It may have an ordinary rowhouse exterior, but inside, Kisling's is a noisy, friendly bar attracting crowds of hungry and thirsty patrons. The place successfully bridges the gap between the old Southeast Baltimore and the new, hipper Canton. At the intersection of Aliceanna, Boston and Chester streets, it's even geographically on the cusp.
On our visits, we had the chance to meet some fixed-to-the-bar old-timers as well as a 3-year-old who happily announced what he was having (mussels) from the happy-hour menu the instant he crossed the threshold.
Kisling's charm comes from unpretentious but not boring surroundings (there's a collection of interesting beer-related wall hangings) and a menu that focuses on bar-food basics and unadorned, mostly fair-to-good entrees.
Suitable pricing and friendly service don't hurt either. We met a man at the bar who had anxiously squeezed in next to us to get the half-price steamed shrimp at two minutes before the 5-to-7 o'clock happy "hour" expired. His order was graciously filled.
Here's what we had that we particularly liked: sweet and greaseless onion rings - proclaimed by Kisling's as the best in town; skin-on french fries that were freshly cut and quite appealing with either gravy or ketchup; steamed shrimp that were plump, flavorful and neither over-spiced nor over-steamed; onion soup and Maryland crab soup that were salty, zesty and perfect with beer.
Steamed mussels were fresh and tasty by themselves, but lacked adequate dipping sauce. Steamed clams looked good on a neighboring table but were, unfortunately, sold out when we ordered.
Among main courses, the burger group stands out. Kisling's burgers are made from well-cooked, high-quality beef and come with a broad selection of accouterments. We've tried them in many of the offered configurations. Crab cakes are good here, too, but more of the deviled-crab variety, with finer-than-lump crab and a sweeter-rather-than-peppery taste.
There are also specials every night, but none of the ones we tried did much for us. A dish of "filet tournedos" was a middling beef fillet, served pre-sliced with a salty wine and mushroom sauce that was slightly better than it sounds.
With a jambalaya special, however, we found it necessary to flag down the waitress and complain (it was watery, all peppery spice and had no seafood nuances). The waitress graciously and quickly replaced it with a very fine cheeseburger.
A New York strip steak special that we tried on another night lacked both the flavor and texture that the special (high) price might indicate.
Kisling's specials work best when the price goes down: lobster night, steamed-shrimp night, half-price cheeseburger night and so on. Nights when a hungry, if thrifty, diner can get a very good meal for about seven bucks. Which leaves money for the dozens of kinds of beer on tap and in bottles, as well as some serviceable table wines.
As we said, Kisling's attracts crowds. But the tables are few - even on weeknights we waited for 20 minutes. Also, it's a bar first, so there's plenty of smoking.
Kisling's Tavern and Grille
2100 Fleet St.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Credit cards: All major credit cards
Prices: Appetizers $1.50 to $6.95; entrees $7.95 to $17.95.
Food: * * 1/2
Service: * * *
Atmosphere: * * 1/2
Ratings system: Outstanding: * * * *; Good * * *; Fair or uneven * *; Poor *