Irish pubs are the reality shows of the restaurant world -- as close to a surefire hit as you can find in a very unsure business. The Towson area in particular seems to take to the concept. Witness the success of An Poitin Stil a little to the north. I waited an hour and a half for a table when it first opened five years ago.
Now Ryan's Daughter has moved into the Belvedere Square spot where Chili's used to be. The name comes from the 1970 movie, a favorite of the owners, who also wanted to pay tribute to the Senator Theatre for keeping the Belvedere area alive in the lean years. (Note also that the pub has a Belvedere Room, named not after the neighborhood but after the college James Joyce went to.)
The decor is the work of Donal Doyle, a native Irishman and co-owner who had a hand in the design and building of An Poitin Stil. The new place has the same Irish charm generated from many authentic appointments, although there are echoes of the old Chili's layout. The restaurant's central bar, for instance, is still flanked by dining rooms to either side.
When you read this, it may be a gorgeous spring day, but we ate dinner at Ryan's Daughter on a chilly, rainy April evening. The flickering gas fire to the left of the entrance won me over to the pub before we were ever seated. It was just one of the many interior items, most imported from Ireland, that have upped the coziness quotient of the space significantly -- from sconces, beveled glass and old movie posters to "laundry" strung above the tables in one nook and cranny. The hostess desk and parts of the Victorian bar are from Dublin's Trinity College.
Our table -- actually one of the wooden booths -- sat snugly near a fireplace in one of the cozy dining rooms. The warmth of the fire made me happy, and the selection of beers and ales and 14 Irish whiskeys made my guests happy. (I had a pinot grigio; let's not get too authentically Irish pubby here.)
You can do more than just look at quaint decor and drink at Ryan's Daughter, but no one is pretending this is elegant dining. Still, it's not bloomin' onions and buffalo wings either. Doyle insists that they're trying to keep the food more authentically Irish than the Stil, which offers a number of New American dishes.
The menu is stripped down to six starters, four salads, six sandwiches, four main dish pies and seven entrees. Lurking among the corned beef and cabbage and bangers and mash are some surprises, like that old Irish favorite, fennel-encrusted salmon with red pepper coulis. True, the soup of the day is beef stew -- talk about light starters -- but there are more sophisticated choices, like a cheese platter with cashel blue, Irish swiss and other artisan cheeses set off by mango chutney and relishes. A plump little crab cake is chock-full of lump crab meat, and comes sporting a suave remoulade sauce. Irish, no. Tasty, yes.
Our waiter gives us a vaguely historical reason why the Captain James O'Donnell salad is on the menu. The Chinese export trade perhaps. Anyway, the "Asian greens," which look much like regular mixed greens, are gussied up with mandarin oranges, baby corn, fried noodles and a sesame ginger dressing. Not my kind of thing -- canned orange segments are canned orange segments, to my mind, baby corn is pretty tasteless, and fried noodles aren't my favorite salad ingredient -- but the person who ordered it liked it.
The puff pastry shells for the main-dish pies come from a local bakery owned by a relative of the chef. Close enough to consider it homemade, I guess. As long as you're having puff pastry, you might as well slip off the wagon all the way and go for the seafood pie with shrimp, deliciously plump scallops and crab swimming in cream and sherry.
Or you can do very well for yourself by sticking to the pub food. Not to worry. Calling a reuben "Rosie's reuben" doesn't make it too Irish. It still has corned beef, swiss (in this case, Irish swiss), sauerkraut and the Irish version of Russian dressing, Marie rose sauce, on rye bread. It's still grilled. And it's still one of the better sandwiches in world cuisine.
The reuben comes with chips, British Isles style. Think of french fries in the shape of potato chips, sort of. They appear again with the fish and chips, a glorious indulgence of fried food cut by sprinkling malt vinegar on it liberally. (No ketchup allowed.)
For dessert, Ryan's Daughter has a chocolate brown bread pudding with coffee syrup, a very adult and not very sweet version of the classic. Of course, there's a creme brulee and a dessert of the day -- this day two little cakes with fudgy icing. But your best bet might be strong Irish coffee made with whiskey, brown sugar and heavy cream.
It's impossible to imagine that Belvedere Square's new pub won't do well, but I would have said the same about the now defunct Chili's, which always seemed packed to me. Maybe the fact that the Belvedere market nearby has come to life again will help the pub out, just as the pub's presence is bound to give the market more visibility.
Where: 600 E. Belvedere Ave.
Hours: Open daily for lunch and dinner
Prices: Appetizers, $4-$10; main courses, $10-$19