We really should have known better.
Last Friday night, a friend and I strolled into Thames Street Oyster House, the Fells Point restaurant that has served the most delicious seafood in the neighborhood since opening in July 2011, without a reservation. What were we thinking?
It was just before 8 p.m., and the first floor was buzzing with dinner dates and anxious diners waiting for prized tables to open. Upstairs was booked for the night, so the downstairs bar area was our only option, according to our smiling hostess. We zigged and zagged through the crowd to make it to the wooden bar, but even once we stood in front of the bartenders, it felt cramped.
Rather quickly a decision was made: We would come back later in the night, after the dinner rush. When we returned a little after 10 p.m., the first floor still had a healthy number of patrons, 25 or so, but felt much more manageable. It appeared some were there just to share drinks, but the majority of the crowd had plates in front of them. It was a reminder that, above all else, Thames Street Oyster House is a food destination with a secondary bar. That likely won't change any time soon.
Why should it? The restaurant, which is owned by Baltimore native Candace Beattie, knows its draw: approachable food that is consistently excellent and affordable. The bar program is adequate, but it does not run parallel to the cuisine.
And yet, the bar does just enough to feel at home here. It does not wow or distract; it exists as a small, serviceable area to wait for your table or to eat. The draft selection was standard, with 10 taps pouring beers such as Allagash White Belgian ($6) and Goose Island Sophie ($9). Disappointingly, only two Maryland breweries were represented: Heavy Seas Loose Cannon ($6) and Flying Dog Oyster Stout ($5). It would have been nice to see Thames Street Oyster House take a route similar to Admiral's Cup, located down the street, which only has local beers on tap.
The cocktail list felt appropriate for November. There was an Autumn Sangria (made with pinot gris, Bulleit Rye, apple cider and cinnamon for $7.50) and the Maple Manhattan (Bulleit bourbon, Vermont maple syrup, served either on the rocks or up for $9-$10). I was in the mood for a warm drink, so Hot Buttered Rum ($8) made most sense. Made with Gosling's dark rum, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, the traditional cocktail was rich and strong, but finished a bit grittier than I would have liked. It reminded me of the bar program itself: OK in the moment, but lacking a lasting impression.
The interaction with our bartender was minimal. He, along with another barkeep, seemed to concentrate solely on turning drinks over quickly, which fits the busy bar scene in Fells Point. It was not nearly as crowded as our first visit, so there seemed to be an opportunity for our bartender to interact with us, and potentially turn us into repeat customers. A simple "How's your night going?" or "What are you in the mood for?" could have gone a long way, but it was not meant to be.
Our experience, in a word, was sufficient. I wanted a hot drink and they had it. The bartender made it quickly, but stoically. The beer list was predictable, and offered options I regularly order. All of this is to say Thames Street Oyster House remains one of the best restaurants in Fells Point, and its bar program does not hinder or elevate the establishment as a whole. It's simply a place to hang out as you wait for the real reason you came in the first place.
Thames Street Oyster House
Back story: In business since July 2011, this rowhouse-converted restaurant has been a popular seafood spot since it opened. With such a stellar reputation, it seemed appropriate — and overdue — to take a closer look at its bar program, which serves wine, beer and cocktails.
Parking: Free and metered along the streets
Signature drink: If you're in the mood for a cocktail that will warm you up — both with its alcohol content and temperature — the classic Hot Buttered Rum ($8) will work. There's also the Thames Street Smash ($7), which consists of Pikesville Rye, muddled mint and lemon served over crushed ice.
Where: 1728 Thames St., Fells Point
Contact: 443-449-7726, thamesstreetoysterhouse.com
Open: 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11:30-2 a.m. Wednesday-SundayCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun