Bar review: Smooth sailing at new Heavy Seas Alehouse

The beer taps inside the new Heavy Seas Alehouse.
The beer taps inside the new Heavy Seas Alehouse. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

With a name like Heavy Seas Alehouse, you might expect that the new bar and restaurant in Little Italy/Harbor East would be a shrine to the esteemed Baltimore craft brewery. Hugh Sisson, the brewery's founder, said before the opening that licensing the name was meant as a showcase for the brand. And the beer list that was previewed underscored that point — all Heavy Seas, all the time.

But for all the Heavy Seas love, this isn't a venue that appeals to just fans of the beer. In fact, it is the first great new bar of the year, more than meeting the expectations set by the Heavy Seas name.

From the service to the small details in the menu, there are no false moments here. It left me wanting to come back, hoping to finally grab a glass of the Siren Noire, which wasn't available the three nights I visited, and another bite of one of the excellent burgers, available until midnight in the late night menu — a feature that will earn it many admirers in the area.

Heavy Seas Alehouse is a bar and a restaurant. Taking up a big chunk of space at the Tack Factory, it's divided into three dining sections: a semiprivate area in the center, called the Captain's Lounge; an airy space near the entrance, and a third spot filled with booths and high-top tables that shares space with the bar. The bar seats about 12 and faces away from the diners and the street, giving it an intimate feel.

The decorating scheme could have been overwhelming. Patrick Dahlgren, the brains behind the bar, had promised a — shudder — nautical theme in a nod to the Heavy Seas label. I imagined something like Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean ride, with stuffed sea animals on some walls, novelty mermaids hanging from others, maybe even waiters wearing eye patches. (I'm half-describing Barracudas Tavern in Locust Point.)

But Heavy Seas is spare, almost fastidious. The owners have chosen to play up the building's industrial look, and they've matched bare, exposed brick walls with colorful Heavy Seas posters that pay homage to the brand with creativity.

The bar is punctuated by a tap system that, with all the colorful Heavy Seas logos lined up, looks like a box of crayons. The restraint extends to the menu, which has mercifully few pirate puns and features an admirable commitment to sustainable farming, with an acknowledgment of and thanks to its farmers and growers, which include Baltimore's Five Seeds Farm and Big City Farm.

The service is exemplary. Both bartenders and wait staff seem to be genuine fans of the place and its fare; from my stool, I could hear some recommending new beers to each other.

Heavy Seas shows a canny understanding of the young people in the neighborhood by offering a late-night menu that ends at midnight and includes an excellent Angus beef burger ($15). Order it with the Old Bay/saffron mayo on the side for the fries. The onion rings are also mouthwatering ($6.50).

In the interest of avoiding waste (and adding a neat touch), the restaurant uses the brewery's leftover spent-grain for its bread, made next door at Piedigrotta bakery.

As for the beer, it is doubtful that there's this much Heavy Seas on display anywhere else except the brewery on the outskirts of Baltimore — two on cask and 14 on draft, including one rotating seasonal. It would be easy to scoff at the brand's monopoly, but consider the name outside. (Dogfish Head's Rehoboth Beach, Del., restaurant does the same thing.)

The Peg Leg Imperial Stout is a hearty brew with a sweet undertow (it was molasses) and notes of chocolate ($6). It takes an experienced palate to detect the subtleties of cask-conditioned ales; still, my Pale Ale ($7.25) tasted particularly fresh paired with my frisee salad ($11). There are 11 other brands by the bottle, including the rich Fin du Monde and the earthy Anchor Steam from California.

It is worth noting that Heavy Seas might be one of the few places in town that does beer-based cocktails — Brendan Dorr, beverage director at B&O American Brasserie consulted on the menu. The Sea Shandy ($8.25), with homemade pomegranate lemonade, is citrusy and refreshing. And the HS Manhattan ($9.75), though too saccharine for my taste — I suspect the bartender might have used too much of the Peg Leg Stout base — left my companion, a longtime fan of the classic cocktail, very satisfied.

The only disappointment was that the staggeringly good Siren Noire, a seasonal imperial stout flavored with chocolate nibs, was not available all three nights I visited late last week. It would be unfair to hold the bar responsible for being out of the Siren; bartenders told me the kegs run out quickly. In many ways, its absence speaks to Heavy Seas' huge fan base.



Heavy Seas Alehouse

Back story: After selling his stake in Sisson's, Maryland's first brew pub, in the '90s, Heavy Seas brewery founder Hugh Sisson had resisted opening a namesake brew pub — state licensing laws make it difficult anyway. But he was convinced that by licensing the brand to another operator, such as his stepson, Patrick Dahlgren, he could benefit from the brand exposure, and the alehouse was born. Its home, the Tack Factory, formerly housed restaurants Diablita and Tsunami.

Signature drink: Any of the beers; if the Siren Noire is out, try the Peg Leg Imperial Stout ($6). Also try one of the cask-conditioned ales — when I went, the Heavy Seas Pale Ale sold for $7.25. Happy hour, 5 p.m.-7 p.m., discounts $1 off all draft beer. There's also a selection of wines, rums and cocktails, nearly all under $12 by the glass.

Open: 5 p.m.-midnight Mondays-Saturdays, 4 p.m.-midnight Sundays

Where: 1300 Bank St., Baltimore

Parking: Street and metered parking is available.

Contact: 410-522-0850; heavyseasalehouse.com