Pizza, life's cheesy cure-all, makes a strong case as the ideal bar food because it's easy to share and rarely fails to please a crowd. The fact it goes hand-in-hand with beer helps, of course.
And while Baltimore is not often associated with pizza, the city has plenty of bars that serve high-quality pies and drinks in comfortable tavern settings. Verde, Birroteca, Johnny Rad's, HomeSlyce, Barfly's and Joe Squared have a verve all their own.
So let us highlight one more cozy pub deftly marrying pizza and a thoughtful bar program: Hersh's Pizza & Drinks in Riverside. On a couple of recent visits, the bar and restaurant, opened in November 2011 by the brother-and-sister team of Josh and Stephanie Hershkovitz, reminded us why it has carved out a neighborhood following and deserves even more.
The "superb thin-crust pizzas" — as The Sun's Richard Gorelick wrote last November — warrant a trip. The ingredients are fresh and prepared with more care than one might expect, from the house-pickled hot peppers to house-made sausage.
Excellent pizza aside, we were there to see if the "Drinks"-half of Hersh's' name deserved to share top billing. We were relieved to learn Hersh's makes for an excellent spot to get a cocktail or beer, with or without a Neapolitan-style pie on the side.
I recently asked Stephanie what matters most at Hersh's, and her simple answer applies to both food and drink: emphasis on ingredients. The quality of the components is key, but so is simplicity and not muddling the overall taste of a product with unnecessary aspects.
There was no arguing with the approach. All nine of the house cocktails are made with either four or five ingredients total, allowing flavors to stand out individually and harmonize as a whole.
The Riverside Fizz ($10) was a fail-safe combination (vodka, lemon juice, almond-flavored Orgeat syrup and fresh mint) on paper and tongue. I was surprised to learn Hersh's uses Wodka vodka, an affordable Polish spirit, in the Fizz. The smooth finish made me reconsider the definition of "rail."
The Hunky Punky ($10) — a cocktail ideal for slow slips — was even better. The Fernet Branca and bitter Cynar liqueur provided punch while the Bluecoat gin and Punt e Mes vermouth leveled the drink back to even keel. Both cocktails demonstrated a thorough understanding of ingredients, flavors and restraint.
Hersh's has sophisticated beer drinkers in mind, too. The draft list was a smart collection of 10 craft beers, both local and out-of-town. Hersh's earned extra points for offering selections we do not always see: The Brewer's Art's strong pale ale Coup de Boule ($6.50), DC Brau's new Daughters of Poseidon black oyster IPA ($7) and Sixpoint's Apollo summer wheat beer ($6).
Most impressive about Hersh's — besides the pizza and alcohol options — was the proactive approach to getting patrons through the door. The location is instantly comfortable once you're there (especially because of the always-smiling and helpful staff), but like other Riverside establishments, Hersh's can feel a bit on an island.
Recently, Hersh's made two moves that should lead to more foot traffic. A newly launched, Italian-inspired brunch now runs from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sundays. Also, Hersh's, which lacks valet parking, has teamed up with the transportation app Uber. Show your Uber receipt at Hersh's and have the cost of the ride (up to $10) discounted from your bill. Hersh's was the first bar I remember seeing to offer such a deal, and if Uber and similar apps stick around, other restaurants would benefit from similar partnerships.
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But Uber ride or not, Hersh's is worth a trip to South Baltimore because there is little chance of error, regardless of what you order.