Once in a while, a new bar comes up with a gimmick intriguing enough to merit a trip.
Townhouse Kitchen and Bar, which opened next to Ra in Harbor East in late May, is one of those places, thanks to its touch-screen "table tap technology," which dispenses beer and vodka at four of its dining tables.
Given Townhouse's prime corner location, huge size and sleek presentation, this ultra-modern amenity just adds to its allure. While it's not the only bar to offer such an experience (Leinenkugel's Beer Garden at Power Plant Live has patrons playing bartender at a couple of its tables, too), the combination of its amenities has made Townhouse a high-profile addition to one of the city's swankiest areas. It's also the first establishment in Baltimore from the successful Illinois-based Restaurants-America group.
So expectations were reasonably high on a recent Saturday night. We got off to a rough start, as our lovely but firm hostess informed us our time with the table taps was not meant to be.
Only available to parties of five or more on weekends, the tables with taps — Miller Lite, Dogfish Head, Blue Moon and Stoli vodka are offered; customers are charged by the ounce — were claimed by patrons smart enough to make reservations.
Looking around, it was apparent Townhouse was in for a busy Saturday. There was a birthday party in a lounge area filled with leather furniture, a full back room of diners, and mostly occupied seats at the long, double-sided bar acting as a centerpiece.
Nine TVs hung above the bar as college football games concluded. Over the next hour, our hostess informed us, Townhouse would welcome large parties, totaling more than 120 patrons, all with reservations.
Townhouse's bustling atmosphere and Top 40 playlist (Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" played as we found seats at the bar) makes it a natural neighbor to Ra. But where the hip sushi joint can sometimes feel like a crowded basement party, the 8,000-square-foot Townhouse felt comfortably spacious, even as the crowd continued to swell.
A friend asked our bartender — minimally engaged, dressed all in black like the rest of the staff — which drink is ordered most often. She said the Eden ($10), a cocktail of muddled strawberries, basil, ginger-infused syrup and Hendrick's gin. The sweetness of the strawberries cut through the earthy tones nicely.
The Classic ($10) was a standard mojito made with Bacardi Silver rum, lime juice, bruised mint, cane sugar and soda water. We also tried the strong Kentucky Mule ($10), made with Maker's Mark bourbon, ginger beer and lime juice. As with most drinks involving Maker's Mark, the bourbon stood out.
Pricey (although perhaps not by Harbor East standards), the cocktails were nice starts to the night. But where Townhouse really impressed was its beer selection: 40 taps of mainly esoteric choices, ranging from local (Stillwater, Duclaw, Oliver) to international (Dubuisson from Belgium).
Most notably, there was Huyghe Brewery's Delirium Tremens ($9), the malty Belgian ale once named the best beer in the world by one expert, Stuart A. Kallen. Having never seen Delirium on tap in Baltimore before, I didn't intend to pass it up. Served in a chalice, it's a slightly bitter, delicious beer that should be sipped and savored.
By the time we left, our disappointment at not getting a table with taps had faded like a long-forgotten hiccup. Throughout the night, the beautifully lit space provided plenty of reasons to enjoy ourselves and eventually come back: tasty cocktails, a first-rate beer selection, buzzing atmosphere and a striking design that felt appropriate in Harbor East but never ostentatious.
Baltimore may be a dive-bar haven, but it should also embrace professionally run, undeniably sexy spots such as Townhouse. Judging from Saturday night, it already has.
Townhouse Kitchen and Bar
Back story: Opened in late May, this is the country's fourth Townhouse Kitchen and Bar (the others are in Illinois and California). Sparsely designed but striking nonetheless, it's a natural fit in the ever-growing Harbor East area.
Signature drink: The Eden ($10) is Townhouse's most popular cocktail, according to our bartender. It's a well-balanced mixture of Hendrick's gin, muddled strawberries, basil and ginger-infused syrup, served over ice.
Parking: Lots in walking distance. There's also metered parking on the street.
Where: 1350 Lancaster St., Harbor East
Contact: 443-268-0323, townhousebaltimore.com
Open: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. daily