N is for Nick’s Fish House

I am an advertiser’s dream — short attention span and highly suggestible. So when I see a sign advertising half-price burger night and another for $1.50 Miller Lite, that is what I will order, even if I am in a fish place with lots of deliciousness on tap. Le sigh.

That said, my burger at Nick’s Fish House was delightful, cooked perfectly rare and served by the friendliest bartender I’ve met in a while, and all for $5.50. (That’s including the beer.)

Nick’s Web site hilariously describes the location as “the beautiful Middle Branch adjacent to the historic Hanover Street Bridge and just south of the Inner Harbor. ” I would call it a waterfront bar on the edge of the industrial section of South Baltimore, wedged between I-95 and the Port Covington Wal-Mart. Of course, if you want a place where you can dock your boat, I guess that’s where your bar has to be. (There are slips outside of Nick’s.)

The decor is beachy, stopping just shy of Jimmy Buffet-esque escapism, with pretty palm-frond looking fans circulating overhead and nice wood gleaming everywhere. This time of year, they have a great-looking Christmas tree, but obviously Nick’s is a summertime place. I scurried past the outer deck to get inside, but even so, there are precious few places in Baltimore with good outdoor dining and the sunsets out there in nice weather must be beautiful.

Because I was so overeager to order a burger, I had to ask for the menu after I ordered to check it out. I actually really like oysters, so I was disappointed in myself for obeying my cruel overlords, the Monday Night Specials signs, and not getting some briny goodness. Everything else was pretty typical bar food with a slant toward seafood. Prices skewed a touch high, but there are lots of daily specials, so if you choose judiciously, you’ll probably get out without too much damage. If a summertime kinda place left me this pleased in December, I’m sure I’d be floating on air

M is for Mama’s on the Half Shell

Mama’s on the Half Shell! Oyster power!

I never hear the name of this watering hole without hearing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles theme song. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to visit this Canton Square stalwart. The happy hour is quite good — specials on oysters and drinks, including Clipper City drafts for $2.50. The specials are only good at the actual bar, though, which is a shame when the weather is so nice. Mira and I stole a seat on the sidewalk on MotHS’s cute patio beneath flower pots rocking gently in the late summer breeze. It was worth the extra money for my $3.10 Clipper City and Mira’s extra-strong mojitos. We shared a plate of oysters (mostly delicious except for the dry Chincoteagues, which was weird since they were more local than the PEIs or Long Island mollusks) and crab dip. The dip was heroic in size but gluey in texture — if I had it to do over again, I’d just order more oysters. Of course, “order more oysters” is my solution to a lot of problems.

When the mollusks were slurped and the pints were drained, Mira and I trekked to Safeway to buy flowers and then walked to Polly’s house. We were two unwise women, bearing the gifts of a mixed bouquet and tipsy good wishes, going to visit the blessed child. Polly’s son, whose coming was foretold at the first Alphabetical Happy Hour back in January, was born in early August. He is quite small and deeply uninterested in his parents’ friends, but he has amazingly soft little feet. Most importantly, his parents  are lit up like candles to have him in their home. He is a lucky young man, and I am a lucky (less) young woman to have such nice friends to drink with and vist with. M is the halfway point of the AHH, which is not too bad, all things considered. I should probably be up to R by now, especially considering that Polly MADE A WHOLE PERSON since I started this blog, but all things considered, it’s not a bad pace.
So where should the AHH go next?

C is for Cool. Really F#_@ing Cool.

Lillet blonde, on the rocks with a twist of orange at Cafe Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif. It’s my new favorite cocktail and I love it dearly.

Dinner was good — and the prices at the cafe were reasonable for the birthplace of California cuisine — and the service was great. I showed up well after 8 pm and they parked me at the bar for less than the promised 45 minutes with the wholly distracting Lillet. When I was seated, I said thanks for squeezing me in. The bespectacled, betweeded hostess said, “It’s a pleasure to have you.” I was a late-coming one-top, the type of table that is often on the recieving end of a world-class stink-eye. I’ve never been to a place as famous as CP before and was so happy to find that the staff knows how a small meal can be a big deal to someone like me.

The appetizer (tomato soup) and entree (grilled polenta) were nice, but the alpha and omega of the meal were the aforementioned apperatif and the dessert, hazelnut creampuffs with dark chocolate and caramel sauce. The puffs arrived with coffee as dark and deep as a well. I usually take cream but not tonight. Even I know not to mess with a good thing.

