Generally, an empty dining room is not a good sign. So when my friends and I showed up at the Crease in Towson, a venerable bar catering to college grads and businesspeople, we were a little worried. At 7 p.m., there was no one in either of the two dining rooms.
I wondered if I had been horribly misinformed. Food, I thought, could not possibly be the reason to come to this handsome, time-seasoned, brick and mahogany bar, where the wide-plank floors have been worn down over the years by beer-quaffing crowds.
I was mistaken. The traditional bar fare served at the Crease - burgers, wings, sandwiches and steaks - is at the top of its class. So why was the dining room empty?
The bartender, who pulled double duty as our waiter, explained that the place would be packed by 10 p.m. with an under-30 bar crowd. Nathaniel Rugolo, owner of the Crease for the past seven years, didn't really need to publicize the food, we were told, because his bread and butter, so to speak, was the bar.
The Crease has been around in one form or another for a long time, possibly dating to the 1880s, according to a manager I spoke with. A friend who graduated from Towson State College in the '70s still gets misty talking about the Crease burger, topped with blue cheese and mushroom gravy.
Twenty years later, this unusual cheeseburger is still memorable, all juicy and crumbly, as if it had been hand-formed with the freshest meat. Throw in a tumble of crisp, coated fries, a soft kaiser roll, and a $4.95 price tag, and who could resist?
This bar even makes all its own salad dressings, including a chunky blue cheese served aside a pile of Buffalo wings. Those wings were just the way I like them, so zingy-hot that bringing them to your lips sends a curl of vinegary tang right up your nose. They were probably the hottest wings I've had in Baltimore and, believe me, I've eaten my share.
Not everything worked, though. The crab dip was strange, made up of three distinct layers: a pink cream-cheese base, topped with a blend of backfin crab flakes and freeze-dried parsley, and covered with a thick roof of melted cheese that we eventually peeled off. We would have liked it more if the crab and cream cheese had been mixed together and broiled until bubbly.
The same crab mixture showed up on our open-face English muffin sandwich. It was better this time, mounded on top of Canadian bacon and a tomato slice, with a cover of melted Cheddar cheese. A little smoky, a little sweet - all the flavors pulled together. The sandwich, $6.95, is served with a small romaine salad, tossed with carrot shreds, sprouts and mushrooms.
There's an average amount of crab in the Maryland crab soup, but the tomato broth tastes freshly simmered with crab spice, thyme, hand-cut carrots, plum tomatoes and other vegetables.
There aren't a lot of entrees on the menu. A good choice is the strip steak at $10.95. Tender and juicy, it has a wonderful char-grilled flavor. It's served with a large house salad and a vegetable.
No desserts are available, but you can still splurge by ordering onion rings cooked from scratch, cloaked in a golden-brown batter. They're as decadent as any chocolate mousse, and doubly good with a draft of Boddingtons ale.
523 York Road, Towson
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major cards
Prices: Appetizers, $1.75-$5.25; entrees, $3.50-$12.50
Service: ** 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: ****; good ***; fair or uneven **; poor *