As fall's cold air settles in, weekend nights tend to require more planning. Some stick to buttoned-up bar-hopping, while others scroll through Netflix at home in sweatpants. Both work depending on the whim.
For those looking to the split the difference, I recommend the classic combination of a trip to the movies followed by drinks. More specifically, follow a visit to Station North's Charles Theatre (still wonderful after all these years) with a trip to Pen & Quill, which opened in mid-August.
On a recent weekday, this restaurant from the Karzai family — whose previous eateries include The Helmand and Tapas Teatro — seemed like a fantastic spot to end a satisfyingly quiet night. Even on a dreary night, Pen & Quill attracted a decent crowd of approximately 20 for dinner and drinks. No one seemed in a hurry to leave.
It does not take long to settle in. The attractive and spacious Pen & Quill has a modern sophistication to it, without ever feeling too serious. The lighthearted touches are quirky and subtle, from sunflowers atop the white marble bar to the colorful mural above the main doorway. (The latter feels particularly appropriate for a restaurant in a flourishing arts district.) The wide-net soundtrack of Baltimore bands such as Beach House and Future Islands, mixed with rappers Danny Brown and Common, was an ill fit only in theory, and not in practice. Everything from an ambiance standpoint just clicked.
The concise bar program bolstered Pen & Quill. Management has smartly kept things simple behind the bar by offering eight seasonal cocktails and eight beers on draft. What first seems limiting is actually a strength — Pen & Quill's offerings are craft-minded.
We were pleased with two very different cocktails. The first was an Oaxacan Girlfriend ($10), which included El Peloton de la Muerte Mezcal, fresh orange juice and housemade chili cocoa syrup. The initial sip seemed too sweet, but on cue, the spicy finish from the chili brought balance. The high-quality spirit was always present, as intended. On the other side of the coin, the translucent Gib Sonja ($9) was made with Half Moon Orchard gin, Dolin dry vermouth and house-pickled pearl onion. It was a cocktail meant to be sipped — stiff to keep the gin rightfully the star.
Other bar owners with a modest number of beer taps should take notes from Pen & Quill, whose selection (all ranging from $5 to $8.50) seemed geared to the esoteric drinker. The four Maryland options were far from standard: Union Craft's Blackwing Lager, Public Works' Red Cent Amber, Jailbreak's Made Wit Basil and Fin City's Angler Ale. The other options seemed chosen with care, too, including DC Brau's The Public, Left Hand Brewing's Oktoberfest, Boulevard's Tank 7 Farmhouse Ale and the Belgium import Grand Cru by Ichtegems. The impressive selection was enough to warrant a second trip.
Our two bartenders were nice, and there was no doubting their ability to make cocktails. We were checked on occasionally, and the check was ready in no time. A minor issue was the wait between drinks, and how long it took the bartender to realize we needed a refill. Call it a minor hiccup for an otherwise complaint-free evening.
We left Pen & Quill thinking the Karzai family got it right. Last year, and under different management, the space was known as The Chesapeake (not to be confused with the dining institution from half a century ago), but it never stuck. After a three-month renovation, the new bar seems poised to succeed as a place for evening drinks. At the least, Pen & Quill's confidence makes one decision of the night easier. You're on your own picking a movie.