deceptively small. I didn't notice until I was halfway done with my cocktail that there is a back room that's more intimate than the otherwise busy front. It is in this room that Rye's fascination with vintage is most conspicuous. At Max's, old junk is turned into clever installations; at Rye, they've been lovingly restored into set pieces — a pristine set of antique silverware hangs on one wall; a dilapidated candelabrum covered in melted wax fills out a fireplace.
The rest of the back is divided into small social spheres, sectioned off by mismatched furniture, including several purple velvet couches. Like in the front, the lighting is limited to a couple of discreet light bulbs and candles.
At some other bars, such back rooms are reserved for VIPs and private parties, but Rye's is open to all guests.
Also encouraging is the small library behind the bar, which includes selections like "The Joy of Mixology" and "The PDT Cocktail Book." It's a small touch, but it instantly communicates that Rye is serious about drinks.
The beer selection here is strongly curated: 21 beers by the bottle, including a German maibock, Dead Guy Ale, from Portland's Rogue Ales, as well as regional stuff — Dogfish 60 Minute IPA.
But its with its 10 cocktails the bar makes its mark. Designed by mixologist Doug Atwell, formerly of the Waterfront Hotel, they are mostly, as the bar's name suggests, whiskey- (in some cases, rum-)based. I had one of the exceptions — the Bees' Knees, an intoxicating mix of saffron-infused gin, honey liqueur, fresh lemon and local honey.
Atwell designs the cocktails to complement the light recipes of chef Benjamin Polson. As at Stuggy's, the menu is a clever mix of the highbrow and lowbrow — cheese plates, a "rye dog," Nutella s'mores, and poutines, a classic French-Canadian guilty pleasure that consists of French fries and cheese curds bathed in a sauce; here it's peppered with beef gravy.
For some, Rye's look and sophisticated cocktails may recall Idle Hour with just a few more baroque twists.