Someone asked me recently if this was the year that the tapas trend was finally going to go away. In fact, it's not a trend anymore; it's the way many of us prefer to eat. Even with a restaurant like Tapas Teatro, which does so many things right, there are still some potential perils in a tapas-based evening. Food flies at you fast, and it's hard sometimes to keep pace. The table's real estate can get overpopulated, and you can start to feel as if the meal is slipping into anarchy.
We'll get the hang of it.
Tapas Teatro opened back in 2001. The Charles Street bridge was under repair then, and the restaurant's tables spilled out onto the 1700 block of Charles St. for that first season.
For a long time, I would associate Tapas Teatro with "The Rise of the Creative Class," the book by Richard Florida that introduced his theories about what attracted a certain type of desirable citizen to a particular city. His theory held that creative people looked for something like the presence of sidewalk cafes, among other things, as a clue to a city's livability.
People still point to Tapas Teatro as an asset to Baltimore. Ten years later, it still looks every bit the late-night cosmopolitan gathering place, as though it fell right out of the pages of a travel guide. The burnished interior — a fine memorial to the work of John Gutierrez, who had a hand in its design — has aged beautifully. It has mellowed, but no one has ever pretended that the surfaces here aren't hard, that the tables aren't very small and that the noise level can't be overwhelming.
Tapas Teatro is always crowded, it seems. The restaurant doesn't take reservations, which is a drag. And because it's always so busy, the staff can appear to have formed themselves into a unit opposed to the customers. It feels, sometimes, like customers are things to manage or to handle.
But the thing that impresses me so much these days about Tapas Teatro is the food, which is better than ever. The main menu has grown and evolved. There are more choices, particularly, among meat and seafood plates — substantial things that will start to fill you up. Among the best of these are monkfish medallions, wrapped in serrano ham, served on artichoke bottoms; the croquettes filled with marinated chicken, served with a gorgeous cumin mayonnaise; and grilled rib-eye steak with house-smoked peppercorns and grilled onions.
But it's the handful of specials that should capture your attention. On two recent visits, which were made within a week of one another, the specials were tempting on the menu and thoroughly satisfying on the plate. And the specials almost changed completely between visits. That signaled to me that the folks here are thoroughly invested and engaged. The wine list is a work forever evolving, and the selection feels personal and considerate. The chef of record here is Antonio Baines, who was known for the jerk chicken he served on Sundays at the Mount Royal Tavern.
Both visits amounted to something of a feeding frenzy, and the sum can be more memorable than the parts. That's not necessarily a crime. The hit parade from these evenings, though, included roasted duck served on crostini with goat cheese and balsamic onions; a plate of sweaty Garrotxa cheese and a plate of equally sweaty Salchicha chorizo; fresh sardines, grilled very simply, and served with lemon; and a plate of tender Brussels sprouts in a Parmesan-truffle cream sauce. And I'll throw in the crostini topped with piquillo pepper cream cheese, tiny white anchovies and fish roe.
There were only a few marginal items. The special soup on both visits was a homemade beef-vegetable soup that looked and tasted exactly like — well, beef-vegetable soup. I can't fathom its purpose. A grilled Angus range steak, a special, is just not as lovable as the regular grilled rib-eye.
Among desserts, a panna cotta topped with crushed Marcona almonds is right now the stellar item. Presumably sidelined by now, an eggnog cheesecake was close behind. Drinks from the espresso machine here are nicely handled.
I promise you this: All over the world, in creative-class cities like New York and San Francisco, there are dozens and dozens of restaurants that look and feel a lot like Tapas Teatro, and that are complacent and boring and stale in ways that Tapas Teatro is not.
• Get more information about Tapas Teatro
Where: 1711 N. Charles St. #A, Station North
Contact: 410-332-0110, tapasteatro.com
Hours: Open for dinner seven days a week
Prices: Appetizers, $5.95-$11.95
Food: 3 1/2
Atmosphere: 3 1/2
[Key: Outstanding: 4 stars; Good: 3 stars; Fair or Uneven: 2 stars; Poor: 1]