Time was when the word “tavern” conjured up a no-frills dispenser of food and drink where a sandwich could strain a kitchen’s skills, and getting beer served in a glass represented the height of sophistication. Such places could be awfully pleasant, though, welcoming strangers and neighbors alike.
At Mt. Washington Tavern, you can still find that old-fashioned friendliness — at least we did the night we stopped by, from the host to the attentive server to the support staff. But everything else about the place seems new, fresh and quite classy.
This restaurant has been a popular fixture since it was established in 1979 and, as the menu puts it, “again in 2012.” That second date, of course, refers to the tavern’s re-emergence after a major fire.
The rebuilt tavern offers several attractive spaces, flecked with equine and Chesapeake Bay art. There’s a spacious bar area and a separate, high-ceilinged dining room (with another bar) on the first floor. Upstairs holds a cozy, pub-like spot, along with an outdoor deck overlooking one of Mt. Washington’s village-y streets.
Things get very lively in all those locations. No wonder.
The thirsty can avail themselves of an extensive collection of beers and cocktails (our bartender’s finesse with a classic martini and Manhattan commanded respect). The more modest wine list has its rewards, especially on Thursdays, when bottles are half-price, which made our J. Lohr cab taste so much heftier.
As for food, the menu hits all the main buttons — meat, poultry, seafood, raw bar — and caters to just about any level of appetite. What helps the restaurant stand out from many an establishment offering similar fare is the occasional element of surprise.
Among the appetizers, for example, you’ll find panko-coated, flash-fried green beans. It’s fun pretending that you’re eating healthy fried food; it’s even more fun because these veggies, which come with a snappy chipotle-ranch dip, are so tasty.
I hasten to add that the tavern serves up good old-fashioned potato fries with skill, too. The unadorned version that came with a very respectable burger had good flavor and no hint of grease. The truffle fries had a nice richness and — here’s that surprise factor again — Parmesan in sizable, thin slices, rather than grated.
A person could make a meal out of the chicken quesadilla appetizer, with its crunchy, grilled tortilla revealing plenty of chicken and cheeses. And the deconstructed French onion soup spread could feed a platoon; the cheesy essence of the traditional soup is turned into a dip for abundant slices of baguette.
At entree time, the cheese tortellini certainly provided flavor, though a rather heavy butternut squash and sage butter sauce made everything a bit mushy. But the spinach and sausage bites in the dish added a robust quality. On a wintry night, I’d find it much more satisfying.
The foil-baked salmon arrived still wrapped. The foil should have been removed at some point earlier, or at least taken care of at the table. Still, the moist fish revealed a perky taste from being seasoned with chipotle and lime.
Side dishes revealed an imaginative touch, especially a take on succotash that brings together Brussels sprouts, edamame and corn. Cauliflower also gets a lift from a yin-and-yang approach — hot sauce and maple syrup. That syrup also figured, too aggressively, in a plate of buttered, braised sweet potatoes.
Made-in-house desserts include a bourbon caramel cheesecake of terrific texture and non-cloying sweetness (we could detect no trace of bourbon, darn it).
We were particularly fond of the masterfully prepared blackberry cobbler, with its crumbly biscuit, abundant fruit and fabulous Taharka Brothers ice cream. Nothing like sheer indulgence to end a pleasant dinner.
Mt. Washington Tavern 3.5 stars
5700 Newbury St., Baltimore (Mount Washington)
Prices: Appetizers $9 to $16; entrees $18 to $37
Ambience: Relaxed and comfortable, but with a steady current of energy
Service: Convivial, assured, attentive
Parking: Lot (it fills up quickly) and metered street parking
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Wheelchair accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]