It's hard to fault Baltimoreans for anticipating culinary greatness from Shoo-Fly Diner.
This fall, expectations were predictably high when the restaurant opened in Belvedere Square. Having the name Spike Gjerde — the Woodberry Kitchen owner who has earned local and national acclaim through inventive farm-to-table cuisine — attached to a brand new place will do that.
The hype led to a foodie letdown for some, as Shoo-Fly failed to deliver the meals critics had expected. But The Sun's Richard Gorelick ended his review optimistically, saying the diner should, in time, become "a good place to go."
Last Thursday night, as I sat with a friend to explore Shoo-Fly's intriguing bar program, Gjerde's latest effort seemed already there. Most will initially visit to taste chef Patrick "Opie" Crooks' menu of elevated comfort food, but the bar offers its own reasons to return.
But first, a tip: If you walk in on a frigid night, as we did, try to avoid the left side of the main wooden bar. It's closest to the front door, which means you'll receive gusts of wind that frequently remind you how awful it is outside. Our bartender quickly noticed and took pity on our situation, doing his best to remedy the cold by placing a metal shaker filled with very hot water in front of us. He recommended we put our hands close to it, like a campfire, and it shifted the conversation from "It's so cold" to "How should we warm up?"
Reactions to the cocktail menu — and Shoo-Fly's menus in general — have been mixed, as some patrons found early versions confusing and lacking clarity. Also, they were, and still are, aesthetically cutesy. But on our visit, the drinks menu, which was noticeably more detailed than the one offered when Shoo-Fly opened, was clear.
You can choose from cans, bottles and buckets of beer (including options by Flying Dog, Union Craft Brewing and Peak Organic to name a few), wine, highballs, punch cups and daily selections. There's also a "sling it" option, where bartenders "cleave a chunk off our ice block, dust with pulverized sugar, then sloooowly [their emphasis] pour the spirit of your choice in a rocks glass," according to the menu.
We began our night with two highballs (both $8). Given the cold, it was easy to appreciate the stiffness of the first drink, thanks to a heavy pour of the 101-proof Johnny Drum Private Stock Kentucky bourbon. As with Woodberry Kitchen, Shoo-Fly makes sodas in-house for its cocktails, so this highball included better-than-average club soda, basil bitter and mint, but I mostly tasted the alcohol. The other highball, made with Bluecoat gin, beet shrub, bitter lemon and garnished with rosemary, tasted virginal by comparison. Both were served in glasses that felt plucked from adolescence and gave the drinks a more personal touch.
Encouraged by the first round but searching for something more delicious, we found what we hoped for under the daily selections. The Slush ($8) had an attractive caramel brown color, thanks to the Johnny Drum Private Stock, and the consistency matched the perfect Slurpee on a hot day. The only other ingredient, Reid's Orchard pear cider, mellowed the cocktail without defanging it.
The most satisfying drink of the night was simply known as "Cocktail" on the menu. Anchored by Laird's Applejack blended brandy (which the bartender provided, when asked, an accurate explanation of), the Cocktail was one of the best new drinks I've had recently. It began with three perfectly sized ice cubes (large, but not awkwardly dominating) and finished with a fragrant rosemary sprig. Beet shrub, bitter lemon and Vieux Carre absinthe sweetened the mixture a bit, but the star appropriately remained the Applejack.
Overall, service was pleasant, but not nearly as memorable as the drinks. That's OK, since the experience as a whole — the decor, libations and appealing style — felt more than worthy of a return. Now with a couple of months under its belt, Shoo-Fly Diner's bar program seems comfortably on the right track.
Back story: Formerly Crush, the anticipated new diner from Amy and Spike Gjerde at Belvedere Square opened in mid-October. It successfully aims to not take itself too seriously. The bar program features highballs, punch cups, specialty mixed drinks, beer and wine.
Parking: Free parking area, along with meters on the street
Signature drink: The best on our visit was simply known as the "Cocktail" ($8), made with Laird's Applejack, beet shrub, bitter lemon and Vieux Carre absinthe.
Where: 510 E. Belvedere Ave., Belvedere Square
Contact: 410-464-9222, shooflydiner.com
Open: 4 p.m.-1 a.m. daily