Restaurant review

With more diners, Agora Bar and Grill could bring success to Inn at the Black Olive

For The Baltimore Sun
At Agora Bar and Grill, try a green juice that Woody Harrelson liked to drink while filming in Baltimore.

When you have an actor like Woody Harrelson associated with your restaurant and hotel, it's bound to draw attention.

His connection with the Inn at the Black Olive near Fells Point reveals a story arc worthy of his bartending days on "Cheers": Famous star swoops in to save an earnest everyman from ruin.

His intervention resulted in a second chapter for the once-struggling eco-friendly boutique hotel and, eventually, a rethinking of its restaurant space.

The inn's rooftop Olive Room restaurant closed quietly in early January and reopened just as quietly in late March on the ground floor as Agora Bar and Grill. It's a more casual concept with an affordable menu geared toward a range of palates.

Dimitris Spiliadis, who runs the restaurant and the 12-room hotel, acknowledges that he faced dire times when the hotel was scheduled for foreclosure in 2013.

Harrelson and John "Jack" Dwyer, the founder of Capital Funding Group Inc., came to the rescue financially.

"They saved me," said Spiliadis, whose parents, Stelios and Pauline Spiliadis, have operated the nearby Black Olive restaurant in Fells Point for almost two decades.

Dimitris Spiliadis met Harrelson when he stayed at the Inn at the Black Olive while filming the HBO movie "Game Change" in Baltimore. The men bonded over an appreciation for a vegan and raw-food lifestyle.

Agora Bar and Grill features a mostly American menu with a few Greek offerings. It serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.

"It's simple, not pretentious," Spiliadis said. "But we have kept the quality of the food."

The redesigned space, which originally housed the hotel's Agora Market, is charmingly contemporary with marble-topped tables, a small bar, stainless-steel prep areas and tall windows overlooking South Caroline Street. A soft-peach color scheme adds warmth.

Our only issue with the decor was the nighttime lighting: It was as bright as a school cafeteria. We would have liked a more romantic setting.

The drinks menu is still in development, our server said, but you will find organic and biodynamic wines like Cono Sur from Chile, creative cocktails with organic liquors and organic draft beers. A nonalcoholic green juice with kale, spinach and banana that Harrelson favored when he was staying there is still available.

A fragrant house-baked rosemary bread appeared at our table shortly before our appetizers. It was heavenly and warm with a slightly chewy bite.

A Greek sampler appetizer was a tempting array of garlicky hummus and creamy tzatziki, dotted with dice-size cubes of feta cheese and Kalamata olives. Pita wedges and celery and carrot sticks were great scoopers for the delicious dips.

The starter menu is heavy on dips. Grilled chicken wings are available, but we would have liked some other options.

That didn't stop us from dipping into a really good guacamole spiked with cilantro and red onions and accompanied by blue corn chips.

The hot crab dip, covered with gooey cheese, was a winner, with pita wedges and veggies to savor the thick mound. Our out-of-town guests were impressed with this hometown specialty, as were we.

We liked the variety of main dishes offered. Diners can order sandwiches, entrees, pizzas or pastas.

We were smitten with the kokkinisto, an aromatic tomato-based stew heady with red wine, slow-braised chunks of lamb and caramelized onions.

You can jump right back into Maryland fare with two terrific jumbo-lump crab cakes with no discernible filler. Roasted potato wedges and green beans filled the plate.

The surprise dish was the scampi. The kitchen, under the guidance of head chef Alicia Seville, showed its prowess with delicate ribbons of pasta lit up by a garlic-butter-and-white-wine sauce and embellished with jumbo shrimp and scallops.

The salmon fillet was another success, with a huge piece of simply seared Scottish salmon gently coated with lemon and butter and perched on a bed of rice and just barely wilted spinach.

We tried both dessert offerings. A seemingly modest chocolate cake, minus icing, was dense and rich with cocoa for a nice finish. A squiggle of whipped cream and fresh strawberries made it pretty.

The flan was a beautiful wedge of the Spanish baked custard, zigzagged with caramel sauce.

There is a lot of good will and kismet at Agora Bar and Grill. We don't understand why the restaurant was almost empty on our visit.

Harrelson was an impetus. Now, Agora just needs diners to support it.

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Agora Bar and Grill

Rating: 3 stars

Where: 803 S. Caroline St., first floor of Inn at the Black Olive

Contact: 443-681-6319, agorabarandgrill.com

Open: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday

Prices: Appetizers, $5-$14; entrees, $15-$24

Food: American with a few Greek dishes

Noise/TVs: Quiet on the night we visited because there were only a few people in the dining room; two TVs with the sound off

Service: Our server was charming and enthusiastic.

Parking: Garage parking with a fee, metered street parking.

Special diets: Can accommodate.

Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]

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