New in Federal Hill, Bookmakers offers robust tavern food in chic digs

This handsome new establishment's full name is Bookmakers Cocktail Club, which might lead you to believe that a proper dinner menu might be incidental or even nonexistent.

Even once you're inside, you might not be completely sure. The main space is an unbroken expanse encompassing the long room-length bar and seating areas that never quite announce themselves as one thing or another. This is to say, there is nothing at Bookmakers that you'd definitively call a dining room.


You might be further lulled into thinking that Bookmakers is solely a cocktail lounge when you have a look at the drinks menu, which features — in addition to a vast selection of bourbon, rye and American whiskeys — an array of Japanese and Taiwanese whiskeys, eight varieties of absinthe, three kinds of chartreuse and 10 brands of amaro. All that, and a full-page cocktail list courtesy of Bookmakers' beverage director, Ryan Sparks, an alumnus of Brewer's Art, Jack's Bistro and Of Love and Regret.

It turns out that Bookmakers definitely has a food menu, a very good one, from the talented chef Sarah Acconcia, formerly of Le Garage and 13.5% Wine Bar. Everything we had was delicious and satisfying. There was a robustness to Acconcia's food that I found very appealing.

This is not shy food, which you will find out for yourself pretty quickly. I loved, loved, loved the appetizer of fried oysters, perfectly breaded and seasoned, and served with slices of fried pickled red onions over a hot honey aioli. You see what I mean: There's a lot going on there, but it all works.

A flavorful appetizer of small and dense meatballs in a berry barbecue sauce with shaved radish also worked, but it had less oomph. Don't let the fact that everyone is now doing Brussels sprouts stop you from ordering Bookmakers' roasted beauties, which come loaded with hunks of candied bacon and shavings of Grana Padano cheese.

We've been seeing gnocchi a lot lately, too, and frankly, we'd want another shot at Acconcia's rye gnocchi, which is listed as an entree but might work better as an appetizer. Here, there might have been one too many strong flavors — honey mustard, freshly grated horseradish and a pastrami meat sauce — competing for our attention.

Try some of the other entrees instead. A slab of bison meatloaf, topped with grilled peppers and onions and served with creamy mashed potatoes with scallions, was moist and well seasoned. Andy's Chicken platter, an Acconcia calling card, is my early Bookmakers favorite. Its long cooking process involves brining chicken parts, submerging them in a confit of duck fat until they're ready to fry, and then serving them up with chicken gravy, bacon-braised kale and corn grits.

Bookmakers has a sharp serving staff, who will give you good ideas, like converting a side dish of Brussels sprouts into an appetizer or, later, taking a chance on a chocolate bread pudding with caramel sauce, in which dense bread is made bright and light by the summery flavor of peach ice cream.

There are other desserts to try, like a salted caramel pot de creme and a sampler platter of sweet snacks. And there is a small listing of draft and bottled beers and a smaller one of red and white wines, available by the bottle or glass.


Appetizers, entrees, wine lists, dessert? I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Bookmakers is not just a cocktail bar but is also a restaurant. This might be the way most eating establishments look and behave in the near future. Industry watchers tell us that patrons hate committing themselves to a full dinner experience — it's easier to put their fannies in chairs if no one's being asked to make any promises beyond the first hand-crafted cocktail.

Bookmakers, on the rainy weeknight in December when we visited, was doing an excellent job of looking like a million bucks but not acting hoity-toity or la-di-dah. It's just a comfortable, well-designed space with just enough gorgeous little design details — sculpted banquettes, textured wallpaper, ornate mirrors — to make you feel like you might be coming up in the world.

To readers

In last Sunday's dining review, I included a statement that attempted to underscore the point that Serengeti Steakhouse provides a welcoming environment for all diners. But it was gratuitous and flippant, and gave offense. It did not meet The Baltimore Sun's editorial standards and should not have been included. The Sun — and I — apologize.