L is for Lime

Lime, a Federal Hill tequila bar, was hopping on Tuesday night. Annie and I snagged the last table in this tiny wedge of a restaurant. Table service meant backless stools and no free shot and a lime presented to bar patrons. Oh well, it’s Federal Hill, so small spaces are de rigeur. (Exception: the new oversized townhomes on Fort Avenue down the street from Lime. WTF? That block looks like a mouthful of oversized veneers ready to chomp away its teeny neighbors.) Voices and loud music bounce off the hard green walls so loudly that Annie and I had to shout across the table to hear each other. Perhaps I’m just too old for Federal Hill. Dumb kids and their rock and roll.

After perusing Lime’s enormous margarita and tequila list, Annie got a Hometown Girl, a pink concoction with passionfruit juice that she loves. I am a margarita purist who wants only lime, salt and tequila singing across my tongue. Lime’s Horny Frog was just that, silly name notwithstanding. I had two Horny Frogs since it was two-for-one night. (Nice service note: Annie, who is a very good girl, had only one drink and the server gave her half off.) Lime has great specials every night, so it’s never a splurge, which is nice in these economic end times.

While Lime’s drink menu goes on for pages, the food menu is about half a dozen items, a smart move for a small kitchen. Skip chips and salsa (nice but not special) and nachos (individual nachos carefully layered with toppings, not a big fun mess of condiments – really, what is the point of an elegant nacho plate?) and go straight for the chicken tacos (soft torillas and tender, juicy meat).

Wednesday is flip a coin night, where the bartender will flip a coin and patrons who correctly call it in the air get a $1 drink. That’s a fun promotion, and Lime is a fun place. If they just hung some rugs on the walls or glued foam rubber to the bottom of the tables to get the decibel level down, I’d be sold.

Now you whippersnappers get off my damn lawn. My damn e-lawn, anyhow.

K is for Koco’s Pub

I liked Koco’s Pub, but I think I went during the wrong time of year. Awash in beachy kitsch, this Hamilton mainstay seems like a careworn cliché in mid-July. In winter it probably feels like a tropical resort, with its palm-leaf murals and friendly service. I’m happy to go back and give it a go at some later, chillier date. With all its nods towards points south, Koco’s is a quintessential neighborhood spot.

Koco’s is a meandering, lemon yellow building with a be-parroted sign, looking not entirely unlike a cruise ship run aground on the side of Harford Road. The main entrance is on the side, on Overland Avneue, and when I ducked in on a sunny day, my eyes to a minute to adjust to Koco’s dim lighting. When my pupils sorted themselves out, I saw a clutch of families having dinner, complete with kids playing on the floor. I saw regulars lining the long bar at the far end of the restaurant. I saw the aforementioned beachy kitsch. Ugh.

I’m leery of all things beach-themed (restaurants, parties, weddings, etc), which are often an attempted cheap short cut to fun. Beach = AWESOME, right? There’s a picture of surfboard on this menu and the club sandwich is called a Jammin’ Jamacian, so I must be HAVING A BLAST!!! But really, only the beach truly feels like the beach. Whenever I’m standing in someone’s scrubby back yard next to a tiki torch drinking a melting mai tai, it’s like watching a bad drag queen with five o’clock shadow. C’mon, who are you kidding here?

Anyhoodle, beach-themed places work to do to win me over. Koco’s does the work, with bar food at extremely reasonable prices and happy hour drink specials. (Said happy hour only runs from 3-6, though, so nip out of work early to catch them. There aren’t any food specials, but when fries are $4 a basket that’s not really an issue.) My friend Ellie and I got a few domestic draft beers for $2, served in chilled pint glasses. For our second round, we got new glasses, straight from the freezer – very nice touch. The bartenders were the best I’ve encountered in a long time, attentive but not pushy. Ellie and I opted not to order food – not even Koco’s famous crabcake, which looked like a delectable softball of crabby, flaky goodness – and the staff was no less interested in making sure we were happy.

The bartender even gave us (and everyone else at the bar) an oft-refilled basket of snack mix. I fall for free-salty-snacks-trick every single time a bar places a thirst-inducing treat in front of me, like the rube at the street fair who’s sure he can beat the carnie’s shell game. But really, any place with free snackes is A-OK in my book and the incredible service evoked a four-star Carribbean hotel far more than Parrothead-y décor did. I didn’t feel whisked away to a tropical island, but I did feel right at home.

Note: Koco’s is closed on Sunday and Monday.

