For over 26 years, Henninger's Tavern has been tucked in a corner in Upper Fells Point, quietly and successfully turning out meals that manage to be both familiar and interesting. Dinner there is a reminder that dishes don't need to be wildly experimental to be exciting.
For this, we have Jayne Vieth to thank, along with her husband, Kenny. The couple own Henninger's; she is in the kitchen, and he handles the dining room and bar. Their two-person act — with assists from a handful of staff members — appears to be a seamless operation.
A few months ago, a friend told us that when out-of-towners ask for restaurant recommendations, he always suggests Henninger's. That seems appropriate. From Kenny Vieth's outgoing personality to the charming space, the restaurant exudes Baltimore's particular style.
That Baltimore quirk is especially noticeable in the ladies' room, where a PG-13 portrait of actor Burt Reynolds smiles from the wall. In the dining room, the art is less risque; wall-to-wall posters and photographs hang in the kind of haphazard arrangement that interior designers try to imitate, often unsuccessfully. At Henninger's, the decor feels anything but planned. You get the sense that the Vieths simply decorated the space with stuff they like.
On a recent Wednesday night, with most bar stools occupied and about a third of the tables in the tiny dining room filled, our meal at Henninger's ambled happily along, with pleasant surprises at every turn.
As our waiter, Andy Titlebaum was engaging and funny, walking us through the menu and offering occasional recommendations, but backing off when he knew we needed time to sort out our orders.
His suggestions, across the board, were good ones, but we were pleased with the choices we made on our own, too.
To start, a cluster of delicately fried oysters, served with wilted spinach and a subtle fennel cream sauce, was miles more sophisticated than any standard fried oyster appetizer. The oysters, large and plump, were cooked so nicely and the sauce, laced with just enough fennel to intrigue, was simply gorgeous.
It set the stage for a meal that was one excellent sauce after another. Rabbit sausage, served over polenta, was nearly upstaged by a sweet syrup studded with large chunks of apple and red onion. A garlic and roasted tomato sauce spooned over shellfish pasta hit all the right notes with acidity and salt. A pork chop's applejack demiglace was sweet and autumnal.
The ingredients layered within those sauces were also just right. The sausage was well seasoned and the polenta moist. The pork chop was thick, juicy and seasoned properly; mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe rounded out that plate.
The pasta dish was something to behold: The pasta hid under concentric circles of mussels and clams surrounding a pile of shrimp. It wasn't overly stylized, but it was pretty, and the shellfish itself was plump and sweet.
Placing the pasta on our table, Titlebaum watched our eyes go wide. "It's overwhelming," he said with a laugh. He was right. But unlike seafood pasta dishes that are a smattering of seafood over a pound of spaghetti, this one was gloriously seafood-heavy.
A whole bronzino, doused with lime and broiled, was flaky and lovely, from tail to cheek. The fish was fabulous, and we loved that we had the option to order it with the head on or off (we chose on so we could pick at those cheeks). It arrived with nicely cooked rice and — maybe our favorite part of that dish — julienned carrots and squash that looked like a typical pile of summer vegetables but with a soy-based marinade that was salty, sweet and captivating.
Titlebaum also recommended a bottle of wine to pair with the meal; at $20, the Bouchard Aine & Fils pinot noir, he said, was an incredible value. He was right. The bottle was silky, food-friendly and quite affordable. It did, however, introduce the night's only disappointment: It was about 10 degrees too warm.
After the entrees, which were spaced evenly, we took a short break before jumping into two desserts: Key lime pie and peanut butter pie. Both sweet treats were likable, though they lacked the nuances of the kitchen's savory dishes.
Next time, we'll skip dessert and migrate to the bar instead. As we left, we got a friendly send-off, even from a couple of patrons. With that kind of joie de vivre and Jayne Vieth's fantastic food, Henninger's made it easy to want to return.
Where: 1812 Bank St., Upper Fells Point
Contact: 410-342-2172; henningerstavern.com
Open: Tuesday-Saturday, 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.; bar opens at 5 p.m. and stays open until about midnight.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$14; entrees, $14-$28.
Food: Well-executed and thoughtfully conceived American dishes.
Noise/TVs: Low level of noise; one television in bar is turned on for Orioles games.
Service: Personable and prompt
Parking: Street parking
Special diets: Henninger's chef has a peanut allergy, so the kitchen is very conscious of dietary restrictions and will adjust dishes to accommodate them.
Reservation policy: Reservations are not accepted.
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