It takes courage to open a brew pub in the ever-expanding, bustling West Street corridor that now stretches from Church Circle to the Homewood neighborhood near the public library.
Required: a beverage menu that stands out in a market already awash in beer; and a "hook" … something that sets the place apart from the fierce competition. It can be the ambience, the theme (think Irish bar) or a food menu with a kick. And, finally delivering all of the above with energy and style.
The Chesapeake Brewing Co., open since last March, proudly proclaims on its website that it's the place for "local beer, local fare, local atmosphere." An appealing calling card in this age of franchises and chains.
I left the place, located on West Street in what was once one of Annapolis' many small firehouses (score one for local atmosphere), feeling as though I had just experienced an outline for a good pub-style spot. But alas, an outline with a lot of blanks and missing pieces that need to be filled in if they want a clientele of more than just the unsuspecting tourist.
First and foremost, the beer. Chesapeake Brewing Co. makes their beer in Crisfield on the Eastern Shore turning out a line of quaffs with labels such as Beat Army Golden Lager (I tried it … pretty good) and Waterman's Soul IPA. But they also purvey the work of half-a-dozen other shore breweries to fulfill their promise of "local beer." And they're planning to add more. But local beer doesn't always add up to good beer, especially when your competition is pumping familiar brands in addition to the popular micro and craft brews.
If you're not a beer drinker, you can turn to the full bar or to wine — essentially one choice — all from Woodbridge, the decent economy line from the Robert Mondavi empire.
But, it's when you look to the menu for "local fare" that a visit to Chesapeake Brewing Co. goes seriously south as our group of four discovered on an early summer evening last week. We were hungry. I had previewed the menu on the website, only to discover that it barely resembled the one they're actually serving.
We opened with a pair of appetizers, sharing a bowl of seasoned Brussels sprouts ($6) and their hot crab dip ($15). The Brussels sprout is an unforgiving vegetable. Overcook it and it is dull, bitter and off-putting. The big serving that arrived at our table may have been the frozen variety, cooked close to mush with onion as the only detectable seasoning.
The crab dip was a dense concoction, heavy on cream cheese with not much seasoning and stringy crabmeat with a past-its-prime flavor. The bread and crackers that came along for dipping fell apart or stuck in the dip as we tried to eat it.
One in our group opted for a cup of the cream of crab soup ($8) and was rewarded with a strange version of the classic. The lukewarm soup with a few shreds of crabmeat was thin rather than creamy and seemed to have water added just before serving to produce something with only a trace of flavor.
The menu tilts toward the small plates concept with no full entrees. Main attractions include salads, burgers, sandwiches, sliders, and flatbread style pizzas.
Still hungry, one in our party went for the crab cake sandwich, another a Caesar salad with chicken, and the third went for a flatbread. Three slider sandwiches (chicken salad, shrimp salad and crab cake) and wedge salad with bleu cheese dressing and bacon completed the order.
Oddly, the flatbread pizza with ham and pepperoni ($11) was the hands down winner. Nothing special, just crispy crust with a flavorful topping dominated by pepperoni with very little ham. That Caesar salad ($14) arrived drenched in a pungent dressing with a bottled taste and small chunks of diced chicken. Likewise, the wedge salad of iceberg lettuce ($9) was slathered with the same Caesar dressing rather than bleu cheese, but surprisingly good, crisp bacon. Our server insisted it was bleu cheese, but offered to return it to the kitchen. Thanks, but …
When the bun is bigger than the crab cake, it's not a good omen. That was true of both the sandwich ($15) and the slider. Our amiable server could not tell us if the crab cakes were made in-house (with lots of filler and seasoning, they didn't appear to be) or if it was local crabmeat (I doubt the crab involved had ever been in the Bay or its tributaries). The sandwich came with a scattering of potato chips … or, rather, chip fragments.
Sliders are served in six varieties: chicken salad, shrimp salad, buffalo chicken, crab cake, roast beef and smoked salmon. I chose the chicken and shrimp salads and crab cake versions (at three for $11 including chips). The two salads tasted almost identical and the crab cake was about a quarter of the size of the sandwich patty.
The former firehouse feels like old Annapolis when many small stations were needed to protect the city's vintage frame buildings. If you want to be loyal to Maryland brews, the Chesapeake Brewing Co. is the place to be.
If you're hungry, you can snack on some items. But, if you're yearning for truly "local fare" for a meal, well, keep your fingers crossed that someday Chesapeake Brewing will deliver the "coastal country cooking" described on its website.
Chesapeake Brewing Co.
WHERE: 114 West St., Annapolis
HOURS: Monday-Friday, 1-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 1 until 11 p.m.
CHEF: Martine Rodamendo
1ST COURSES: $8-15
MAIN COURSES: $9-16 (Sandwiches, salad, flatbreads etc.)
CREDIT CARDS: All Major Credit Cards