J is for J.A. Murphy’s

After such a long hiatus, it’s criminal that I should crib from the city’s best-known nightlife reviewer to explain how I feel about J.A Murphy’s Tavern in Fell’s Point. But Sam Sessa of the Baltimore Sun speaks the truth:

“”Without a hook, J.A. Murphy’s might not bring enough patrons to stay afloat…In the coming months, [owner Keith] Murphy wants to take black-and-white photos of his customers and hang them on the walls. That’s not a novel idea, but it might make the bar more personable.”

My trip to J.A. Murphy’s was pleasant but unremarkable. As Sessa said in his review, the service was very friendly and the prices are reasonable. Murphy himself is a natural host with a charming Boston accent. Genny and Mira snagged a table out front, so I can’t review the bar as well as I can review the sidewalk immediately adjacent to said bar. The drinks were cold and my crab mac-and-cheese was tasty, albeit extremely salty. (I am a salt fiend so it was OK for me but I wonder if it would please a broader audience.) As long as they can balance the books, I imagine J.A.’s will become a neighborhood staple.

That said, I hate the black-and-white photos idea. Must even bars, where we go to see and meet people in person, be a version of a Facebook page? Do we always need our own images and good times reflected back at us to remind ourselves and everyone else how much fun we are having? The owners call it “a bar about nothing” (ha ha) but seem to want to shade in a history that the place hasn’t yet earned.

When I think of a bar with pictures on the wall, I think of Morseberger’s Tavern on Frederick Road in Catonsville. This was my grandfather’s bar – not that he owned it, but he was a long-standing patron from when my grandparents first moved to the neighborhood after World War II. If you go to Morseberger’s – and there is really no reason to – look for the neon sign that austerely reads “BAR.” I would link to the Web site, but Morseberger’s doesn’t have or need one. Everyone who goes there found it long ago.

Inside you will see the walls papered with pictures of men like my grandfather, stretching from the early 1950s to the present day. These are guys who maybe got college degrees on the GI Bill, but probably worked union jobs from the day they got home until the day they retired. (Pop was a C&P Telephone dispatcher.) In the pictures, they are drinking, dancing, smoking, playing poker, holding babies up for the camera’s inspection. If I search them carefully, I can find two of Pop – one in black-and-white where he still has thick, dark hair and is turned away from a card game, another in color where a ball cap shields his balding scalp from the fierce midday sun on some desolate dock, as he holds up a huge fish and wears a proud grin, eager to have both recorded for posterity.

Back in the day, my grandmother didn’t like that Pop drank his after-work beers at Morseberger’s, because the front room was whites only. (Black customers were confined to a room in the back. Mom-Mom was of the opinion that if he wasn’t too good to take their money, Mr. Morseberger should have let his black customers have their choice of seating.) But that was where the neighborhood guys drank and gossiped and bought Lotto tickets, so that’s where he went year after year. It’s not a nice bar, but it’s one with a history.

When my Uncle Theo was a wee little kid in the early 1960s, my grandfather took him to Catonsville’s famous Fourth of July parade . They were standing on the sidewalk outside Morseberger’s when the national guard troops marched by. Most people politely stood and clapped, as Catonvillians still do each year. But one agitated hippie began screaming that the soldiers were pigs, baby killers, etc. An old lady got upset, so Pop told the agitator to quiet down. The other guy unwisely initiated a shoving match, and came up on the wrong end of Pop’s right hook.

With the hippie sprawled out before him and his son on the crowded sidewalk, Pop grabbed Theo and ran into Morseberger’s. He yelled at the guys at the bar to watch Theo and slipped out the back door, where the black customers came in. The victim (rightfully) complained to the police, who were only marginally committed to finding the assailant of the parade-disrupting pinko who couldn’t take punch. They popped into Morseberger’s and asked if anyone had any pertinent information. Astonishingly, no one in the packed bar had seen a thing. (I guess no one noticed or thought to question Theo, who I imagine was given a seat at the bar and a Coke.)

A few years passed, and opinions about the Vietnam War changed. By that time, my dad (older than Theo) was knocking on the door of eligibility and even my hippie-punching grandfather didn’t think it was a fight worth fighting anymore. One night Mr. Morseberger was fired up about not giving one inch to the Viet Cong; Pop told him to shut up, that he wouldn’t want his son to have to die for something so hopeless and he couldn’t expect other people’s kids to do the same. Mr. Morseberger came from behind the bar and was aching for a fight. Pop said, “Hey, you touch me, tomorrow I own this bar.” Morseberger backed off. Perhaps in that one-second, fist-to-face contact with the sidewalk agitator, Pop had absorbed a lesson about pacificism.

