Betty & Jake's Tavern is a slice of old Catonsville. Now owned by Dorothy Day, it's been around for more than 35 years, which should qualify it as an institution.
Outside, Betty & Jake's is a featureless free-standing building on a quiet corner (the big sign out front is cool, though), and the interior is basically a U-shaped bar with a few tables smashed into the corner. It reminds me a little of a bowling-alley lounge, without the rented shoes.
Based on a weeknight dinnertime visit, people show up at Betty & Jake's more for friendship, inexpensive beer and television than for food. It's basically, all these years later, a neighborhood joint.
There are TV sets everywhere you look, tuned to different channels, with the sound on. You'd never miss a play, and Betty & Jake's runs great Ravens game specials, with $2 draft beers and complimentary hot dogs and wings. No wonder area residents love it.
Frankly, it could take a while for a new patron to cozy up to Betty & Jake's, and vice versa. There's a thin line between the lack of warmth and the presence of a chill, and I'm not sure which side this place falls on. I guess I want to give them some credit for not faking friendliness when they weren't feeling it. I think when you get a smile here, you know you've earned it.
There might, in fact, be a perfectly good reason why the staff and patrons don't throw leis and kisses on newcomers - they want to keep more of the shrimp salad for themselves.
This is one of the most outrageously good shrimp salad sandwiches I've had anywhere. It's one of those deals where you nibble on the quarter-pound of shrimp that's falling off the sides and you've still got a quarter-pound, maybe more, to enjoy in between the bread slices.
And it's great shrimp salad, too, very lightly dressed, with a minimum of spicing - just a little pepper and celery seed. It's a grand affair, and any Baltimore-area shrimp-salad poll or competition really has to include it.
The hamburger is another major pub-food achievement.
It reminded me of the famous Alonso's hamburger, nothing but a big, juicy mound of ground beef on a soft bun, no fuss, no frill. It was big, but it held together very nicely. We could see the hamburger being grilled in the kitchen, which is squeezed right behind the bar. It looked like it was taking too long to come out medium-rare, but it was actually cooked perfectly pink. The meat is maybe just a little underseasoned.
I think two nearly perfect things are enough to patronize any place on Earth, and the pizza here is pretty good, too, prepared in the kind of counter-top oven you used to see in bowling alleys - I guess that's what brought them to mind. It makes good and simple pizza pies, just a tasty tomato sauce and plenty of mozzarella on a nice crust. I always want a crispier crust, but this one was good.
The rest of the menu consists of cold and hot sandwiches, with relatively healthy options like turkey and skinless chicken breast. We tried a fish sandwich, made from pollock, and it was only just OK, nothing to regret but nothing to get again.
Appetizers are all waistline expanders - chicken tenders, fried mozzarella sticks and different styles of wings.
Betty & Jake's serves breakfast, too, beginning at 8 a.m., and if my friends hung out there, I'd probably be waiting for the doors to open.