A great idea often starts somewhere small.
Dylan’s Oyster Cellar, for example, began in the spring of 2014 as a casual pop-up concept inside a modest Mount Vernon incubator space (which later became the cocktail bar Sugarvale). As I wrote in a review at the time, the attention to detail — from the fine cocktails to owner/shucker Dylan Salmon’s infectious love for his raw bar — made the Oyster Cellar a prime candidate for a permanent location.
It took longer than expected, but Salmon opened his brick-and-mortar spot in Hampden just before 2017. Since then, Dylan’s has lived up to the potential seen in its first iteration, and a major reason why is the commitment to its original concept — an approachable neighborhood bar that does the little things right — even in a slightly larger space.
Given the care and quality of the total experience, Dylan’s is a welcome reminder that the unpretentious still feels most at home in Baltimore.
The key here is consistency. As a Hampden resident, I’ve used it as an intimate setting for a friend’s birthday dinner, and more often, as a backdrop for spending quality time with friends over cocktails and small bites. If timed correctly, as Dylan’s is often crowded on weekend nights, the latter remains the ideal time to grab a seat at the bar.
A friend and I were reminded of this on a recent Friday evening, a couple of hours after typical dinnertime. We took our seats at the rounded L-shape bar, where bar manager Molly McNulty Rainey and the staff were in constant motion — taking drink orders, shaking tins, prying open oysters and directing plates of food coming from the kitchen.
Rainey later said her philosophy for the bar program is simple: Dylan’s wants cocktails that are delicious, are pretty to look at and, naturally, go well with oysters. Certain ingredients like sherry and celery bitters complement the oysters’ natural umami-like qualities, Rainey said. Her approach is thoughtful, but not overly serious — a sentiment that reflects Dylan’s as a whole.
The streamlined cocktail list, which had seven options ($10-$12) and an $8 oyster shooter, makes the decision-making easier than some other cocktail bars whose plethora of choices can feel overwhelming. Still, my inquisitive partner peppered the staff with questions about sweetness levels and flavor combinations. They handled it all smoothly, guiding us to drinks that woke up and satisfied our palates.
There was the Godzilla, whose use of two tequilas and a mezcal, along with sherry and vermouth, seems too busy on paper. But as a finished product, it found an unexpected equilibrium due in large part to punchy accent flavors like jalapeno, cumin and ginger.
The Califashion, the bar’s interpretation of an old fashioned, stood out for its smart use of habanero shrub, a vinegar-based syrup that infuses salty and spicy characteristics. The cocktail — typically made with Slaughter House whiskey, but on our visit it was Four Roses after the bar ran out of the former — grew more addictive with each sip.
Other standouts included the vodka-based Lucky Siren (refreshingly bright thanks to strawberry tonic) and Ursula’s Voice (based with black rum and genepi, an Italian floral liqueur).
One of the most sure-fire indications of a great bar is having no desire to leave. So while nearly all the drinks I’ve had at Dylan’s have been consistently above average, the experience is most enjoyable because of the sense that everything complements everything else — from the amiable, informative staff to the soothing lighting and ambience.
The food menu, too, seems constructed with this fluidity in mind. Easily shared plates like the coddie ($4) and “Mom’s Meatballs” ($12), served with toasted bread to dip, kept the pace leisurely and relaxed. We lost track of time without regret.
Mention Hampden around Baltimore, and local residents often tout the area’s high-end culinary experiences — and rightfully so, since restaurants like Woodberry Kitchen, La Cuchara and the Food Market, to name a few, are all within walking distance. But it’s restaurants and bars like Dylan’s — relatively more casual, no reservations accepted — that round out that sterling reputation, and in turn, make Hampden even better.
Dylan's Oyster Cellar
Backstory: What began as a temporary pop-up bar in Mount Vernon years ago is now Dylan's Oyster Cellar, a seafood-focused bar and restaurant at the corner of Chestnut Avenue and West 36th Street in Hampden. For fans of pairing oysters and cocktails, it's a must-stop spot.
Handicap accessible: Yes
Signature drink: Try the Califashion ($12), which should appeal to Old Fashioned fans and adds a spicy twist.
Where: 3601 Chestnut Ave., Hampden
Contact: 443-853-1952, dylansoyster.com
Open: 5 p.m.-midnight Tuesday-Thursday; 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-9 p.m. Sunday; closed Monday
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