After my grandfather’s funeral, the cousins convened at Morseberger’s to raise a glass to Pop. As my sister and I were leaving,  my father remarked, “Pop went there for so long that if they had any class at all, they wouldn’t charge you for the drinks. They will, but they shouldn’t.”

They did charge us, but it was worth it anyway, to drink beer and laugh after a day of being quiet and sad in church and at the KoC hall.

So that is a bar with history, most recently the very sad history of two murders, much to the chagrin of the Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. One guy, Benjamin Shorter, reportedly beat a guy in line for the bathroom. (Incidentally, what is now the bathroom was formerly the blacks only section.) A Sun story quotes an acquaintance as calling Shorter a “nut job,” and Uncle Theo informs me that Shorter was always a lunatic and a stint as a recon Marine didn’t help. Morseberger’s is steadfastly not a member of the CoC and has no interest in the creeping gentrification of the neighborhood. I hope to God it is never turns into some sort of hipster parody of a working class bar, where cheap domestic beer is only consumed ironically.

Anyway, Morseberger’s is my image of a tavern with lots of pictures on the wall. For better or worse, J.A. Murphy’s, the bar about nothing, has a long way to go.

I is for Iron Bridge Wine Company

A while ago I promised that I’d make Columbia’s Iron Bridge Wine Company my I spot because I felt the restaurant had been dealt an unfair hand by animal rights vandals. My sense of righteous indignation, which usually leads me into trouble, led me to a nice wine spot.

 IBWC, located in what I remember from childhood as a biker bar, is perched along Route 108 facing one of the few pastoral scenes left in Howard County. Inside, the décor is all dark wood and rich red draperies that stop just this side of the Moulin Rouge or a R&B slow jam video. The bar is beautiful, and I wish we’d spent our happy hour there, especially since they have a $20 bottle special on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Instead we went for a wine tasting class in the adjacent dining room from what the restaurant calls “Iron Bridge University.”

IBU was a deal for $25 – samplings of two whites, two reds and a port from Spain and Portugal. The students were arranged around a tall center table set up with five different wine glasses and the teacher (Waiter? Bartender? Sommelier?) talked for 45 uninterrupted minutes about older versus newer vines, appellations, and Portuguese geography. It was like drinking from a fire hose hooked up to a hydrant full of wine. The grapes were good, and the price was right (especially since it got us 10% off our total bill), but I didn’t learn one single thing. Maybe my cohorts and I aren’t ready for Iron Bridge University. We’re more Iron Bridge Community College, or Iron Bridge Reform School for Naughty Girls who Sit in the Back of Class and Giggle.

 My favorite selection was a not-quite-sparkling white that we ordered a bottle of after class . I’m a sucker for anything carbonated (soda, beer, seltzer, champagne, prosecco, etc), and it was a decent match for Annie’s roasted veggie pizza as well as the complimentary tuna tartare appetizer that came with the class. My two fellow “students” were offput by the super-sweet port, but personally I think tastings are for sampling the more outlandish stuff that you wouldn’t necessarily buy a whole bottle of on spec. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. I generally like port (albeit more in winter), but it was still too sweet for me.

 We also ordered “grilled cheese” off the menu, which was a grilled round of brie served with crostini and macerated strawberries. Grilled brie sounds weird, but was quite tasty and I’d love to try it on the grill at home. Lulu, as she did at the Diamondback Tavern, housed a plate of risotto quite happily. In honor of the original foie gras protesting that inspired my trip, I order the chicken liver and foie gras pate, oddly presented in two Chinese soupspoons with crostini (a bit bready for the task at hand) and truffle butter (to die for). I enjoyed all the richness, but I still don’t quite understand why people throw down over this stuff. Doesn’t seem worth the fuss to me, from either the gourmet or animal rights angle.

The service wasn’t as silky smooth as I’ve seen in some high-end spots, but it was still quite good. They were generous with the extra crostini, and when our server didn’t know the answer to a question, she admitted that she didn’t, looked into it and relayed an answer back to us. I asked for a wine to go with my pate, since I have no idea what the traditional pairing would be, and the bartender offered up a crazy-rich white that was a terrific match. It was the only drink I tried that wasn’t from the tasting menu, but it was great. The wine list at IWBC has some great bargains for down-and-outers like me, and some pricier choices for the fat cats. Definitely worth the trip to HoCo.