Sometimes, it takes only a single element to elevate a new bar from "perfectly fine but forgettable" to something exciting and memorable.
On a recent Saturday night at Tavern on the Hill, the new restaurant and bar that replaced Howard's of Mount Vernon earlier this summer, that component was bar manager Jeff Levy, whose excellent service, knowledge of the bar and gracious demeanor left a lasting impression.
Before we met Levy, Tavern didn't make a huge impact on our senses. There were two neutral-colored dining rooms separated by a quaint three-sided bar. A baseball game, which no one seemed to care about, played on a flat-screen TV above the bar. Approximately 20 patrons — most hovered at or around the bar, but a handful laughed at a table in a dining room — kept to the small groups they came with. It was an ordinary scene that very few would complain or rave about.
Then came Levy, a bartender who had years of experience and acted like it, too. After handing us menus, he asked a question that felt more like an invitation.
"You guys whiskey drinkers?" he asked.
We answered with mumbles and ambivalent shoulder shrugs. Somehow, Levy accurately discerned that we were far from experts but enjoy the alcohol from time to time. Sensing we would be game with some guidance, Levy suggested a Manhattan ($8.90) made with High West Double Rye, vermouth and bitters. It was pleasantly sippable, thanks to Levy's liquor recommendation and touch.
My friend considered himself more of a whiskey fan, so he ordered "The Bartender Favorite Flight," a $12 trio of 0.75-ounce whiskey samples. Once again, Levy assisted without seeming pushy or too anxious to share his expertise. (When asked how his enthusiasm for whiskey developed, Levy credited his brother's own interest for piquing his.) The friend set the guidelines — he liked the Kentucky small-batch bourbon Woodford Reserve and typically avoided Scotches — so Levy set him up with two bourbons (1792 Ridgemont Reserve and Basil Hayden's) and the High West Double Rye, a combination of two straight rye whiskies from Utah. Levy correctly catered to the patron's taste, and the results were deliciously smooth and, better yet, educational.
The whiskey program at Tavern is tightly constructed (there's a surprisingly wide selection for a bar Tavern's size, and Levy has installed a punch-card system that results in a free round of whiskey on your 11th trip in), but not the sole reason to visit. It's not a place where whiskey connoisseurs meet to debate barleys, but rather it's a comfortable neighborhood bar serving hot dogs and Natty Boh on draft ($3) that has an approachable bar manager who takes pride in what the Tavern carries.
Although Tavern had only four beers on tap (Blue Moon, Estrella, Sam Adams Summer Ale and Boh), its selection of bottles was much better. Besides the standards, Tavern serves locals such as DuClaw's Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate porter and the Brewer's Art house beer Resurrection. Levy was most proud to have the difficult-to-find, purple-hued Dogfish Head Sixty-One India pale ale ($7.50), which is essentially the Delaware brewer's flagship 60 Minute IPA with Syrah grape must. If you enjoy the original 60 Minute version, then Sixty-One is a must-try for its refreshing injection of sweetness.
Our experience at Tavern was worth repeating because the environment was instantly comfortable and Levy made an excellent bar manager. Smartly, ownership has recognized his strengths (product knowledge, the ability to make cocktails quickly and a charismatic personality) and given him the space to create something different in Mount Vernon. More bars in Baltimore would be better off if other owners did the same.
Tavern on the Hill
Back story: Formerly the restaurant Howard's of Mount Vernon, Tavern on the Hill opened in July. It has a modest bar with a surprisingly ambitious whiskey program. Classic pub fare, including deep-fried hot dogs and burgers, are served as well.
Parking: Metered on the street
Signature drink: Whiskey fans should allow Tavern's staff to guide them through the bar's varieties. The Bartender Favorite Flight is three samples for $12.
Where: 900 Cathedral St., Mount Vernon
Open: 8 a.m.-midnight Monday-Thursday and Sunday; 8-2 a.m. Friday and Saturday