Find fine bar food in loud, lively Hamilton Tavern

Hamilton Tavern is the noisiest restaurant I've ever eaten in. OK, maybe not noisier than RA Sushi with its loud rock and roll, but for a restaurant where no music is playing, it was the noisiest.

Blame the handsome decor: the hardwood floors, the pressed-tin ceilings, the bare benches and tables, the interesting farm implements that are an integral part of the split-level dining room. (You open the front door with a wooden scythe handle.) No TVs, thank goodness, to add to the chaos. It's a great room with a built-in patina, only it's loud.

And blame the crowds: In the first few weeks of its existence, Hamilton Tavern is the place to see and be seen (and hoist a pint) in the Hamilton/Lauraville area. The owner of the building is Tom Creegan, a co-owner of Brewer's Art in Mount Vernon; his wife, Felicia Carter, is one of the business owners - the point being they know what they're doing. And they know their beers, with Resurrection and Troegs on tap.

What you have to ask yourself is whether the fine food is worth not being able to communicate with your companions. Or the waitress.

Guest: What red wines do you have by the glass?

Waitress: What?


Waitress: Chardonnay, pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc ... (I'm not making this up.)

But the food, most of it anyway, is wonderful for bar food. The current menu is very limited: five "munchies," three salads and four sandwiches. A blackboard lists one soup, an entree for $16 and the dessert of the day. That doesn't sound very impressive, but if you look more closely at the menu, you'll notice that the burger is made with locally produced Roseda Farms beef. The vegetables and fruit are local as well. The potato chips are house-made. Just about everything is priced under 10 bucks.

Be willing to wait for your food, not only because the place is so busy, but also because I wouldn't be surprised if everything is made to order. It tastes that way, anyway.

Under "munchies," you'll find tortilla chips with a fresh tomato, roasted red pepper and peach salsa. And you'll also find some of the best clams in their shells I've had in a long while - plump and grit free, with an elegant broth of wine, tomato and garlic. You'll want to pick the bowl up in both hands and drink it down.

Order the onion rings, and you'll know they're hand-cut, then fried in a beer batter that's as delicate as tempura batter. They are too uneven to be anything but made on the premises. That's a good thing.

Sadly, the ripe tomato slices topped with a salad of fresh corn and red onions tossed with vinaigrette won't be around much longer. I'm sure the salad will disappear with the end of this season's corn crop. The same is true of the salad of greens, roasted peaches and goat cheese. Maybe the house salad will disappear, too. After all, it's composed of very fresh lettuces that seem just picked, end-of-summer tomatoes and local cucumbers under a light, creamy peppercorn dressing.

The one entree that evening was salmon, moist and fresher than fresh, with Latino seasonings. A drizzle of avocado sauce set it off. It lay on a bed of fresh spinach, and two empanadas stuffed with chorizo served as the starch. I've had fish dishes that weren't as good at twice the price.

My guess is that the cheeseburger is the most popular menu item. What a burger it is, cooked as ordered with the right balance of well-seasoned beef and sesame-seed bun. The cheddar melts into every cranny of the beef. This time of year, you can also get a fried soft shell crab on pita with bacon, arugula and avocado. Quite a combination, although my friend wasn't wild about a soft shell on pita. I didn't mind.

Not everything is perfect. A soup of tomatoes, white beans and crab wasn't my favorite combination, although the basic flavor was fine. The crab was too delicate for the beans. The one dessert, a peach cobbler that tasted like stewed peaches with a Bisquick cinnamon pinwheel on top, didn't do much for me either. But only the veggie pita sandwich was an out-and-out failure. The pita overflowed with chick peas, with very little of the promised tomato, cucumber and greens. Believe me, whole chick peas are hard to eat in a sandwich. They keep rolling out. The yogurt sauce had a good flavor, though.

I've heard that the owners are planning to do something about the noise, but I'm not sure that much can be done without destroying the looks of the place. Unless you equate high decibels with high energy in a restaurant, make sure you go at an off time. There doesn't seem to be an off day at the new Hamilton Tavern.

Hamilton Tavern
Address: 5517 Harford Road, Hamilton

Hours: Open Wednesday through Monday for dinner

Prices: Munchies, $5-$15; salads and sandwiches, $4-$13

Contact: 410-426-1930

Food: *** 1/2

Service: ** 1/2

Atmosphere: * 1/2