For the Marriner family, Victoria Gastro Pub was just the beginning.
After introducing their upscale tavern food to Columbia in 2007, the Marriners opened Manor Hill Brewing at their Ellicott City farm in 2015, announced plans for a restaurant called Food Plenty in Clarksville and, earlier this year, brought their beers and seasonal cuisine to Manor Hill Tavern.
The eclectic menu at the historic Ellicott City restaurant includes brick-oven pizzas, sandwiches and several entrees.
"It's always going to be a small menu," said Corporate Executive Chef Chad Wells. "I want to keep it dynamic and change it as much as possible."
We walked into the restaurant on a Wednesday and were surprised by how crowded and noisy it was. A lot of the loud banter was emanating from the second floor, where the bar is located.
The first level is a series of rustic, minimally decorated rooms, some with old stone walls and one with a scenic mural of the Marriner family farm and brewery.
Our engaging waitress was busy with several tables, although she took our drink orders right away. Besides Manor Hill brews, there are other beers, wines and craft cocktails like the delicious old-fashioned voodoo with Bulleit rye whiskey, house-made brown-sugar syrup, cherry liqueur and Angostura bitters.
Since wines were half price on Wednesdays, we ordered a bottle — and waited. After almost 20 minutes, our server said that the staff couldn't find that particular bottle and asked if we wanted to order another, which we did.
By the time we finally got our wine, we were eating our appetizers, which were quite good. We liked the clever spin on a dish called Maryland State Fair. It featured thin loops of Old Bay funnel cake to be dipped into warm crab fondue crowned with a wonderful charred-corn-and-crab relish.
We also dug into three saucy meatloaf meatballs, which were tantalizing with a bed of cheddar mashed potatoes. Another snack, the spent-grain pretzel breadsticks (two fat baguettes), satisfied our munchies, especially when smeared with whole-grain beer mustard and beer cheddar dip.
The artisanal pizzas sounded intriguing. We were happy with our 10-inch "holy smoke" pie. The slightly charred crust was layered with Alabama white barbecue sauce, mozzarella and smoked cheddar cheeses, hunks of beer-can chicken, pickled jalapenos and corn, all scented with hardwood smoke.
I've been a fan of Wells' burgers since his days at Alewife in downtown Baltimore. His mouthwatering "smokier burger" exceeded expectations. The juicy blended beef (from Catonsville's J.W. Treuth & Sons) and smoked Gouda patty was enhanced with all sorts of goodies, like smoked cheddar, smoked bacon, onion relish and horseradish aioli, on a spent-grain brioche.
We upped the ante with bacon-fat fries for an extra $2. The adornments — sweet bacon salt, chives and molasses ketchup — made them special.
Supper (entrees) is served from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. We were thrilled with the two fried soft-shell crabs that were plump and full, although the accompanying cornbread waffle was dry. The menu promised Old Bay butter. We couldn't find any, but that would have helped the honeycombed bread.
The perfumed lemon-herb-marinated half chicken was a terrific bird, crunchy on the outside and moist inside. One of the best parts of the dish, though, was the outstanding artichoke, tomato and goat cheese orzo pasta.
Desserts will fulfill your sweet needs. The flavorful strawberry tres leches cake was served in a jar, stacked with pound cake, strawberry coulis, fresh strawberries and luscious whipped cream.
But we really favored the delicate pineapple upside-down cake with its island flavors. A brown-sugar-crusted pound cake was topped with thinly sliced rum-roasted pineapples dotted with sweet and sour cherries.
The atmosphere at Manor Hill Tavern is fun, if a bit boisterous, and the food is creative. Wells and the Marriners have found another recipe for success.
Manor Hill Tavern
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 3733 Old Columbia Pike, Ellicott City
Contact: 410-465-8500, manorhilltavern.com
Open: 11 a.m. to midnight Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, $6-$13; pizzas, $13-$17; entrees, $14-$24.
Food: Eclectic American, including brick-oven pizzas.
Noise/TVs: Very loud; six TVs in the bar.
Service: Our waitress was professional and engaging. The only glitch was a delay in receiving our wine.
Parking: Street parking on nearby Main Street, a public lot across the street (accessible via Main Street with a footpath to Old Columbia Pike).
Special diets: Can accommodate.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]